Happy Higgs Hunters

There’s another article about the search for the Higgs particle, the recent rumour kerfuffle involving the Tevatron, and the upcoming LHC experiment at CERN. (See related articles at bottom of this post.) This time it is in the New York Times and it is by Dennis Overbye. There’s a bit of discussion about how the fact that there are physicists blogging about these topics tends to amplify some things that might not (or should not?) get amplified otherwise. I’ve nothing really to add to the discussion, except to say that it is far better written -showing better understanding of the science, and the scientific implications of the rumour- than the article in Slate, by James Owen Weatherall, that I criticizedin an earlier post . Ironically, Weatherall is a recently trained (in particle physics) scientist. Go figure. To be fair, Overbye has the benefit of a long wait for the rumours to die down and reality checks to be done (and lots of good journalistic experience under his belt, and maybe a bit more seniority to fight with his editors, if that was part of the issue for the Weatherall article), so we all hope Weatherall will get better with time. (Above right: A random collision event I grabbed from the DZero experiment.)

See some other posts on this article here (starting with Gordon Watts laying down a welcome mat and a useful road map to physics and earlier blog posts for the NY Times readers he’s expecting to visit his site – he’s mentioned in the article), here (Tommaso Dorigo is also mentioned, and so points to some earlier links too), here, and here (John Conway was also in the article, and has previously discussed these matters too).

Now, if only the New York Times would have the guts to stop with the stupid “God Particle” term, that they must know by now is not a term used by any self-respecting particle physicist in the course of their work. I’ll wager that it creates more confusion in the minds of the public than almost any other aspect of the discussion. (See an earlier post on that here.)


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14 Responses to Happy Higgs Hunters

  1. Neil B. says:

    (Similar to my post at Cosmicvariance, where I still await an answer!)

    It would be very interesting to find this odd particle. Many of us would appreciate a good middle-brow grounded explanation of why there needs to be a particle like the Higgs to provide “mass” (not just inertia, but equivalent energy too!) to other particles. I mean, why can’t mass just be “fundamental”? BTW if we can actually localize Higgs particles at all, then what happens if more are in the region of a given particle? Is it more massive then? How does the quantum field fluctuation issue affect particle masses: they vary a bit moment by moment? (I mean, over and above the energy-time uncertainty, which shouldn’t (?) affect the base rest mass-energy of particles with fixed masses, like electrons.)

    It’s funny, since for comparison many physicists think “time” isn’t really fundamental in itself. (Well, “flowing time” can’t be defined in strictly logical terms, only “spaces” with various contents can be. Not many notice that “matter” can’t be logically defined either, as substantive clothing over and above the structural content of model universes in the platonic mindscape.) Thanks for any illumination provided.

  2. Kea says:

    Do you think people will call it the ‘God Particle’ when they find out it doesn’t exist?

  3. Clifford says:

    Hi Kea! I see you’re still ahead of us fools who wait for experiments before concluding what we believe about Nature. Give us time to catch up! By the way, it feels like every single time I do a post on the Higgs you comment and say the same thing. Like your friend Louise with Dark Energy posts. It is rather funny. I’m going to start placing bets as to how many comments it will be before you come in next time. 😉



  4. Clifford says:

    Hi Neil B.,

    I think the quickest thing to do is to simply google (as I did) for “Higgs Mechanism”. You find umpteen perfectly good explanations of the Higgs mechanism for the level you requested. Theres no need to type it all out again. The best thing to focus on for reliability are explanation pages that are written by people at labs like CERN, Fermilab, etc. I also found one of the more popular diagrammatic motivations (popular person walking through a crowded room interacting with everyone) on a PPARC website, the funding agency for UK particle physics. Read a few of those, I recommend.

    The key way to think about it is that particles start out in our current models of particle physics as all massless. We did not choose that…. this is what works: Without mass, the model -and our universe- is much more symmetric than we see now. Masses spoil (or hide) that symmetry. So mass in the standard model is not a fundamental thing put in by hand, it arises from interaction. The interaction in question is with some other particle, called the Higgs (or at least some setup that mimics the effect of the Higgs), and the result is that we observe the effect of the interaction with the Higgs as mass, even when we do not see the Higgs directly itself. Remarkably, you can determine that a lot of the masses and interactions or the particles that we’ve already determined by experiments fit very tightly with the existence of a Higgs or (Higgs-like sector). It is not just some random thing we made up. Internal quantum mechanical consistency plus what we’ve already measured constrains what you can do a great deal.

    So we know that there is some sector of physics that must be there to give the masses, etc, that we have already measured. Whether it is a simple Higgs particle or something cleverer remains to be determined by experiment, not declarations such as those made (in jest, I hope) by Kea above.

