I love The Economist’s writing and, despite being a somewhat conservative magazine (fiscally, admittedly), I find them to be objective and, here, pleasantly pro-science, with a dash of humor.
On July 4th physicists working in Geneva at CERN … announced that they had found the Higgs boson (see article). …. Its significance is massive. Literally. Without the Higgs there would be no mass. And without mass, there would be no stars, no planets and no atoms. And certainly no human beings. Indeed, there would be no history. Massless particles are doomed by Einstein’s theory of relativity to travel at the speed of light. That means, for them, that the past, the present and the future are the same thing.
They also do an excellent job of explaining how so many scientific discoveries work: ruling out every other possible option until the last one must be it:.
Finding the Higgs, though, made looking for needles in haystacks seem simple. The discovery eventually came about using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a machine at CERN that sends bunches of protons round a ring 27km in circumference, in opposite directions, at close to the speed of light, so that they collide head on. The faster the protons are moving, the more energy they have. When they collide, this energy is converted into other particles (Einstein’s E=mc2), which then decay into yet more particles. What these decay particles are depends on what was created in the original collision, but unfortunately there is no unique pattern that shouts “Higgs!” The search, therefore, has been for small deviations from what would be seen if there were no Higgs. That is one reason it took so long.
Lastly, despite the price tag, they come defiantly pro-science for science’s sake: after all, much science is knowledge for knowledge’s sake, the practical idea being the eventual sum of that knowledge will be useful.
For non-physicists, the importance of finding the Higgs belongs to the realm of understanding rather than utility. It adds to the sum of human knowledge—but it may never change lives as DNA or relativity have. … This helps explain why, even at this moment of triumph, particle physics is a fragile endeavour. Gone are the days when physicists, having given politicians the atom bomb, strode confidently around the corridors of power. Today they are supplicants in a world where money is tight. The LHC, sustained by a consortium that was originally European but is now global, cost about $10 billion to build. That is still a relatively small amount, though, to pay for knowing how things really work, and no form of science reaches deeper into reality than particle physics.
The Higgs boson: Science’s great leap forward [The Economist]
This news, on the other hand, is disappointing:
During the 64th annual meeting of the IWC in Panama City on Wednesday, the South Korean government cited the country’s long-standing culinary culture of eating whale meat and a need to conduct more in-depth scientific research on whales. …
Critics argue that whales don’t have to be killed to be studied and the real motive behind the “whale research” is to provide meat. The South Korean government follows the controversial steps of its neighbor Japan, which allows whale hunt for “research,” a crack in the IWC ban that permits whale hunting for research purposes. Japan’s active whale expeditions has long drawn international criticism.
South Korea’s Whaling Declaration Sparks Outcry [WSJ]
It’s hard to know what to do with this news. Whales are at historically low numbers, only recently recovering from intense takes well into the 20th century. It’s obvious animals in today’s oceans are under a lot of stress from a variety of pressures — one of the biggest human threats to whales today are ship strikes — making whale recovery an even slower process for animals with large body masses and slow birth rates. On the other hand, I don’t think going out and harassing whaling ships is going to solve the problem. There must be a middle ground.
There has been some interesting genetic work done on whales in an attempt to determine an estimate of their historical population sizes (more). Theoretically, the IWC could look at this and other research and come up with some optimal population size numbers, and we wait until the numbers rebound and THEN we can think about opening up limited take whaling. (Or we can discuss shifting baselines, but that’s another post for another day.) It’s not good to have whale populations under stress, but it’s difficult to take a hard line on something that’s a different cultural taste. (If we want to talk sustainability, the west should not be eating as many salmon, tuna, swordfish, or other large, predatory fishes as we do.)
However, if I may point out my own hypocrisy here, I don’t feel similarly about shark fins. I don’t think we should allow shark fin products. I will admit, I’ve tried shark fin soup (it was delicious), but I’ve also had fake shark fin soup (couldn’t tell the difference). If there’s a reasonable substitute, let’s go for it. Also, as inhumane as some people will say killing an animal for food is, shark finning is much more cruel because sharks are caught, finned, and thrown back into the water to drown.
Hm, it doesn’t feel very good to be making arguments about which actions are “more cruel” when comes to human impacts on the ocean. Ok, let’s feel better. Here are some pretty pictures. From the fantastic Earth As Art Gallery series from the Earth Resources Observation and Science Center (USGS):
Kamchatka Peninsula February 17, 2002
The eastern side of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula juts into the Pacific Ocean west of Alaska. In this winter image, a volcanic terrain is hidden under snow-covered peaks and valley glaciers feed blue ice into coastal waters.
Beautiful illustrations from an old book on bioluminescence, Living Lights: A Popular Account of Phosphorescent Animals and Vegetables by Charles Frederick Holder (1887). You can find the whole book online here. (via 50 Watts.)
“Luminous Fish. With two luminous disks, one emitting a golden, the other a greenish light.”