Particles are People Too

Much has already been written about the hilarious proposal that the recently-apparently-discovered particle called the Higgs Boson (you know, [what’s a boson?] the one sometimes called “God Particle” by people who don’t know much about particles) be selected as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” for 2012.  Well, I hope it wins, so that, as justice requires, it can finally be allowed to donate unlimited amounts of its money to U.S. election campaigns, just like U.S corporations, which, as you know, are people too.  And I think this would also mean that Higgs bosons could finally get married, though I’m not entirely sure about the legality of whether they could marry each other… (recall the Higgs particle is its own anti-particle.)

But the hilarity became that much greater when Time magazine listed its various nominees and (as many have pointed out) described the Higgs particle in five glowing sentences, each of which contains at least one spectacular scientific or historical error.  (Indeed, when I saw this, I assumed I was reading the Onion — maybe that’s where Time, following the lead of China’s famous newspaper Particles’ Daily, got this description? — though the Onion has been strangely quiet on the subject of the Higgs up to now.)  The Higgs boson is candidate #18 out of 40, and I encourage you, in order to fully appreciate the company that it now keeps in the upper echelons of our society, to look at #17 and #19.  Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that Time avoids the term “God Particle”, which would be praiseworthy under better circumstances.

So — a quiz for the reader.  Can you identify five God-Particle-worthy errors in this piece from Time?  Extra credit if you can find six or more.  It’s an open-book test; you can use this website for insights.

The Higgs Boson

By Jeffrey Kluger
Monday, Nov. 26, 2012

Take a moment to thank this little particle for all the work it does, because without it, you’d be just inchoate energy without so much as a bit of mass. What’s more, the same would be true for the entire universe. It was in the 1960s that Scottish physicist Peter Higgs first posited the existence of a particle that causes energy to make the jump to matter. But it was not until last summer that a team of researchers at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider — Rolf Heuer, Joseph Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti — at last sealed the deal and in so doing finally fully confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The Higgs — as particles do — immediately decayed to more-fundamental particles, but the scientists would surely be happy to collect any honors or awards in its stead.

49 responses to “Particles are People Too

  1. I found seven errors, so far. Is there a prize for the most misteaks found?

  2. The Higgs Bosson will be the judge of that…

  3. I think I have 8. Let’s play another game, count the facts which are correct. They’re harder to find..

  4. I’ve put some of what I think are errors below, mainly to discuss, clarify it better in my mind and probably show up how little I understand.

    1: If anything does anything, them it would be the Higgs field that’s relevant, its interactions with other fields or other quanta, not specifically the Higgs particle/s.
    2: “you’d be just inchoate energy without so much as a bit of mass”, apart from the Higgs particles which would have mass, whether anything else could be formed from that ?
    3: The LHC or the researchers had nothing to do with confirming Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
    4: “energy make the jump to matter”, energy does not jump anywhere, only a inherited property of quanta that is transferred by quanta from fields or inter field interactions.
    5: “The Higgs — as particles do — immediately decayed to more-fundamental particles”. Not all particles do, immediately decay, nor to more fundamental particles, composites, mixtures of quanta quite stable?

  5. 1. Hadrons would still have mass even without the Higgs.
    2. Higgs was not the first to do… what? “energy to make the jump to matter”? That doesn’t even make sense
    3. Three researchers? Really, that many? I thought there were only two at CERN.
    4. What does this have to do with relativity???
    5. The Higgs is not believed to be composite, so it did NOT decay to “more-fundamental particles”

    It’s hard to precisely identify errors in something that is, to coin a phrase, “not even wrong”.

  6. Here’s one. Peter Higgs isn’t Scottish. He is British, but has been a professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland for many years.

  7. “Finally confirmed the theory of relativity.” We need a different scale for that one.

  8. Mine were: 1: massless people, 2: massless universe, 3: Scottish Higgs, 4: energy jumps to matter, 5: three people manning the LHC, 6: sealed the deal, 7: relativity, 8: immediately decay to more fundamental particles. I have a question mark over whether Higgs was truly first to posit the particle. Not sure of the historical details there.

  9. Sorry Professor, not my opinions, taken from different sources.- hope not create any disrespect.

    (1) Immediately decayed to more-fundamental particles, cannot be a simple Higgs of spin “0”.
    (2) /At last sealed the deal and in so doing finally fully confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity/- proving Einstein’s general or special relativity is not a Physicist. Physicists should disprove him- if possible.

