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Ethnography and Theory of the Signature in Physics

By Arpita Roy

Cite As:
Roy, Arpita. 2014. “Ethnography and Theory of the Signature in Physics”. Cultural Anthropology 29 (3), 479-502.


Ending the decades-long search for the elusive Higgs particle, physicists at the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or CERN, in Switzerland announced the news of its historic discovery on July 4, 2012. In the wake of the recent discovery of the Higgs particle, the article aims to give a critical account of the concept of signature used in contemporary particle physics. Appearing as interlopers in the material world of science, signatures engender a complex movement between fact and value, thing and sign, or reference and meaning. This movement is instructive in explaining how discoveries are made in an experimental science, and also in the more provocative problem of how necessary consequences follow from contextual signs. Drawing on two and a half years of ethnographic fieldwork carried out at the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator complex and integrating it with medieval theories of the signature, the essay offers a renewed interrogation into the topic of things, signs, and relations and their relevance for anthropology today.


relations; semiotics; material culture; experimental science