I recently got an email from a reader named Chad who pointed me to The Royal College Science Challenge. This is an essay contest for high school and college students in the UK in which students are asked to respond to four different possible questions. The one that Chad thought (correctly) that I’d be interested in was:
Question Four: Why should the average person care whether we discover the Higgs boson?
There’s a much broader implied question: “Why should people care about science at all?” I don’t mean technology, of course. People clearly need to know how to use technology to function in everyday life. Specialists need to understand various engineering applications. But why should people care about any breakthroughs in basic science?
Let me first say that I clearly do think that average people should understand what’s going on in science. This is not necessarily a high priority to many of my scientific colleagues (there are a number of failed tenure cases based on scholars who focused too heavily on education, both public and private), and frankly not a priority to funding agencies — or really, the Congress that funds them. An enormous amount of lip service is given to E/PO (Education and Public Outreach) but the budget is miniscule, and the constraints on how the funding is used are extremely restrictive.
I’ve devoted a considerable amount of time and effort to try to explain basic concepts in modern physics in my io9 column and, of course, in my book. Neither, it must be said, brings terribly much in the way of financial rewards.
However, I can think of at least four good reasons why it benefits both society and the individuals involved to learn about basic science (including the Higgs) and none of it is based on the technology that we may discover incidentally. This list is hardly complete and there is certainly some overlap between items.
- It helps us understand our place in the universe. There is so much under this umbrella, including an understanding of how long the universe has been around to how long the earth and sun have been here, to where the elements came from to what the ultimate fate of the universe is. We live in the universe. It is only reasonable to have a curiosity about how it works. It may seem old-fashioned, but I see what we do as being akin to the work done by philosophers, artists, and writers. Our goal is to try to put some order into the universe. With that comes the responsibility to tell the public about what we’ve learned, and most importantly to try to convey what we really know, rather than try to dazzle with the absurdly speculative.
- It helps set policy. I realize that this is a bit circular. The original question asked why we should care about the Higgs, and I’m suggesting that it’s important that people understand science so that they understand that it’s important to fund science. This, of course, implies that it’s important for us (meaning “scientists” in this case) to learn whether the Higgs exists in the first place. But it is important to realize that it’s one thing to argue that scientists should do science, but it’s another to argue that the public should have some idea of what the scientists are up to.
It’s not sufficient that scientists simply ask the public to hand over huge wads of cash with the assurance that what we’re doing is important. The public should have some clue of the fruits of those efforts.
- Because we are an advanced civilization. We have moved beyond providing for our basic physical needs. There are lots of luxury goods to indulge in: video games, or cars, or fancy foods. Seen in that light, knowledge is a luxury that advanced civilizations should engage in. It helps train our minds, and it is one of the defining features of what MAKES us advanced. Think of the ancient Greeks, and people like Pythagoras or Socrates are likely to come to mind. Their accomplishments (and the fact that learning and research generally was encourages in the society) is what made the society great and what made it remembered.
- Abstract science helps us understand other science — even applied science — better. Many areas of science have profound policy implications. Just think about global warming or evolution or immunology (including the anti-vax “debate”). It is vital that people understand how science is done. It is clear from a number of polls that this is an area where the U.S. could use some serious help.
- It’s amazing. Science is — or should be — intrinsically interesting. To bring it back to the original question, it should be downright compelling that all of the mass that we observe and think of as “real” or “fundamental” is, in fact, caused by a mechanism that ultimately gives mass to the massless. Though most people will never do relativistic calculations, the idea that time can flow differently for different people is astounding. Or quantum mechanics — It’s incredible how much thirst for knowledge there is. I get hundreds of emails with questions about every aspect of physics and astronomy.
Why should we care about the Higgs? Because it’s awesome.