    (3) /without it, you’d be just inchoate energy without so much as a bit of mass/-
    “What the historians forget – and also the physicists – is that in the discoveries in physics chance, luck plays a very, very great role.”- Goudsmit.

    “It is a pity, in a way, because the great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn’t expect,” Stephen Hawking told the BBC after the Higgs announcement. Hawking had often stated that he thought the Higgs boson wouldn’t be found.

    What we say today, the basis for nuclear bomb, was actually accidentally discovered by a Polish woman physicist and chemist, Marie Skłodowska-Curie (7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934) – Albert Einstein only made that equation very simple.
    X-ray was accidentally discovered by Rontgen. Cherenkov radiation was accidentally discovered. But… Higgs Boson is like Texas ranger or James Bond… born to kill the exact target ???

  10. Pingback: Wordt het Higgs boson Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”? | Astroblogs

  11. No Umlaut, that figures.

    • No one has noticed your comment! Obviously no one knows German!! But he’s far from being “kluger” than anybody!

  12. Here’s my go:

    1. “you’d be just inchoate energy without so much as a bit of mass. ” – I don’t know what we’d be, but most of our mass comes from the strong force.

    2. “, the same would be true for the entire universe” – See 1

    3. “It was in the 1960s that Scottish physicist Peter Higgs first posited the existence of a particle that causes energy to make the jump to matter. ” – Peter Higgs wasn’t the only person to EWSB in 1964, also I have no idea what energy jumping to matter means here…

    4. “team of researchers at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider — Rolf Heuer, Joseph Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti ” – Rolf Heuer isn’t part of the ATLAS or CMS experiments. Also, there’s a few thousand more physicists that should get credit here…

    5. ” finally fully confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity.” – what?

    6. ” The Higgs — as particles do — immediately decayed to more-fundamental particles” – Not all particles decay, also the Higgs boson (as we know it) is fundamental.

  13. OK, here are mine:

    Take a moment to thank this little particle (IT’S THE FIELD, NOT THE PARTICLE) for all the work (IT DOESN’T DO WORK) it does, because without it, you’d be just inchoate energy without so much as a bit of mass (MOST OF YOUR MASS COMES FROM THE STRONG FORCE). What’s more, the same would be true for the entire universe (FALSE, MOST OF THE UNIVERSE’S “MASS” IS DARK MATTER). It was in the 1960s that Scottish physicist (NOT SCOTTISH) Peter Higgs first posited the existence of a particle that causes energy to make the jump to matter (ENERGY DOESN’T JUMP TO MATTER). But it was not until last summer that a team of researchers at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider — Rolf Heuer, Joseph Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti (THREE PEOPLE?)— at last sealed the deal (NOT YET ESTABLISHED GIVEN ALTERNATIVES) and in so doing finally fully confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity (HAND HITS FOREHEAD). The Higgs — as particles do — immediately decayed (NO, THE ELECTRON IS A PARTICLE AND DOESN’T) to more-fundamental particles (THE HIGGS IS AS FUNDAMENTAL AS IT GETS), but the scientists would surely be happy to collect any honors or awards in its stead (THIS IS TRUE)

    I think that’s 11..

    • If one were inclined to pick nits then one might count 12 by pointing out that even unstable particles do not decay “immediately” and perhaps also 13 for calling the Higgs “little”.

      • Carl 'SAI' Mitchell

        Actually, you can’t be certain the scientists would be happy to collect any honors or awards in its stead. I know I’d refuse any award with that paragraph attached. Feynman didn’t like awards, though he did accept several. Grigori Perleman refused the Fields Medal and the Milennium prize.

  14. Richard Harkness

    “…inchoate energy without so much as a bit of mass…causes energy to make the jump to matter…”

    Prof. Strassler’s website is an oasis of relief from this type of confusion. It’s disheartening to note that the majority of the world’s people believe that “energy” is something apart from and independent of matter. This seems to be culture-inbred due to the lingering legacy of the old mind-body duality theory and various “supernatural” offshoots. This mistaken notion is unknowingly (apparently) promoted by TV physicists on “educational” TV (Nova/PBS etc.), who proclaim with a flourish that “the universe is made up of matter and energy” without defining the term “energy.” It’s easy to see how laypersons get the mistaken impression that energy is a “thing” or “entity” apart from matter. By “energy,” the physicists apparently mean photons (for which they also love to use the flawed term “pure energy”)–but laypersons have no clue about that. This plays right into the camp of con-artists and “psychics” who claim to pick up “vibrational frequencies” and “psychic energy.” It would be truly “educational” if TV physicists would add something like: “It’s important to understand that energy is not something independent of matter. Energy is a property of matter. Simply put, energy IS matter in motion and interacting with other matter. You cannot have energy without its accompanying matter.”

