My Version of the TIME Higgs Paragraph

A few commenters have complained that I’m too hard on science journalists, who have a tough job; it’s hard to explain difficult concepts in a few words.  To paraphrase them: “if it’s so easy, you do it!  Rather than merely complain about the erroneous TIME magazine paragraph on the Higgs boson, write your own explanation of the Higgs particle for readers of TIME magazine.”

Well, first of all, I have never once suggested science journalism is easy; far from it!  A big part of the challenge is to find ways to explain complex ideas that are simple, compelling and accurate (and not two out of three.)

Second, I have written an article suitable for non-expert readers; it’s just over a page long, and is called Why the Higgs Particle Matters.  It’s gotten about 30,000 hits; some people seem to really like it, so try it out on your friends.

And third, for those who point out that the above-mentioned article is much longer than a paragraph, and that I shouldn’t be so critical of the TIME journalist who had to fit so much into a such a small space, here is my version of the TIME paragraph: six sentences rather than five, but scarcely longer.  I have borrowed the style and the feel of the TIME journalist’s writing, and I have removed some inaccurate content and replaced it with different accurate content.

  • Take a moment to thank the Higgs field for all the work it does, because without it, you’d explode.  This field pervades the universe and supplies electrons (and many other particles) with their mass, thus preventing ordinary matter from disintegrating into a ghastly vapor.   It was in the 1960s that British physicist Peter Higgs (and a few others) first posited the existence of this field.  But it was not until last summer that two huge teams of researchers at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider at last sealed the deal by discovering a new particle — the Higgs boson — which confirms the Higgs field exists.  You see, the particle is a consequence of the field wiggling a bit; and just as sound, a ripple in the air, can’t be heard unless there’s air in the room, there wouldn’t be Higgs particles to discover unless Higgs and friends were right all along about their famous field.  Now the Higgs — as most particles do — decays in an instant to other particles, so it wouldn’t be able to attend the award ceremony; however, the scientists would surely be happy to appear in its stead.

Although not everything I’ve written here is 100% accurate — that would indeed be impossible in a paragraph for a wide readership — I believe none of it is fundamentally wrong (but my colleagues should feel free to complain!)  Yes, science journalism is difficult; but is it really inevitable that profound errors concerning the science must appear in articles for the public?

91 responses to “My Version of the TIME Higgs Paragraph

  1. Yay for accuracy! Perhaps post your re-write as a comment on the TIME page itself (or email it to the author!). Maybe they’ll fix the faulty text.

  2. Nice work. I especially find the first sentence compelling. :)

  3. Prof. Strassler: TIME paragraph was stupid, lazy and irresponsible. Let them cry, if an idea takes a page or a book so be it. There is an obligation and even an advantage for the scientists to explain to the public, but no explanation will do any good if the premise is that you have to write it without knowing or researching the very basic details. Nice work though, showing it can be done right…

  4. thetasteofscience

    Sorry to ‘complain’, but your excellent paragraph is WAY over the heads of Time readers. Your example that there has to be air to be in the room in order hear a sound would stump many totally non-technical readers. Only my opinion of course.

    • If I were going to lodge a complaint myself, this would be it. So let’s discuss it. I guess my point of view is that I would rather indirectly tell a novice reader “hey, air is necessary for sound” (which is an obvious implication of what I’ve written) and get that novice reader thinking about that statement than give them something with no content at all.

      After all, journalism always requires writing about things that the average reader does not know: articles on relations between Israel and Turkey do not always explain that the two countries do not border each other; articles on taxes do not necessarily explain what capital gains taxes are; articles on China-US relations do not necessarily review the history of Taiwan in that relation; etc. The assumption of a journalist has to be that a significant fraction of readers will understand, and that many readers who don’t quite understand will be able to follow what’s been said enough to look things up if necessary; and that novice readers, such as kids [and I remember how much I learned from newspapers at the age of 8 or 9 or 10] will pick some of these things up gradually. But at least there should be no inaccuracies, and things that are a little more difficult than average are not so obscure that a person could not look them up.

      • thetasteofscience

        AGREED. Actually I was thinking of women. That some of my totally non-technical female Facebook friends might be turned off instead of being made curious. Why women do or don’t do Physics and Math has always been a puzzle to me and others – hello Larry Summers. When I was in Freshman Physics at Columbia U (some time ago :-) there were 150 guys and two girls in the class. On Monday at the Columbia U Colloquium about Inflation, surely a popular topic, the number of women attending had not reached anywhere near 1/3 of the audience.

        • Well, this is a very different topic. I am not sure this is the place to discuss it; it seems too big and too difficult to address in the comments here. There are many topics already in play: what is the intended audience for this paragraph? and how much should be assumed about what the average reader has or hasn’t heard of? Whether in addition there is a gender gap (and there are surely class gaps and education-level gaps and other gaps to consider) among children and/or among adults of various ages may take us too far afield. If there have been studies trying to examine these issues in recent years, I have missed them, but perhaps a reader is aware of such attempts.

