02 September 2012

Diamond Bob and the biggest boson in the world

Robert Hinkmeyer (Sophia Loren Professor of Particle Physics, and Head of Collisions at CORN — Central Organisation for Research on the Nucleus) was waiting anxiously by his office telephone. His colleagues might call him “Diamond Bob” in deference to his reputation as veteran of hundreds of dangerous high-energy experiments, but right now he was nervous as hell. The call he was expecting came from high up — right from the very top, in fact.

The phone rang, and Hinkmeyer jumped.
Is that you, Bob? the clipped voice at the other end demanded.
- Yes sir, Hinkmeyer replied.

You’re definitely alone?
- Yes, sir.
And you’ve had the room thoroughly searched for bugs?
- We’ve been through it several times. I’m certain we are not being overheard.
Good. Now, as you know, I’m very concerned about the results you have been reporting on the particles observed in the Collider. The energies seem rather on the low side to me, well outside the range we have been looking for.
- Sir, I appreciate that the world’s eyes are on us, and that we’re expected to find the Higgs boson, a particle which — as you may recall — is heavier than a hundred hydrogen atoms. But the fact is we haven’t observed it, and I really think we have no choice but to call it the way it is.
Look Bob, I take it you realise it would be very much in everyone’s best interests if this damn Hicks thingy were found.
- Higgs, sir. The Higgs boson.
Whatever. The point is, surely you can see that with the world in economic crisis — teetering banks, Western nations bankrupt, food prices soaring due to climate change — we need all the morale-boosting we can get right now. Announcing a result that looks like long-sought confirmation for a popular theory will make people feel good about themselves again, and also give much-needed relief to our people in Brussels, who have been desperately trying to generate recovery with inadequate tools. It would be plain irresponsible to report an overall negative result at the moment, quite apart from the flak we’d face if ten billion euros turned out to have been spent for nothing.
- But sir, isn’t it possible that the theory is just wrong, and that the best thing to do is to admit it?
You, me and everyone on the funding committee knows that the standard theory is a crock. It’s got more holes than an Emmental. The Hicks thingy isn’t called “toilet particle” for nothing. But what’re you gonna do? There are no serious rival theories — and unlikely to be any time soon, given the promotion policies at physics departments these days. We need to soldier on with what we’ve got, and we need to go on providing our stakeholders with results they want to hear.
- You don’t seem to have much respect for the concept of scientific truth, sir, if I may say so.
That’s all very well, Bob, but the world has changed since we were at college. As you know, recent research has shown the concept of truth to be flawed. In any case, what matters these days is whether something is in the public interest. Would it be better if a hospital’s performance figures suggested that operations were mostly successful, or better to scare people and undermine the healing process? Is it a good thing for a bank to report its interest rates with a pedant’s obsession for correctness, or better to save the financial sector and the whole economy by announcing data that reassures the markets?
- I don’t see what ...
We’re not asking you to lie, Bob, that would be unethical, and anyway too likely to be leaked. All I am saying is: it does not always need to be the case that your figures appear to be as low as they did recently. Get my drift?
- But sir, surely you realise the impossibility of ...
Come off it, Bob, you’re not talking to an idiot. You and I both know the joys of a little creative tweaking of data. Everyone’s at it these days, it is positively expected, and you only seem foolish and prissy if you take a rigidly purist line. Have you forgotten when we both worked for Steve Corking, how he would never allow a negative data set to spoil things, without first indulging in a little redrawing of the curves?
- Well, I suppose there have been some areas of ambiguity where we could perhaps ...
That’s the spirit, Bob, I knew you wouldn’t fail me.
- Won’t someone notice if we fudge the results?
Who cares enough to trawl through the data? Anyway, as Richard Feynman said, no one on the planet understands quantum theory, and they won’t want to risk looking foolish. Don’t get too uptight about it, Bob. Just remember: principle without power is futile.
So, I’ll be able to tell my boss we’ll shortly be seeing headlines about discovery, money well spent, established theories receiving ultimate confirmation, and so on. Shall we say ... by the end of May?
- I think end of July is the earliest we can promise, sir. There’s been a problem with the power supply which we’ve only just resolved.
Damn. Can we blame that on high frequency trading?
- Probably not.
Never mind, end of July will have to do. I’ll think of something to keep the media off our backs until then.
- Incidentally, sir, did you get my memos about a possible breach of the rules on communicating with Iranian physicists? I wonder whether we shouldn’t make full disclosure to the folks in Washington.
Bob, Bob, Bob. What have we just been talking about? Straight dealing is for losers, you need to wake up and smell the jungle. Effing Americans, who are they to tell us what to do? They’re worse than anybody — look at the way [xxx] and [names of major investment banks deleted] have been manipulating every market from pork bellies to vanadium, in the interests of themselves and their government.
- You have a point there, sir.
By the way, Bob, I visited the facility the other day, and I have to say I was a bit taken aback by the general sluttiness of the place. Some of the corridors were strewn with litter, and I’m sure I saw a couple of rats.
- Er, we may need to get the cleaning rota improved, sir. I’ll get onto it.
Do that. Goodbye Bob, and don’t forget: if there is ever an investigation, this conversation never took place.

