Science gets a chance to show the way

<i>Illustration: Simon Letch</i>Sydney Morning Herald, Opinion, July 15 2012.

EVERY so often a discovery is made which piques the public’s interest in science once more. A single proof captures the imagination by the significance and the scale of the advance. This week’s news that physicists had proved with near certainty the existence of the Higgs boson is such a point in the history of science.

The scale of the experiment matches the scale of the intellectual leap achieved. A huge apparatus, 27 kilometres in circumference, buried 100 metres below the French-Swiss border near Geneva, accelerated particles in a near-perfect vacuum to speeds just below that of light and measured the effect of their collisions. Minute variations in energy released prove the existence of the Higgs boson, which had been postulated in theory by Peter Higgs in 1964 to explain the mass of elementary particles.

Wednesday’s discovery, published by two separate groups of researchers working in isolation from each other, can be compared with the discovery of DNA, or Einstein’s theory of relativity, or the splitting of the atom. Achievements such as those are like peaks in a mountain range. They draw the world’s attention, but really it is the great mass of the range itself that holds the peaks up which has more significance. Without the massive bulk below, the peaks would not reach so high. For science that great mass is a huge amount of lead-up work. The standard model of particle physics is the work of many hundreds of researchers, only one of whom was Professor Higgs. That achievement sits within the millions of achievements of the wider research effort of the whole science community. And that is enclosed, too, within the wider community which understands and supports what science has achieved and can achieve.

The way we live our lives is built on the efforts of scientists. Yet current trends are putting that effort in jeopardy. The first dangerous trend is the decline in the study of science among secondary school students. The proportion of students studying a science subject has been falling steadily since the 1990s. According to figures cited by the Australian Academy of Sciences in a paper published last February, 36 per cent of year 12 students across Australia studied biology in 1991, but only 25 per cent in 2007; for chemistry the figures were 23 per cent in 1991 and 18 per cent in 2007; for physics 21 per cent in 1991 and 15 per cent in 2007. Other figures show the pattern has continued to 2010. Some allowance has to be made for increased participation rates over the period, but the trend is clear – and it undermines the oft-repeated claim that the current generation of students is better educated than its predecessors.


Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, has pointed to the consequence of this decline. Science does not exist in a vacuum. It requires not only scientists themselves, but also a public which has a basic understanding of science and sympathy with its aims, attitudes and methods. The generations of scientists and a science-literate public which conceived the Large Hadron Collider project are not being replaced in adequate numbers.

The other trend jeopardising the role of science is the alarming tendency for people to dismiss what science has to offer. Science is so universal that it is taken for granted, even despised as merely one option among many in understanding the physical world. Science’s healthy scepticism can be turned against science itself. We see the effect in the rise of creationism, a sophistic attempt to assert the claims of religion in scientific, or rather, pseudo-scientific, terms. We see it too in the arguments of the climate-change sceptics, elaborated carefully in the language of science, but always with an unscientific agenda in view.

Scepticism is a necessary part of scientific progress. All evidence of climate change, like any scientific data, must be approached with a sceptical frame of mind so existing theories can be tested against new facts as they arise. But with climate science, scepticism is manipulated by those with closed minds to reach a pre-determined conclusion – that theories of climate change are somehow a vast conspiracy, conceived by malign forces and for obscure reasons, to undermine modern life. To such people, evidence of climate change is suspect; only evidence which tends to question it is conclusive. Thus is science perverted to corrupt ends.

Politicians who pander to a popular mood which questions science as the basis for public policy are only furthering and worsening both these trends. By offering a dramatic example of what disinterested science can achieve, the physicists who proved the existence of the Higgs boson have lifted all science out of this temporary morass. May it stay out.
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