    • This I completely agree with. The deeply confused notions that the world is made of matter and energy, or mass and energy, and the confusion/elision between mass and matter, are often reinforced by journalists and also scientists speaking vaguely. I have tried to counter this with a set of articles:

      • Mass and energy is related by Einstein’s equation, but mass and energy are not same. The trick here is not the speed of the light c, but momentum p. The non conserved mass is changing with p.
        Matter have(carry) energy, but matter and fields are not energy. Particles, matter and photons are stuffs, but they may be masless.

        Light(photons) could be contained only at ∞ mass(gravitation), how Higgs boson decay into masless or total(conserved) mass of 126 GeV?. Where did Higgs boson get the remaining mass or so called energy – which again disappear into- black hole?.
        Polarization of light provides some substantial support for the wavelike nature of light. Angular momentum, as the name suggests, is related to the rotational motion of objects, and circularly polarized light is predicted to have angular momentum.
        A static or low-frequency electric field induces a dipole moment in a molecule because of movement of the charged electrons and nuclei. At high optical frequencies (~10^15Hz), the nuclei cannot respond rapidly enough to follow the field but polarization of the electron distribution can occur. The quantum mechanical treatment of light scattering predicts the same general results but more explicitly involves the vibrational energy levels and wave functions of the molecule.
        There are two different circular polarization states, corresponding to the two different directions of rotation.
        Isn’t angular momentum conserved?: If the light comes in with positive angular momentum, and leaves with negative angular momentum, the plate has to pick up positive angular momentum to compensate. So it starts to turn.
        If you “assume” that each individual photon of light carries a discrete amount of angular momentum- energy and momentum is conserved so the “spin” also. And people make use of the single-photon angular momentum all the time– it’s one of the tricks that makes laser cooling work.

        So the concept of “spin” is Phenomenological- though it was good expression akin with nature.

  15. Marcel van Velzen

    Actually the “particle that causes energy to make the jump to matter” isn’t as bad as it sounds. Without the Higgs field (constructed out of particle creation and annihilation operators) the W and Z would be massless, thus pure energy and always move at the speed of light. With the Higgs, the W and Z obtain the extra polarization direction needed for fundamental mass and can therefore be put to rest in a special inertial reference frame.

    • Actually, Marcel, if the Higgs did not exist, the W and Z would still have masses of around 30 MeV or so due to QCD (the chiral condensate has isospin).

      • Marc (Marc Sher, for my readers — professor at William and Mary) — while this is of course true, I personally feel we have to be very careful not to confuse the public overly with very subtle physics points. I really advise against making statements like this out of context… it makes the communication problem much, much worse. I try to put subtleties like this in more detailed articles for those readers who want to understand such details. Since I do not have such an article available currently on the website [trying to explain the chiral condensate to non-experts is no small matter] I would prefer we not engage in this discussion right now.

        This highlights the point that I have not written my article on what the physics of the world would really be like without the Higgs field — it’s actually very tricky. Marc, would you be willing to help me make sure I get the physics exactly right?

        • Matt — You’re right. Since Marcel referred to the polarization state, I answered more at his level rather than the general public, which isn’t a good idea here, I suppose. Trying to describe what the world would really be like without a Higgs field would be overly confusing….I don’t know how to do it at the level of the general public. Saying that atoms or quark/lepton masses wouldn’t exist without it is both accurate and sufficiently awe-inspiring.

          • Agreed. I hadn’t read his comment carefully before I replied to yours… it’s amazing, when you think about it, how many layers and layers there are to true knowledge… surely true in every field of study.