          • thetasteofscience

            Clearly this is a different topic. What I was attempting to point out was an implicit assumption about the curiosity level the intended audience. That said, if all scientific journalists were as careful to get the facts right as you are and as thoughtful as you are in presenting them, the public would be the beneficiary.

  5. Is there some widely accepted argument that indicates the mass of the Higgs boson cannot be calculated from the other free parameters of the Standard Model of particle physics?

    • Yes, but this is a very complicated story because generally the mass of the Higgs particle is computed through a complex quantum mechanical calculation, in which all of the parameters of the Standard Model and of any other parts of the theory (including gravity) may in principle enter. Only by making additional assumptions can one compute the Higgs mass (such as assuming one of the parameters of the Standard Model is zero in some particular context for some unknown reason), but those assumptions cannot generally be independently checked at this time.

  6. /Do you mean that “mass” is just a behavior of particles not intrinsic property ?, mere term in equations with no physical real existence ?/– aa. sh.

    /What do you learn from equations that give you correct predictions? Do you learn about what reality is, or what reality does?/– Professor Matt.

    /Science cannot be separated from truth:/- aa. sh.

    If I humbly assemble informations, “nature gifted geniuses like Albert Einstein and S.A. Goudsmit, leaped a bit forward, not as a trick- but to “express” their intuition akin with nature (genius and madness are akin).

    The equations and mathematics were only the pulp of those intuitions. The juice is the “means”, not the means to an end.

  7. Beautifully and simply stated. Your first post detailing with all the errors one by one should be sent or commented to TIME as Andrew suggested.
    It may however be pointless, as I have always believed the motto that “LIFE is the magazine for people who can’t read, and TIME is the magazine for people who can’t think.

    • We now have graphic novels for public health to teach surgeons to use generic wonder drugs. (Transexamic acid is underutilized in the USA, and NIH is using comic book pamphlets aimed at ER docs.)

    • The recent Time supplement on spaceflight captioned two photos (on adjacent pages) as having been taken in 2012 in the Soviet Union!

      Does no-one even bother to read this stuff before it goes to the presses anymore?

  8. The universe will not explode on December 21st, if the HIggs particle has any say over it. Without the Higgs field, and it’s particle, we’d already be gone. This ubiquitous field imbues its own particle, and a few others, like the electron, with a tiny amount of mass, allowing matter to condense into the world we see today. In the 1960s, British physicist Peter Higgs (and a few others) realized that this field is required to complete our present understanding of the subatomic world. Then, last summer, at Europe’s huge Large Hadron Collider, teams of physicists and engineers finally hunted down the elusive Higgs boson. As with all subatomic particles, the Higgs particle provides it’s own frequency tone in a subatomic symphony, along with electrons and photons. Instruments like the Large Hadron Collider allow us to tune in to the subtle melodies of creation and try to understand its wonders. Now the Higgs — as most particles do — decays in an instant to other particles, so it wouldn’t be able to long appreciate the passing of December 21st. But the physicists who found it, just in time, surely will be breathing a sigh of relief.

    • Not bad, and an interesting approach to frame it in terms of the doomsayers. One subtle adjustment I think you need is that “Higgs boson” isn’t obviously a particle in the way you’ve worded it. I of course like the musical analogies but my first reaction is that you might be pushing too hard there; not sure it fits well, though it’s a nice attempt.

  9. James Gallagher

    Hi, I’m an average TIME reader.

    So a field IS like the thing sheep graze on, and the higgs boson is like each individual piece of grass – is that it, is that how we get a field from the particle? I deduce this because you say the field is like sound in air and air consists of lots of individual particles, so I assume it’s the same analogy with a grassy field.

    Thanks, I here so called experts going on about virtual particles and strange quantum randomness but you’ve really made it simple to understand.

    • It’s close, James, but not quite. And I’m glad you asked. [I really think you're underselling the average TIME reader.]

      Sound in air isn’t made from the individual atoms of air. It’s made from waves in which many atoms participate. Think about how a group of spectators at a sports stadium does “the wave”; the wave involves many spectators, none of whom moves far from his or her seat, yet the wave moves around the stadium. Or think about a ripple on a pond; the individual atoms of water move up and down, not moving very far, yet the ripple moves all the way across the pond.

      Similar to sound in the air, or a wave on water, or the shaking waves of an earthquake that move through rock, the Higgs particle is like a ripple in the Higgs field. It’s not something out of which the Higgs field is made; it’s a wiggle in the field. Why it behaves like a particle, and not like an ordinary ripple, is subtle; I haven’t explained it in this paragraph. It would take several pages and some animated pictures (and I will explain it on this site soon, as best I can — but it will always be subtle, even for experts.)

