This week, we had the enormous privilege of recording the last episode of our SciComm radio programme “Mission Impossible” at the BBC’s Broadcasting House. In Studio 80a, as it happens, which for those of you in the know is apparently the bridal suite of recording studios. There’s room for a grand piano in the space, on which Clive Anderson is apparently wont to pose provocatively.
Here’s a piece I wrote for the show: on the story that the Higgs Boson had been discovered by teams at the CMS and ATLAS detectors at CERN.
Audio file available here:
I’m sure you’ve all heard the big story of the month. The scientific community in this country has been talking of little else, and the newspaper coverage has been exceptionally thorough. In fact, I’m not even sure if it merits repeating. But let us for goodness’ sake err on the side of caution.
I am speaking of course of the discovery made earlier this week that my apartment might have mice. Well, that’s something of an exaggeration. It would be fairer to say that my apartment might have mouse.
My flatmate and I arrived at this conclusion last Saturday afternoon when upon entering the kitchen I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a small brown shadow scurrying across the countertop. The word scurrying, while conventional in the description of mouse pedestrianism, does not quite do justice to the rapidity of the movement. It would be more accurate to compare the experience to having seen a murky puddle being sucked down a U-bend – and in the circumstances, just as unpleasant.
My flatmate, at the time only reachable by phone, was sceptical. The evidence of one brief visual observation was in no way conclusive enough to convince him of the existence of this rogue particle interacting with our kitchen tupperware.
A man of science himself, he knew all too well the errors which can attend any scientific observation. For a discovery to be as hermetically sealed as the aforementioned tupperware, the uncertainty would have to be reduced to at most three parts in ten million: what those in the mouse-detection trade refer to as a peak of 5-sigma.
It stood to reason that we would have to erect some sort of detector, some sophisticated piece of machinery to establish the veracity of my wayward theorising. No appeal to mere simplicity or elegance would assuage my flatmate’s native skepticism – cold, hard, evidence would have to be provided. Ideally in the form of a cold, hard, mouse cadaver. The spirit of the Great White Hunter woken in my breast, I donned my canvas safari jacket and my pithiest of helmets, and crossed the road to the local hardware store.
After an amusing initial misunderstanding over the number of mousepads I wished to purchase for my computer, I was eventually supplied with the latest in mousetrap technology. Returning home, I followed the assembly instructions to the letter, and erected a high-performance Conventional Mousetrap Set-up. Known, to those among the pest-control and particle-detector cognoscenti, by its acronym CMS. My flatmate, currently inaccessible even by telephone, proferred A Total Lack Of Any Suggestions. Or, to use the technical term, ATLAS. Any mouse sent whizzing around the confines of our kitchen skirting board was now bound to be detected.
Tiptoeing slowly out of the room, I extinguished the light and gently closed the door. Mice, much like elementary quantum particles, take objection to being stared at too intently. There then began the agonising process of waiting.
There are few moments in modern civilised life which allow a man to connect with the primitive bestial urges of his forefathers. The time which passes after the setting of mousetraps in the anticipation of their inevitable, ominous snapping is one such moment. This is where one discovers whether one is, if you’ll pardon the expression, a man or a mouse. If exultant, salivating anticipation is the correct genetic response for homo sapiens then my crouching behind the sofa with fingers wedged deep into my ears regretfully sees me lumped in with mus musculus.
After what seemed like hours, a single snap came. I do not think I need to dwell on this painful scene for any longer than to recount that my flatmate, participating in this moment of discovery via celebratory video conference, was satisfied. I had predicted a mouse, and yea, a mouse had been found.
But the happiness was short-lived. The party hat soon began to feel heavy on my head and the champagne turned to acid in my mouth. What if there was more? What if the dusty, hidden corners of our kitchen concealed more than just the one, dearly departed mouse? The two mousetraps I had painstakingly set up, by providing me with absolutely no new information, had given me the worst of all possible solutions. My CMS and my flatmate’s ATLAS might have revealed two mice – or no mice – or even, for that matter, a rat. Any of those outcomes would have shown me that my theory needed work. That the simple prediction of a single mouse was groundbreaking but inadequate. I had learned nothing new about what other mysteries the kitchen might have to offer me – I could only wait in fearful expectation.
This anticlimax put me in mind of a remarkably similar situation which occurred last week, in somewhat less spectacular circumstances, at a place called CERN on the Franco-Swiss border. Their news, which attracted a certain amount of attention in the niche press, concerned a subatomic particle known as the Higgs Boson, which it seems might well have been discovered. This news came after physicists at CERN had spent decades constructing vast multi-purpose particle detectors – also, coincidentally, called ATLAS and CMS – which would give scientists their first glimpses of the conditions prevailing shortly after the Big Bang.
These modern marvels of engineering were designed to do much more than merely isolate the Higgs Boson – a particle often referred to as the last building block required for our current understanding of particle physics to be complete. They could also, much more excitingly, have discovered nothing – or, for that matter, too much – they could have served up hosts of previously invisible particles which, to paraphrase the American physicist Isidor Rabi, nobody had ordered. Either outcome would have sent physicists scurrying back to their drawing boards with carte Blanche to make new theoretical predictions of their own. Instead – at least for the moment – it seems as though they will all have to make do with the Higgs.
Thus the most exciting discovery in modern physics could also, ironically, be the most disappointing. When experimental results exactly match the theoretical predictions, Nobel prizes are awarded to the elite but the footsoldiers of physics are given no traction on the next big challenges that await them.
The one small scrap of comfort I can draw from all this is that our kitchen almost certainly no longer has mice.