    • Marcel — the real problem is that a massless particle is not the same thing as “pure energy”. Note Richard Harkness’s comment above. After all, a massless particle has momentum as well as energy; a massless photon has spin; a massless neutrino has fermion number; massless gluons create long-range forces; massless weak isospin bosons (W’s) would interact with one another in ways that are different from the ways that massless photons and neutrinos would interact with each other. Thus to call all massless particles “pure energy” is both inaccurate and misleading; they aren’t by any means purely energy, nor is pure energy always made from massless particles. “Pure energy”, as a term, should be assigned to what it really means: something which is energy and nothing else. If we misuse this term, we badly confuse our students and the public. I see these confusions regularly in the questions that I am asked.

      For instance, consider the question: “I heard that a particle like a Higgs particle can turn into pure energy, but I also heard it can turn into mass; how can both of these be possible?” (After translation it became clear that the first phrase refers to a Higgs decay to two photons, and the second to a decay into a bottom quark and a bottom anti-quark?) Of course the whole question is completely mis-conceptualized. And the notion that the world is made from things that are either energy or mass lies behind the confusion. Calling massless particles by the name “energy” (instead of correctly saying they “carry energy”, just as do particles with mass) makes people confused about whether particles with mass carry energy too, and that causes lots of conceptual problems. So I strongly urge against this.

      • Marcel van Velzen

        Hello Matt,

        Of course I agree with what you said about the pure energy business, that was a sloppy term I used. I also noticed that you don’t want discussions among experts on your blog and I respect that. Well, I found it kind of funny to try to defend at least something that was said in this awful article. Obviously, I failed miserably :-)

        • :-) It’s not easy to defend, but I admire your efforts! There is, of course, a grain of truth in the line you defended, but it needs to be said with different words, I think, in order for it not to mislead in a profound way.

  16. 1- ( the same would be true for the entire universe.)line 3
    2-(Peter Higgs first posited the existence of a particle that causes energy to make the jump to matter.) lines 4&5
    3-( at last sealed the deal )line 7
    4-( finally fully confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity.)line 8
    5-( immediately) line 9

  17. “sealed the deal”
    – maybe to be pedantic but the LHC only “sealed the deal” on a Higgs-like particle.

  18. I would say all of it!

    But for the record

    Not GTR as it does not appear to have any relevance in the sub quantum world….

    HB – have only been ‘sort’ of indicated and words cannot be used to describe that they do exist

    HB’s ( don’t exist at the moment that we know of ) so how can they revert back to other particles?? He knows more than LHC detectors. And even if they did they would not revert back to particles! Something with much less status I should think!

    I don’t agree that HB produces ‘Mass’ in any event whether it exists or not

    Not sure if the 3 named physicists should take the focul credit for all the work…..

    That’s my deep six ( meaning throw overboard ). Mr Kluger would be better off writing an editorial about my own philosophy AR= Ut,x,y,z here you don’t need any of the above even if it where correct.

  19. thetasteofscience

    Reblogged this on thetasteofscience.

  20. Pingback: TIME for a Little Soul-Searching | Of Particular Significance

  21. Well, even though the phrase is wrong (energy making a jump to matter?), I think that the writer chose to make a reference to electrons jumping between energy levels in an atom by either absorbing or shedding a photon with a frequency equal to (Delta E)/h.

    Besides, mass, enery and linear momentum are “linked” by Einstein’s pythagorean relationship, so, it could be argued that mass and energy are different forms of the same aspect.

    Kind regards, Gastón

    • But the relation between mass and energy is always there; it’s not changed by the Higgs field.

      It’s impossible for something to jump from energy to matter, because energy is in one category and matter is in a different category. Oranges can’t jump to perpendicular either. If the author *was* thinking about energy levels in an atom (and it is possible he was) then that’s wrong too; there’s no connection between that process and what the Higgs field actually does to the particles it gives mass to.

  22. I don’t know about you but I’m not interested in the re-interpretation of others’ meanings, whether well or badly written, perhaps they did, perhaps didnt, life’s too short :-)
    It could and should have been better considered and more precisely written thats all, one has to evaluate based on statements that individuals make and on that they stand.
    You are very forgiving, and noble but ?

  23. :-) This seems like a great place to initally state a viewpoint, then upon peer and critical review, people retract it, perhaps thats genuine and due to getting valid updates, ok.
    However, can we not get Reality right the first time !, it can’t be that difficult, :-), yes it’s not easy to grasp what Reality may really be,

    But Seriously, Brilliant site, should be in the Real, totally Real Time magazine !


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