Why the Public Should Care About the Higgs Boson

By Jodi Lieberman

Large Hadron Collider

Photo courtesy of CERN

THE GENUINE PARTICLE: Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider, pictured above, say they’re on the cusp of discovering the Higgs boson, aka ‘God particle.’

The scientific community is abuzz with the latest news out of CERN: nearly 50 years after Scottish physicist Peter Higgs theorized its existence, evidence of the Higgs boson has been found. For the global physics community, this is big news. But what about folks in middle America who struggle to put food on the table every day? Why should they care?

On the day of the announcement, the Washington Post ran an Associated Press piece that buried the importance of the discovery for Americans:

“Were there any practical results from scientists’ hunt for the Higgs boson? Not directly. But the massive scientific effort that led up to the discovery paid off in other ways, one of which was the creation of the World Wide Web…. The vast computing power needed to crunch all of the data produced by the atom smasher has also boosted the development of distributed – or cloud computing, which is now making its way into mainstream services. Advances in solar energy capture, medical imaging and proton therapy – used in the fight against cancer – have also resulted from the work of particle physicists at CERN and elsewhere.”

It is unfortunate that more media outlets didn’t highlight the “real world” impact of the work leading up to Higgs announcement. The public’s lack of understanding affects whether science projects get funded in the U.S. as revealed by recent polling funded by APS and several other organizations. If more attention were given to spreading information about the practical impacts of these large projects, the tide could turn. The voting public could make more informed decisions about how their tax dollars should be spent.

The AP story highlighted a key benefit of the search for the Higgs boson – that the World Wide Web was invented not by Steve Jobs or Al Gore, but by physicists doing research in pursuit of the Higgs to make it easier to exchange information with one another.

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