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Does the Higgs Boson matter more than a single child?

Does the Higgs Boson matter more than a single child?

Editorial by Andrew Cates. Some twenty years ago I completed a lecture course on Particle Physics, Lie Algebra and representation theory as part of a postgraduate applied maths course in Cambridge. I was not so excited by what particle physics reveals about the universe as to pursue it as a career. Now looking at the news on the Higgs Boson I wonder if we are all missing the point of life.

The great thing about science is that when you start studying it, you get "insight" and "understanding" to a huge number of phenomena around us. Beautiful scientific laws underlie everything from the behaviour of a cricket ball to ocean waves and tides, from designing a microchip in a mobile phone to genetically modifying plants. Science allows us to master our environment and make the lives of many people much better. We feel masters of our universe and proud of it.

However, people matter more than science. Indeed you cannot start to build any scientific thoery without the people to observe results in a laboratory and build theories about it. No scientific test is possible without an observer with a decision-making ability and science has no more meaning without a person than a language with no one who speaks it. Science is less fundamental to the universe than the people it very subtly assumes in the way it is constructed. In this regard those who regard people as insignificant and science as the most important thing are missing the point.

Of course the benefits of scientific research are never entirely predictable. But there should be benefits. When we, as a society, spend more money on the Large Hadron Collider than it would take to provide food, education and medical care for every orphaned child in the world we need to ask ourselves some questions especially if we are not making any effort for the orphans at the same time. The Higgs Boson may be exciting to see for those who understand but a performance of Wagner might be equally exciting for those of you that appreciate that form of beauty (not me).

There is less likelihood of finding out something fundamental about people from the Hadron Collider than from studying literature, however much a certain pop professor tries to dress up their very expensive research as part of "our story". Paul Tillich's "The Courage to Be" is not going to be replaced by a piece of esoteric curiosity. The story which matters is the story about the other people in the world, what their situation is and how we act to help. We may be the products of dying stars but with no observers to appreciate their dynamics they are as empty and pointless as a clanging cymbal.

There are children foraging for scraps to eat on rubbish tips in India and threatened with starvation in Sahel. Those are real people, like those without whom science would be impossible. Whether we help them will be the story which matters this year and that story will be the one which matters in the history of people. And it is the people who matter because however tiny and inconsequential beings are in the universe, without thinking beings it would be a sterile and futile universe with no decision or understanding or judgement in it.