How Physics Works – Higgs Confirmation

Physics tutor material to generate interest

Partly due to the recent but unrelated filling of a job vacancy in Rome, the above news story got very little attention. Last July’s heavily publicized experimental evidence for the Higgs boson has since been supplemented by analysis of more of the data from the famous 2012 experiment conducted at CERN. The high energy physics group at UVic made substantial contributions to the ATLAS experiment mentioned in the article.

Exciting as the original story may have been, this one may give tutors like me more to talk about. I cannot think of any meaningful Higgs boson problems that can be assigned to a physics student in high school or the first year of university but buried in this latest story are key lessons for anyone starting out any branch of science.

The title of the article is Higgs boson discovery confirmed. Please note my emphasis on the word confirmed. In science it is simply not good enough for someone to make a claim and to present evidence for it. For a discovery to gain acceptance it must be confirmed with as much data as possible, collected in as many ways as possible, by as many people as possible, from as many locations as possible, as many times as possible. The strength of a theory can be measured by the relentlessness of the challenges that it has survived.

One of the most instructive phrases in the article says that researchers “were able to reduce the margin of error in the signals”. Most Grade 11 chemistry students show little enthusiasm for the topic of significant figures but that superficially dry topic is one of their key introductions to science as a method for learning about nature, rather than just as a body of knowledge. They must understand that believing something is pointless unless they understand the strength of the evidence upon which they base that belief.

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3 Responses to How Physics Works – Higgs Confirmation

  1. Glenna says:

    This is a great blog post, Brian. Thank you! You make some very good points here about the necessity to practise good science. To demonstrate repeatedly, through rigorous experimentation, that the theory is correct, that it is fact.

    What needs to be emphasised more in science education, as you point out, are critical thinking skills. Far too often, these skills are not adequately learned, or are put aside by students in their early scientific explorations.

    • Brian says:

      I have heard that the system makes an effort to teach critical thinking but I keep forgetting to ask some students if they feel they have been helped to learn that skill. After spring break I should make a point of doing that.

  2. Norma says:

    Thank you, Brian…..for encouraging me. I have looked up Higgs Boson….not bison. I cannot say that I understand very much of this…but what I do get, is that the people who do understand, will use the results of this long study to have deeper understanding of the nature of the universe. Huge applause for their patience, forbearance and persistence that has lead to this observation of nature.

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