apologies to: Barclays, Standard Chartered, Bank of England and PhysicsWorld

- retrophobia
- London 2012
- chartered accountants to the rescue
- a difficult audience

“You can’t go back to the past” is a mumble I come across quite often.

Some of the time the mumble may even be a reaction to something one of us has written, given that we are one of the few organisations who come close (or so it may seem) to saying that the past was in some ways preferable. However, since those who might mention us are committed to a policy of Totschweigetaktik, there is no way of telling.

I say “mumble” because the position that is being expressed by the person doing the mumbling is usually so fuzzy and muddled that it would not survive unpacking, or even being analytically stated, and can therefore only take the form of a grumbling epithet, intended to invoke a matching prejudice in the reader.

In fact, none of us goes in for stating anything as simplistic as “things were better at some point in the past”. For one thing, the concept of ‘better’ is far too broad to allow one to make that kind of assertion without a lot of prior definition. It is interesting to note, however, that there is clearly a resistance to the idea that things have deteriorated, indicated by the fact that it arouses glib knee-jerk responses.

One possible reason for the resistance is that a false dichotomy is assumed: either (A) things are unequivocally better now than they were, or (B) we have to go backwards. Either we reconcile ourselves to the way things are now, or we have to return to precisely the position of some earlier state of affairs; no other options are supposed to exist.

But a more likely explanation of the resistance is that any favourable allusion to the past is a discomforting reminder that some of the more unpleasant features of contemporary life are not inevitable. Discomfort is something people generally try to avoid, if necessary by adapting their beliefs. As long as we can convince ourselves that conditions in the past were much worse, what bothers us about life now is easier to ignore.

The solution? Excessive fear of having to revisit the past may be treatable with simple cognitive therapy. E.g. by repeatedly exposing yourself to the observation that we are already going backwards. Note that many of the policies currently marketed as ‘progressive’ actually involve moving in the direction of a state of affairs observed in its most obvious form in primitive tribal life. I.e. more control by everyone, acting collectively, over what everyone else can or cannot do, and less freedom for the individual.

Danny Boyle’s Olympic Ceremony was mostly great fun, though of course it came packaged with a lecture on the correct way of viewing the world. I felt both proud, and embarrassed, to be British — which may well have been the intention, given that ambivalence is the approved stance towards British history.

From Kenneth Branagh’s Bopping Brunel, to Voldemort’s ejaculating wand, to a stunning celebration of state medicine, to a touching family drama set in BBC-world, the performance was clearly in the best possible tradition of music hall, and confirmed that British strengths are in visuals, subversion, humour, and leftist ideology. The one ingredient which could be said to have been lacking was aggro, with the result that there was just a hint of declawed tiger. The scene where four soccer yobs beat up a rival to the tune of Knees up Mother Brown must, I suppose, have been quietly dropped.

The ceremony’s egalitarian intentions were, however, undercut by a reminder of the rule that life ultimately belongs to the strong and the successful. The section on popular music was monopolised by the usual ‘stadium acts’ — the Bowies, Queens, Kinks, Jams, Coldplays and so forth; and by the artistically (if not commercially) applauded — Dizzee, Arctic Monkeys, etc. What of the British groups that did not make it into the premier league in terms of either sales or trendiness, ranging from the cultish to the naff, such as Traffic, Wizard, Ultravox, Sailor, Gentle Giant, Rubettes, Hot Chocolate, and Keane? They were ruthlessly passed over, making a subtle mockery of the supposed theme of inclusiveness.

