The media has been hyping the discovery of the “God particle,” more prosaically called the Higgs boson–which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
This is a good occasion to discuss what makes some scientific discoveries interesting and others less interesting. And that, in turn, is germane to the future of science.
Finding a new elementary particle is mighty exciting if you’re a particle physicist. But unless that’s your profession, discovering what things are made of is less thrilling than other types of findings. Some answers are more interesting because some questions are more interesting.
For instance, I think we generally find the question of how things work more interesting than what they’re made of. Likewise, we’re curious in where things came from. The origin of the universe. The origin of life. As well as the future.
This may be due, in part, to the fact that we’re timebound creatures. We don’t directly experience the distant past. So we wonder how we got here. What happened before we were here that led up to this point? Why does the world exist? Why does this world exist? Why do I exist. That’s part of why a lot of folks find history interesting. Or genealogy.
The theory of special relativity is interesting because, if true, it presents a counterintuitive view of time and space (i.e. time dilation, length contraction). And we find that intriguing because we’re timebound, spacebound creatures. Time and space condition human experience. How we perceive reality.
And they also affect what we value. Take nostalgia. The present slipping away before we want it to go.
Likewise, quantum mechanics, if true, is interesting because it presents a counterintuitive view of causality (e.g. nonlocality, action at a distance). And we find that intriguing because causality (or what we take to be causal relations) is a pervasive and fundamental feature of human experience. It’s bound up with the arrow of time, where the direction of time mirrors the direction of cause and effect. Consider those time-travel scenarios.
Moreover, on one interpretation of quantum mechanics, there are alternate timelines. Parallel worlds.
If true, that’s interesting because it’s natural to ask ourselves, if we had more than one life, what the road not taken would look like. Imagine if we could immersively explore alternate routes and see how they came out. Although quantum mechanics can’t actually put us in touch with alternate timelines, it lends reality to those imaginative speculations (assuming that’s the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is hotly contested).
Furthermore, on one interpretation of quantum mechanics (e.g. Eugene Wigner), the observer can influence what he observes. Mind over matter. If true, that would be very intriguing.
But this, in turn, raises the question of whether the most interesting scientific theories have already been proposed. Is there anything currently on the docket, or in the foreseeable future, of scientific theorizing, to match the inherent interest generated by quantum mechanics and special relativity? Or are we now down to the nuts and bolts? It’s hard to gin up the same level of interest in theories or discoveries that are more mundane. In that sense, are the best days of science behind us? Has it already told us the best stories it had to offer?