In “The buzz factory” (National Post, September 17, 2011), Joseph Brean reports that – at the very opening of the glitzy new Stephen Hawking Centre at the Perimeter Institute (in Waterloo, Canada), an opening presided over by Stephen Hawking himself by video link – the new cosmology may indeed be a mere “buzz factory”:
From attracting researchers to evaluating their theories and sharing them with the world, buzz is crucial to high science. It is hard to imagine Albert Einstein, the first celebrity physicist, without the wild hair, or Hawking without the wheelchair, or even Isaac Newton without the apple. Modern physics is in thrall to the buzz of big ideas, and desperate for a new one. Newton explained the movement of the heavens with gravity. James Clerk Maxwell showed electricity and magnetism are the same thing. Einstein did the same for space and time. Now, it is Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the God Particle that generate all the buzz. They fill gaps in theory, explain weird observations, and countless millions are being spent on their detection. But unlike the revolutions of Newton or Einstein, these newer ideas have not yet yielded real-world evidence. At least one senior Perimeter scientist thinks they never will, because they are simply false.
Crackpot cosmologies used to just be competitive brands of nonsense, but if physics is real, they can actually be false. That’s progress. The $100 million donated to the Perimeter Institute will have been put to good use, though not the use intended.
And so the next big idea, if it solves these problems, will be bigger than we can now imagine, and it will ride on a wave of buzz.
“There’s a depression setting in. They can’t see it,” Mr. Moffat said. “They’re gearing up for the statement that there is no Higgs. It’s becoming quite serious. This god has clay feet.”
The death of the God Particle would be a big blow to buzz, and the impact would be measured in political and financial support for future big experiments. But it would be an opportunity for Perimeter to realize its goal of guiding future experimenters toward real, era-defining discovery. Fail, and Perimeter will still be a neat place to learn and teach. Succeed, and $100-million will seem like a bargain.
Indeed. But chances are, they will be exploring a new, real world cosmology there.
See also: He said it: What’s wrong with the multiverse is the multiverse.