One other thing gave me concern. The subversion of (e.g.) Chariots of Fire — a 1981 movie which took itself and the image of British grandeur seriously (though it already contained anti-establishment themes) — was amusing. But when London’s turn comes round again in sixty or so years, will there be anything left to subvert, given that much of the current era’s content is already predicated on subversion and postmodern irony? There is, of course, the cod-proletarianism of such things as EastEnders, contemporary broadcasters’ voices, and rap — but will that be a permissible theme to parody?

• Britain’s haul of 65 Olympic medals, putting us third behind the USA and China, is more impressive still when measured in terms of per capita. For every million inhabitants, we won (roughly) 1 medal, compared to ½ or so won by Russia, Germany, France and South Korea, and America’s ⅓. However, Australia (35 medals) and Hungary (17) did better still, achieving 1.5 and 1.7 per million respectively. Measured relative to GDP, Hungary’s achievement is even more astonishing: 12 medals per US$100 billion of annual national income, compared with most major countries’ one or two. Other former Soviet states also did well by this measure, including Ukraine (a country poorer, in terms of GDP per capita, than Namibia) which similarly scored 12 medals per 100 billion dollars. Perhaps money isn’t the crucial factor when it comes to sporting success.

• Indignation was expressed over the fact that there were relatively few state school alumni among the British medallists. But I wonder how likely a comprehensive school is to tolerate the attitude that one has a legitimate need to be the best in the world — let alone a right. Unless a pupil has some kind of handicap thought to give him a moral entitlement to compensatory success, he is likely to be encouraged to believe he is no better than anyone else, and brought down to size* if appearing to think otherwise. This is probably unhelpful from the point of view of sporting achievement, if that is what you happen to want to promote.

* This phenomenon is also, of course, found at private schools. However, the no-better-than-others criterion applied in those institutions typically differs in the important sense that the category of “others” is confined to fellow pupils, and does not include the hoi polloi.
A story on the web says that diving bronze medallist Tom Daley moved from a state to a private school because he was being bullied. Whether or not this is correct, it seems plausible that someone intensely focused on individual achievement would have a relatively hard time at a state institution.

Being an accountant seems to have become less boring and more trendy, judging by recent issues of the Chartered Accountants’ magazine — a publication which formerly carried the humdrum title “Accountancy” but which has now been rebranded as Economia! The design has become snazzier, and the implication of a new pro-state leaning is hard to avoid, what with all the Labour politicians’ photos and New Statesman adverts.

The April issue was devoted to “reshaping capitalism”, and is full of good advice about how to regulate the wicked tendencies of the corporate world.
The global economy has been in a critical state since 2008, when greed, hubris, an under-regulated financial sector and some high-risk mortgage deals almost brought the house down
writes the Editor, adding that the Occupy protest at St Paul’s Cathedral
needs to mark the start of a genuine political debate about the role of business in society and its responsibility to a wider range of stakeholders.
Just a moment, though. What, primarily, was it that brought the global financial system to the brink of collapse? Was it something to do with the untrustworthiness of finance packages that were labelled as “assets” but which then proved to be toxic, and the resulting loss of faith both in, and by, the banks?

And who was it that we might have relied on to distinguish assets from liabilities correctly, and to ensure that financial instruments were appropriately classified and valued — which in turn might have alerted people to the problem before it had got out of hand? Accountants perhaps?

Curiously, I saw little in the “Reshaping Capitalism” issue which suggested that a solution to the problem might lie in the more diligent application of existing accounting principles, as opposed to an increase in government interference.

This is worth repeating:
Why are people hostile to us?

It appears that social approval is very important to people. When they see someone aiming to do something without social approval, even something perfectly legal and respectable, because he or she has not given up on what they originally wanted to do, it makes them angry. Why is this? Is it because it reminds them that at some time in their lives they gave up on something important to them, perhaps gave up their original ideals and aspirations, lowered their standards and became uncritical of socially approved goings-on, in order to go with the flow and take advantage of the reduced and rather mouldy pickings that were on offer?

