A look ahead

Last year we were given a glimpse of the future, a taste of what’s to come over the next 50 years or so. Most people missed it and, as a society, we are poorly placed to make the most of a world that will be shaped by the forces of the Higgs Boson.

Last year we were given a glimpse of the future, a taste of what’s to come over the next 50 years or so. Most people missed it and, as a society, we are poorly placed to make the most of a world that will be shaped by the forces of the Higgs Boson. After nearly a half-century since it was first proposed, the elusive Higgs Boson was finally captured by the Large Hadron Collider. Particle physicists were euphoric and told the world we had entered a new era. This was an event at least as significant as the splitting of the atom or the discovery of electricity. But this message and its implications were lost amid a swamp of convoluted explanations as to what is a Higgs Boson and what it is not. It is a subatomic particle or field of force (essentially one and the same) that gives other subatomic particles mass. It is not The God Particle that somehow reveals a divine plan in the structure of nature. That inappropriate nickname arose when the elusive Higgs Boson was described as being too god-damned difficult to find. What we had found was a missing piece in our understanding of how the universe is put together. But is it as significant as the first split atom or the discovery of electricity? To understand that comment take yourself back to the time when the first atom was split or the first simple electric circuits were constructed. Did they understand then what those discoveries would lead to? At the conclusion of a lecture about electricity and magnetism at the Royal Institution in London the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, asked Michael Faraday what possible use it could ever be. “Why, Sir”, the physicist replied, “there is the probability that you will soon be able to tax it”. (An alternate version has the retort: “What good is a new-born baby?”) We simply don’t know what Higgs Bosons could do if we can harness them. I could speculate that, because they are concerned with transferring the property of mass to other matter, then perhaps we could alter the mass of materials without altering other properties. Imagine the applications for steel that is as light as a feather or being able to make a gas like carbon dioxide so heavy it literally falls out of the air. Alter mass and you alter the force of gravity. You could build the Star Ship Enterprise on Earth then change its mass to virtually nothing, float it into space then restore its original mass. Bizarre science fiction possibilities that may be only just beyond our reach. If only we knew how to manipulate the newly found Higgs Boson. Working out the potential and mechanics of the Higgs Boson will be the task of our children and harnessing that potential will be the careers of our grandchildren. Only the very brightest will be able to participate in that quest, the best educated and the keenest minds. So are we giving our kids those tools that will let them work in this industry? I don’t think we are. If we want our kids to play in this and other future sandpits, the best legacy we can present them with is a solid, high-quality education in the sciences. Yet already the current standards of science and mathematics education in Australia are falling behind the global average. In the results of an international survey of education standards conducted in 2010 and released late last year, a quarter of Year 4 students failed the minimum reading standard and they were out-performed by students in 21 other countries in maths and science. Despite these poor results several states persisted with deep cuts to their education budgets. Worse still, some state governments directly intervened in the science curriculum to remove content they found unpalatable. (In Queensland, all references to Climate Change were to be struck from the classroom). This is not an appropriate strategy for developing the minds that will manage the world of the late 21st century. If we want to be part of this adventure we had better learn to work more effectively as part of international science collaborations. While, as a nation, we do have a good reputation for presenting high quality researchers to participate with other nations in all areas of science, it takes big bucks and political will to buy seats at these tables. Last year’s announcement of Australia’s $2 billion toward the development of the Square Kilometre Array was a step in the right direction. We now need to sign up to other international science ventures, like the Large Hadron Collider or one of the international space exploration programs, if we want to have a controlling hand in the technologies that will rule our lives and economies tomorrow. Talk is cheap and sells us short in the markets of the future. We can talk all we like about being the Clever Country, the various Smart States or being part of the Innovation Revolution, but if we don’t put in place the fundamental building blocks such as a high-quality education accessible to all of our smart kids, then we are setting ourselves up for future failure and exclusion from the technology that will one day rule our lives. Not such a Clever Country. Dr Paul Willis is the Director of RiAus