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Biological discoveries that match the excitement of the Higgs boson

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The quest for the Higgs boson has been headline news in the world’s media, perhaps owing more to its nickname (the “God particle”) than to public understanding of why it is so significant. What is not in doubt is that this attention is good for physics and good for science. With so much attention given to technology exploitation, it is important to remind ourselves that fundamental science provides the foundations for advances in technology – and we still need blue-sky research. The excitement surrounding the Higgs boson stimulated a reflective essay in Nature from science writer Heidi Ledford. The question she addresses is: “What fundamental discoveries in biology might inspire the same thrill?”

“We put the question to experts in various fields. Biology is no stranger to large, international collaborations with lofty goals, they pointed out – the race to sequence the human genome around the turn of the century had scientists riveted. But most biological quests lack the mathematical precision, focus and binary satisfaction of a yes-or-no answer that characterize the pursuit of the Higgs. “Most of what is important is messy, and not given to a moment when you plant a flag and crack the champagne,” says Steven Hyman, a neuroscientist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nevertheless, our informal survey shows that the field has no shortage of fundamental questions that could fill an anticipatory auditorium. These questions concern where and how life started – and why it ends.””

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