    We (the particle physics community, as it were) won’t really localize Higgs particles in the way you’re thinking. What we will do in the collider experiments is explore (for example) new decay channels which will appear at the energies in question in the collisions. The varieties of signals we will see (once explored and enumerated) combined with the rules of quantum mechanics, will allow us to infer what sorts of particles must have appeared in the decays. We wlll be at high enough energies to probe directly the regime where the Higgs -or whatever Higgs-like interaction- must have been included in the decays. We will never see it directly, just its decay products via interaction with all the particles we know and love (and have well studied). We know how well the decay properties of everything that we already have identified, and so we should be able to pick out new objects by their patterns of decay by seeing how things have changed in the new regime of physics we are exploring.



  5. Kea says:

    I see you’re still ahead of us fools who wait for experiments before concluding what we believe about Nature.

    Hi, Clifford. As it happens, I believe it is the professional duty of a good theorist to have an educated opinion about the outcome of experiments BEFORE they are done. That’s how science works. And yes, no doubt I will keep posting such comments until either (a) I am proved incorrect by the discovery of a Higgs particle, or (b) the development of the theory forces me to change my mind.

  6. Kea says:

    … or of course (c) I die or am otherwise incapacitated.

  7. Clifford says:

    I think that (as is sadly very common) you’re confusing a definitive statement (which you seem to have been making) with an educated opinion.



  8. Kea says:

    Judging the basis of brief blog statements without having considered their scientific backing (which I can assure you, you have not) is unscientific behaviour. The wording of a blog comment comes with many motivations, for a wide readership, and in particular it is generally desirable to include an element of humour (gee, do I have to explain this?). In general, a good scientist reserves judgement about ALL things on which he/she is uninformed.

  9. Carl Brannen says:

    “you’re still ahead of us fools who wait for experiments before concluding what we believe about Nature”

    The usual technique in physics is to glom on to the first reasonable explanation for known experiments, and then to hang on to that explanation come hell or high water as long as is logically possible. It turns out that “as long as is logically possible” amounts to the same things as “till death do us part”. Physics moves forward as the old generation, and their old ideas, die off.

    And the ideas extend to things that have never been observed in experiment. Along with the Higgs, there’s also gravitons. And aether.

  10. Clifford says:

    Dear Kea,

    “Judging the basis of brief blog statements without having considered their scientific backing (which I can assure you, you have not) is unscientific behaviour.”

    That may well be, but it is just plain irrelevant here, since I made no judgment about your work. I know for a fact that you (and in fact nobody else) do not know whether there is a Higgs or not since nobody has done the experiment. Therefore I am free to question the certainty in your statement made here and in several other places that there is no Higgs. I have made no judgments about your work, which I have not seen, but simply your assertion that you know the outcome of the experiments in advance of their having been done.

    To save you scrolling up, I repeat your comment here:

    “Do you think people will call it the ‘God Particle’ when they find out it doesn’t exist?”

    Even though you had a “when” and not an “if”, and despite the fact that you’ve been making similar remarks in the past, I actually originally answered your comment with the benefit of the doubt and some of the spirit of possible humour (to copy you: Gee, do I have to point that out?), and you chose to interpret otherwise, so your parenthetical “Gee…” nonsense is just plain silly.

    “In general, a good scientist reserves judgement about ALL things on which he/she is uninformed.”

    Excellent advice that I urge you (and all of us) to follow.


  11. Nigel says:

    Yes the Higgs-God bosons do form some kind of “aether” which mediates forces (inertial mass and gravity) between gravitons and leptons/quarks simply by swarming around those charges, miring them like molasses (yum). Drag pressure effects in the Higgs-God aether occur in the form of Lorentz contraction and inertial mass increase, like the effect of the compressed shock wave which forms on the front of a supersonic aircraft as it approaches the velocity of sound. The Higgs-God boson is clearly observable in the quantization of masses for leptons and hadrons. (Well it’s clearer that the images of the “face of God” that people often see in potatoes, in the COBE map of the cosmic background radiation, or in extra dimensions after taking certain chemicals.) 🙂

  12. Clifford says:

    Ah, I see Nigel Cook’s right on schedule!!! Perfect, it’s just like clockwork… 😀


  13. Blake Stacey says:

    Thanks for sending a little traffic my way. I only wish I had a cute kitten to go along with this post, too.


  14. Nigel says:

    Clifford: please delete this comment is too long/boring. (Everyone else does, so I no longer become bitterly offended. I’ll put a copy on my blog.)

    I disagree a bit with the view expressed above that the Higgs boson is nonsense because it isn’t falsifiable science. It’s a vital connection between quantum gravity and the standard model, and although the latter isn’t the final model of particle physics:

    * some quantized Higgs field is needed that can supply charges with various masses for generation, e.g. explaining differences between electrons, muons, and tauons

    * the Higgs field creates massive weak gauge bosons that somehow can only interact with left-handed charges

    The handedness of the weak isospin charge is the most amazing thing about particle physics. Does the mechanism which gives mass to weak gauge bosons, give them the property of simply not interacting with right-handed particles at all? Or is it a case that weak gauge bosons only exist with one handedness in the first place?

    Most of the papers on the subject are focussed on the role of the Higgs field not to explaining these problems, but to

    […snip… Nigel kindly will provide the continuation of his thoughts on his blog…. -cvj]