... We here are trying to build up an institutional environment in order eventually to fulfil the same functions as intellectual writers and researchers (in the sense of heads of research departments) as we should have been able to fulfil within the context of the recognised universities, but found ourselves blocked in working towards doing.

When people see us doing this it evidently arouses no sympathy or inclination to help us move even a little faster towards our goals. Rather, it arouses anger and energetic opposition. Perhaps this is because it reminds them of the aims and aspirations that they have themselves given up. Probably they have a predominant underlying anger, resentment, and sense of loss; some very obviously so. If people are reminded of what they have given up, the anger is aroused, but it is directed against individuals who have not given up, and practically never against the society that has ruined their lives, or the agents of that society who made things difficult for them at crucial times in their lives. (Celia Green)
There is a variant, which I sometimes encounter, on the theme of resenting those who are still aiming at what most have given up on. This is anger at being reminded that there is still a choice of world view, when it had been assumed that the debate was over and that the older viewpoint had irrevocably lost the battle. (Remarkably, what is often supposed to have clinched the debate amounts to little more than an insistence that things have changed, and that it is time to “move on” — clearly a somewhat circular logic.)

The kind of prickly resignation which I am referring to is, somewhat paradoxically, to be found particularly among the middle-aged middle class. The new ideology having taken over, to the extent that their children’s heads are crammed full of its tenets, which the children repeat parrot-fashion, they (the parents) have tried hard to make themselves feel okay about it all, and think they have succeeded. They feel the thing to do now is to acquiesce and have a comfortable, carefree old age, before departing this world and leaving it to get on with its new and improved order.

“Look, we’ve had to work hard enough to get our heads round the new morality, including the idea that the bourgeoisie (i.e. we) are rapacious and deserve to be penalised. We joined the winning side as it seemed less trouble. We don’t want to have to rethink it all again. Go away!”

It’s a philosophy, I suppose. I wonder, however, whether many of them will have as comfortable and carefree an old age as they like to imagine.

Chicken come home
Lying about Libor was picked up by this blog in May 2008, in response to a Bloomberg story. A couple of weeks later, the Wall Street Journal published the results of its own investigation into the numbers. After that, the issue sank from sight.
Nearly four years later, it was announced that the US Justice Department was conducting a criminal investigation, and the thing snowballed from there.
Might other sins from the past be lurking in the wings, waiting to make a dramatic reappearance?

We got plenty o’ nuttin’
Never mind banks going bust, what about the possibility of central banks becoming insolvent? According to Scott Minerd, a 1% increase in US interest rates
would cause the market value of the Federal Reserve’s assets to fall by about 8 per cent, or $200bn, leaving it insolvent ...
I think the Fed going technically bust might not have any immediate effects, given the incredulity factor. After a few days, however, it might dawn on people that a key guarantor of paper money was no longer in a position to provide guarantees. I wonder would happen then.

Tiddles for President/PM/Kanzler/etc.
According to CNN (via The Week), the mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska is a cat named Stubbs. In an election 15 years ago, Stubbs won more votes than his two human rivals, and he has held the post ever since.
The citizens of Talkeetna seem pleased with the mayor’s policies. His owner is quoted as saying that Stubbs
doesn’t raise our taxes ... He doesn’t interfere with business. He’s honest.
Sounds purr-fect.

I am an unsalaried academic. Like my colleagues at Oxford Forum, I am excluded from the present academic system because that system primarily rewards vacuous reproduction of stale paradigms and ideologically palatable theories.

I am therefore unable to write in detail about intellectual issues to which I could be contributing, and have to limit myself to brief blog comments on topics of interest to the general reader, while I struggle to support myself and my fellow outcasts.

If you have visited this blog more than once, could I suggest you make use of the Oxford Forum donation button located in the sidebar. Three percent of gross income seems like a reasonable minimum, and something over £1000 looks like you mean it.

Donations help to support the work of my colleague Dr Celia Green, one of the few female geniuses there have ever been, and at present scandalously ignored by the intellectual establishment.

Why should you spend your hard-earned pay on subsidising intellectuals? But you already do. The tax you are forced to pay is used, among other things, to finance ‘research’ — though it tends to be the kind which reinforces the dominant ideology, including the notion that it’s morally desirable for you to pay even more tax.