Tuesday, December 24, 2013
The great Stephen Hawking
At a recent event to launch the exhibition on the Large Hadron Collider at the Science Museum in London, the great Stephen Hawking made what must seem to many an unusual declaration. He said, “Physics would be far more interesting if [the Higgs boson] had not been found”. Physicists would then have to re-think many of their fundamental ideas about particles and the forces that bind or repel them.
By saying so, Hawking was displaying both the qualities and perhaps the failings of scientists. Scientists, or at least the great ones like him, love the process of solving great and difficult problems. The solution may be quite marvelous and exciting to think about; it may even be very moving. But, once solved, it ceases to be a problem, which the enquiring mind needs.
So, what Hawking was saying, it seems to me, is that if the Higgs boson had not been found, the problem would have persisted and exercised and concentrated minds, which is what scientists like so much.
This of course is very distant from those who wish that a problem should never be solved, because they fear the results. Some have written of their fear of work on the neurobiology of love, because it will “de-mystify” it; others have written, of neuroesthetics, that they would find it unwelcome to learn what happens in their brains when they view a work of art or listen to music. Hawking wants to learn; they don’t. If Hawking prefers that the Higgs boson had not been found, it is simply that he relishes the process of discovery. He is not fearful of the results; they are.
Why, then, should this also be a failing. I think it is because lesser scientists (and let us not under-estimate the degree to which scientific progress also depends upon lesser scientists) can easily be distracted from trying to solve great problems into solving relatively minor ones, precisely because they love the process of solving problems! I have seen it happen many times.
But there are of course many problems that remain in physics and astronomy. And Hawking is hoping that physicists will move on to solving even grander problems about the nature of our universe.
Hawking is not afraid of de-mystification. Not at all. The mark of a real intellect.