‘Progress Isn’t A Linear Development’
With the discovery of the Higgs boson, the last gap in the “Standard Model” of physics has been filled. Martin Eiermann talked with the head of the CERN laboraties, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, about the future of physics, the value of diversity, and the difference between knowledge and belief.
The European: When we spoke last year, you had just initiated a round table to pursue a dialogue between the natural sciences and the humanities. How is that going?
Heuer: We are working with Wilton Park to hold a conference in October to examine the interface of knowledge and move towards a common language. The question is: do we really understand each other when we discuss our respective work? Do we speak about the same things, or do we interpret too much into our colleagues’ words?
The European: What frictions exist?
Heuer: How can we define “knowledge”? Where does knowledge end, and philosophy or religion begin? Even a word like “discovery” can mean very different things to different people.
The European: A propos: a lot has been written in recent months about scientific concepts like the “5 sigma” evidence level. How certain are you that you’ve found the Higgs boson?
Heuer: It’s normal that scientists only use the term “discovery” beyond a certain threshold of statistical certainty. “5 sigma” means that some phenomenon cannot be dismissed as a statistical fluctuation with a probability of 99.99994 percent. In the world of physics, we have agreed that we’ll only speak of “discoveries” if we can clear that hurdle. That is also the reason why we were very careful in our statements: we don’t like to speak of the Higgs boson yet but prefer still to call it a “Higgs-like particle.”
The European: Do you think that the media coverage has contributed to a deeper understanding of the natural sciences? For example, the realization that a physicist and a journalist might define “discovery” very differently?
Heuer: I think so. The general public and journalists now see that scientific results - especially in basic research - don’t simply drop from the sky but have to grow slowly. Progress isn’t a linear development, we always encounter retrograde steps as well. If you look at our work and media coverage over the past year, you can really see that: last fall, we were still at the “3 sigma” level. In December, we were able to substantiate our observations and this July we managed to push beyond the “5 sigma” threshold. Once that happened, we had the responsibility to inform our sponsors and the scientific community