Thursday, 27 October 2016

“Esse est percipi” or Posthumous Reflections on the Higgs Plenary Meeting

The following is the edited version of an exposé currently featured in the 21st revised edition of Malleus Maleficus' (Title withheld). The Butterworth contents have been taken more or less verbatim from the BBC Horizon transmission: "The Hunt for the Higgs", of January 9th, 2012. 

       And that is when we  spotted Dr. Jonathan Butterworth at the entrance to the Conference room. Generously decked out in a blue checked shirt he dresses, as I do, like a load of old baggage. Indeed, both his amiable manner and casual speech gave off a sense of containment amid all the crazed, screaming little media minions and a rainbow of brightly coloured notebooks, iPads, TV cameras and tape recorders.  The conference room was always closely packed for these annual meetings, but today, it seemed, there was a certain air of anticipation around the room, unspoken acknowledgement, perhaps,  that each person present was perched on the very threshold of a dawning new age.
 (Scientists working on the Atlas Detector meet here)
            Security was predictably tight. Belinda steadied herself, holding my Press pass up,  then lowered it again, looking at Dr. Butterworth with vague but hopeful speculation: “Can we come in?”
            “Absolutely not,” Butterworth said emphatically, his face tinctured by the exertion of the task. His eyes drifted to Belinda’s cleavage, where her Press Pass should have been but wasn’t. “Nice to see you both,” he said, releasing a sigh. Then more confidentially: “But my instructions are, ‘tell them what they want to know’ and then ‘don’t tell them anything’.”  He smiled a rueful smile. Hush, 

            In journalistic terms, this set of instructions made no sense at all, but as the media storm raged around him, the Professor had my entire sympathy. That none-too-felicitous phrase “hush, hush”  could well have been the actual motto of the European Centre for Nuclear Research. The defining characteristic of CERN, after all,  was “a wilfully determined prevarication, that was unmitigated by empathy”, according to Donnersborn. But then, Donnersborn was dismissive. Neither Kant nor Berkeley, he claimed, entirely apprehended the general principle of infinitesimals, and  if there was an inherent uncertainty in the identity of the world itself, not just in our knowledge of it, than  one could demonstrate almost anything from a judicious use of the argument.  In terms of subject matter, he said, it was open season.  In fact, if knowledge were “infinitesimally divisible”, you would always be able to bet a fraction of what you knew and never be wrong. Belinda was no less indignant: “Knowledge is just a question of professional odds,” she said, “but they’re always betting on you knowing less.”
            Thus spoke a true expert.
            In fact, it was only to resolve a difference between psychiatrists that the LHC was fired up in
the first place, according to Belinda.  What happened at the Big Bang 13.7 million years ago was not really disputed by anyone, least of all physics. The only real issue, she said, was whether the Higgs boson was to be regarded not as a truly material construct, but as a virtual concept whose existence can be inferred from the fact that the perceiving agent himself exists. For it was only in the last century that the ‘particle’ had become inalienably connected to the human mind, she then averred, boldly asserting that some forms of insanity were a natural result of the belief in quantum mechanics - a science, which conjured up fast-talking sharks. In Higgs’ case, bosons seem to have been less an objective fact than something which belonged to the manifest interdependence of matter and mind that had come to be one of the central problems of a modern theory of knowledge. For all she knew, if an initial psychiatrist’s report had been commissioned as to whether Peter Higgs was a cognitive extension of his own mathematical
self,  he might have been consigned, without  the benefit of a doubt,  to a mental institution.
            “And that’s the clever part”, she declared. Higgs bosons were  no different from the symptoms that psychiatric patients exhibited, except you could mathematically demonstrate them. As it was, CERN was packed with individuals displaying precisely those symptoms.
            There have been occasions when her words got the better of Belinda, but frankly, I wish I had thought of that. Human consciousness is a bizarre, mutable phenomenon. And Belinda’s brief on the personal and relativistic symbiosis between the observer and the observed seemed curiously apt. For Einstein, matter existed to be relativized. And judged in a broader context, Berkeley’s dictum that
“nothing exists that is not perceived to exist” can seem reasonable enough. But Heisenberg did what George Berkeley had done in another field. Together with Bohr, he assimilated the philosophical content of the new physics; the concept namely, that the atom could no longer be understood by itself. That it was related to human consciousness and the way the mind works. And if Heisenberg’s 1925 paper on the subject laid the foundation of an innovative theoretical matrix-mechanics, a form of 'rational insanity' that replaced the classical mechanics of Newton and Maxwell, then the expediency of the method was so striking it could not possibly be ignored that the concept of reality only existed in our understanding of how the world works, not independent of it.
            Thus, there was always some undercurrent of double meaning which the observer shared with his world, and the only way to make sense of it was to say that something apparitional, almost animate, procured itself in the course of mutual comprehension. Call it ‘hypothetical’ if you want, but herein lies the ultimate, for us unfathomable, secret. Speculative, hesitant and ignorant of itself, it purges the cause to infinity. Not only does the cause not exist, it cannot exist, as conventionally conceived.
           That’s the way I see it.  



Sonny S Starr said...

The reasoning’s simple. The only question is, if science cannot establish absolutes,who can?

Philip Charney said...

This may be ingenious at best, crazy at worst, but as an exercise in solipsistic discipline it takes some beating!

M.Micheaud said...

..great stuff this - but don’t take my word for it; here's Richard Feynman: "The philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists, as ornithology is to birds." Hilarious, love it, MM