Science news — the Higgs boson, global warming, the nature of consciousness

by Rob Tiller

I’ve been trying to follow the story of the search for the Higgs boson for a long time, and so I felt excited by reports this week that scientists at CERN have discovered a new particle that could be it. Quantum mechanics is not something I would ever aspire to have a deep grasp of, but even skimming the surface is mind bending. The subatomic world has different rules from ours.

I also really like the purity of the enterprise. It’s primarily driven by curiosity, rather than motives of profit or power. These scientists aren’t much interested in practical applications; they want the truth. (Of course, they also may want tenure, grants, Nobel Prizes, dates, etc.) It’s cheering that there is still, in some places, political and financial support that makes their (very expensive) experiments possible.

Another thing that’s particularly cool about the Higgs search is that it is a massive collaboration. Thousands and thousands of scientists are involved. According to the Times account, there were two teams of 3,000 physicists each analyzing the data from hundreds of trillions of proton collisions in the latest round of the CERN effort. They’ve found ways, which I’m sure involve the Internet and massive computing power, to share their knowledge and coordinate their efforts. This is very different from the model of scientific discovery I was taught as a kid, where individuals worked by themselves in their laboratories until their eureka moment. It’s encouraging that scientists are learning to collaborate better just as they take on ever larger problems.

The practicality of the Higgs work may be to the researchers’ advantage in making them a low-value political target. This contrasts sharply with global warming research. In my home state of North Carolina, a majority of our legislators (mostly Republicans) embarrassed themselves again this week by enacting legislation designed to suppress, or at least defer, scientific reports of rising sea levels caused by global warming.

The coastal development lobby seems to have been involved. As my friend and House representative Deborah Ross cleverly observed, putting our heads in the sand is not really doing property owners any favors — they need real information. I’d also note that the sea is not going to read the study anyway. It is both funny and scary that a significant portion of our political leaders (for now a majority in NC) are either willfully ignorant or cynically determined to oppose science where it conflicts with their self-interest.

Yet science hasn’t thrown in the towel yet, and I’ve got to think that the truth will out. Speaking a little more of science, I’ve been reading a new book by Michael Gazzaniga titled Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. It’s about recent discoveries and theories in neuroscience, and parts of it are mind boggling. Gazzaniga is a distinguished professor (University of California) and researcher in cognitive neuroscience who made ground-breaking discoveries in the area of split-brain research.

Gazzaniga covers a lot of territory, and I will not attempt to summarize (indeed, I’m not certain I completely grasp) his view of free will. For me, the most stimulating sections had to do with his his model of conscious thought. At least since the time of the Periclean Athens, we’ve thought of our conscious experience as objective — that is, what you see is what there is to see, what you hear is objectively present in nature, and so on as to other senses and perceptions. In everyday life, we experience all these sensations predictable and reliable, and have difficulty imagining them as error prone and misleading.

I’ve read several interesting books recently discussing research on this, including Jonathan Haidt’s, Daniel Kahneman’s, and Jonah Lehrer’s, but Gazzinaga seems to have the clearest theoretical model and best supported theory for why we can’t accept that our conscious perceptions are at best an incomplete and fallible approximation of physical reality. His model of the mind involves hundreds or thousands of modules working on, say, vision, and forwarding their data to a module in the left brain which he calls The Interpreter.

The Interpreter takes in what it can (not everything), makes some quick guesstimates as to what data is reliable and what should be tossed out, fills in any gaps in the data with best guesses, and presents the result to consciousness as reality. Despite all the guesswork and potential for errors, the result feels to us instantaneous, smooth, continuous, and objective. If there are glaring problems or inconsistencies, The Interpreter comes up with a narrative or story that “explains” them. We are, in a really fundamental sense, story-telling animals.

Another aspect of Gazzaniga’s model struck me as particularly thought-provoking was his discussion of emergence theory. While giving respect and consideration to the researchers working at the scale of neurons and brain structures, Gazzinaga deems it unlikely that that approach will never explain conscious experience. The brain is just too complex.

Emergence theory addresses itself to phenomena are matters that arise out of inputs so numerous as to be incalculable. Examples include snowflakes, traffic jams and weather, which are in the aggregate clearly products of much simpler phenomena (hydrogen atoms, carburetors and other auto parts, breezes etc.), but which contain too many variables to be predictable. The brain’s 100 billion neurons and vastly larger number of synapses far exceeds the complexity of our analytical tools.

Finally, I was intrigued that Gazzaniga suggests the possibility that the basic unit of analysis for the study of human consciousness should not be an individual brain, but rather, groups of brains. That is, intelligence may be best understood as emerging from humans interacting with each other. The individual brain in isolation knows nothing that we would call intelligence, but needs other brains to develop. Prisoners in prolonged isolation quite literally lose their minds. We’ve barely begun to consider consciousness in terms of systems of brains, rather than individual brains. It could change the way we approach education, law, and most everything else.