Monthly Archives: March 2013

On the Higgs Boson Hysteria

There should be a non-cliché rule in photography as well. I say that because the picture of a scientist with a pretentious attitude writing equations on a glass surface in front of the camera is far too common. Anyway, that was exactly how Dr. Peter Ware Higgs appeared in a recent New York Times article wrapping up the story of an elementary particle named after the now 83 years old theoretical physicist.

The observation might be a little harsh, after all last year two independent teams of researcher, looking at experiments performed at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, discovered something that looks very much like the particle whose existence was proposed by Higgs in 1964. Confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson, along with the Higgs field, would be of “monumental” importance, it has been stated. It would provide explanation for why certain elementary particles have mass, and certain don’t.

Still, my thoughts about the picture reflect what I think about the whole story: the media, and the world in general, are longing for a meaningful development in physics, for the last time a real breakthrough took place was with the discovery of Quantum Mechanics, almost one hundred years ago. We’re anxious for a push in the understanding of the ultimate nature of reality. But during the last century, essentially all that have been done consisted of solving minor details, developing applications, and crafting unverifiable mathematical speculations.

We are in fact in need of a new Einstein, Eisenberg, or Schrodinger. Someone who’s able to look at the world from a radically different perspective, and set the pace for a new revolution in physics. Nevertheless, looking from a historical perspective, it’s reasonable to expect that no amount of geniuses will get us to solve reality’s puzzle.

Indeed, looking at all developments since Newton and Galileu, we notice a clear trend: the scale of the visible world has consistently become, on one hand, bigger; and on the other, smaller. On the subatomic realm, tinier and tinier particles have been discovered, and it’s argued that the size would shrink further should we have more powerful particle colliders available. On the astronomic level, the universe got larger and larger. Our galaxy was once all we could see; now the visible universe is estimated to have hundreds of billions of them. And one wonders how long it will take to verify that there are actually hundreds of billions of universes as well.

It seems reality is shaped like a fractal, flirting with infinity: if you’re able to look for it, you’ll find entities of scales as big and small as you can possibly imagine.

Thus, Higgs’ discovers do leave us closer to the ultimate answer about reality, but just as much as one hundred billion is closer to infinity than forty two.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

Overpopulation is Ruining the Job Market, and No Economic Model Will Save It

Two little girls are playing on the floor. One of them presents her piggy bank to the other. She goes: “I’m saving for when I get a low-paying job doing what I love.”

The comic, by The New Yorker’s cartoonist Amy Hwang, tells a lot about the reality of work in our times. Differently from previous generations, where income and stability were the main guidelines in choosing a career, ours is encouraged to find a job that brings pleasure. Money, it’s argued, will come as a consequence. “You’ve got to find what you love,” advised Steve Jobs, one of the most successful businessman history has known, in a Commencement address for Stanford graduates in 2005.

Amy’s cartoon drives attention for the fact that, outliers apart, there’s always a trade-off. In fact, things can be a little more extreme if you consider jobs people do for no payment at all (ask any 20-something about his experiences with internships), and the legion of 9-to-5 workers that spend their free time investing in their music careers in the vain hope of becoming rock stars.

The problem, as I pointed out in a previous article about careers in Academia, is that there just are too many people in the market. As a solution, some economists (namely, from the New Economics Foundation), have proposed a drastic reduction in the number of working hours per week, to around 20. It sounds appealing at first, but try telling that to an early career professional who’s struggling to show that he loves what he does more than anyone else. Besides, the sustainability of the idea is based on the redistribution of the GDP. If the outcome of the Occupy Wall Street movement is of any guideline, there’s little doubt about the utopian nature of the proposal.

The fact that there aren’t jobs enough being created to keep up with population growth is just part of the sad story. Consider, as an example, an early college student who’s equally attracted by topics in computer science and graphic design. Even if, in theory, there possibly is a job where he can apply both technical and artistic skills, in great part occupations focus in one area or the other. These days, he’d have to choose one career path, and rely on good luck to have made the right decision.

That is, devoting your entire professional life to one, and only one occupation, already is a limiting perspective. In the ideal case, part-time jobs would be more easily available, and people would optionally work on many of them, doing so not because they have to, but because that would give them a more fulfilling life experience.

But I digress. Until society in general don’t get educated enough to realize that no economy will support over-population, we’ll see many more generations of young professionals having their 20’s ruined by underpaying jobs and severe competition with colleagues that just happen to love doing the same thing.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)