      The big difference from air, water and rock is that the Higgs field isn’t *made* from something, as far as we know. There is no analogy to the grass that makes up the grazing field, to the atoms of air, to the drops of water, to the grains of rock. As far as we know, it is a fundamental ingredient in the universe.

      • James Gallagher

        Oh I SEE.

        So the higgs field is the grass and the higgs boson is like the patterns we see when wind blows over the grass.

        Great.

        What’s the grass made off?

        • C’mon, now you’re picking on me. Anyone can play at being a three-year-old and answer every question with “why?”, or ask “well but what’s that thing made of?” In fact that’s exactly what scientists do, right? so why should we complain about such questions?

          The goal of a science article (or paragraph) is not to answer all questions. It is to answer *one* question, and if it leads to other questions, great! That’s success, as long as the questions aren’t stupid. And “what’s the grass made of?” — i.e. what is the Higgs field made of — is not a stupid question. It might not have an answer (and in any case we don’t know the answer) but it’s not a dumb question.

          And indeed, observing patterns in the grass IS a way of knowing there is grass there. So I wouldn’t view your second sentence as a failure either. It’s not exactly right, but it’s much closer to right than a lot of other statements you could make.

    • Haha James exactly :-D

      This is a quantum field: http://press.princeton.edu/images/k7573.gif

  10. James Gallagher

    I wish you has an edit feature – you’re/your , here/hear, off/of -all need correcting in my posts

  11. Matt, good idea to try write a “scientifically correct” paragraph. I think the scientists should make at least a suggestion how to present the discovery to the general public.

    What leaves me a bit puzzled with your proposal is: The idea is presented as “The Higgs field is needed to hold the world together.” Concerning the question “What holds the world together?” at the level of “popular physics”, I think the common answers are (1) on the level of atoms, the opposite charges of protons and electrons make them stick together, and (2) on the level of galaxies or galaxy clusters, gravitation makes the stars attract each other. Now saying that (3) the Higgs field holds the world together because it supplies electrons with their mass – it is not explained if this is an additional concept that is “added” to (1) and (2), or that “replaces” them, or “contradicts” them, or is just another wording for the same. Also the questions may arise (a) why the Higgs field did not prevent the Big Bang, and (b) why it does not prevent the accelerating expansion of the universe observed today? – IF the importance of the Higgs field is expressed as “without it, you’d explode”. Somehow, we do (or did) explode.

    I do not have a better proposal for the paragraph, I only have some difficulties relating the paragraph with some other common, basic ideas or concepts – when all the science is reduced to a single paragraph. (I read most of your other articles, there it is well explained what the relevance of the Higgs field is. The questions I wrote above vanish if one looks more at the details of the physics.) Although science is difficult to explain in a few sentences, I think the scientists should not give up but try to give the general public a more or less correct idea what the meaning of the discovery is.

    • Markus — in the end we cannot hope to explain physics in a single paragraph; we can only hope to get readers interested, hopefully without making false statements to them along the way. I agree you can’t answer this issue of *why* you’d explode in one sentence (it took a paragraph in my longer article to explain that the size of an atom is inversely proportional to the mass of the electron — so that if turn off the electron’s mass, your atoms would fall apart.) But the second sentence does at least state that matter would fall apart, not that the universe as a whole would explode, and that should clarify what the first sentence means. I’m not sure why you bring up (a) and (b) here; maybe you see an ambiguity that I can’t see yet.

      • I agree, and yes, your second sentence is an important (and necessary) clarification of what is meant by “you´d explode”. The issues (a) and (b) came to my mind when I read the first sentence like “without the Higgs field, you would explode – and everything else, so the world would fall apart”. I am aware that an expansion of space is different from the explosion of a material object in a given volume of space, and both is different from the processes called “Big Bang”; but when an event like “everything would explode” is imagined, these things easily mix up.

        This is not meant as a criticism of your version of the text, probably your text is the best presentation of the topic in a single paragraph that we have. It is only that using some drastic and ambiguous language such as “explosion” may provoke associations that are physically not related to the issue.

      • I don’t see the need to connect the Higgs to preventing matter or atoms from exploding. The stability of atoms is just as connected to: electric force between charges, quantum mechanics, strong force holding the nucleus together, fermion statistics, etc. So although the higgs makes the electron massive and this is important, it is but one of many facets of the atom. To single out the higgs as being “the” reason for the stability of matter, seems quite inaccurate to me.

        • Why do you say I singled out the Higgs?

          All I said was that if the Higgs field weren’t there, and there were no electron mass, there would be no atoms. Do you disagree with this statement?

          It is also true that if there were no electromagnetic field, there would be no atoms. And I agree the electromagnetic field is just as important to us as the Higgs field. But does this contradict anything I wrote?

          I don’t see anything inaccurate except your characterization of what I actually wrote.

          • Your claim that the stability of atoms is because of the Higgs field is like saying the human body works because of the liver, when there are many other vital organs. And I mentioned not only the electromagnetic field, but several other things that you ignored.
            In fact the stability of atoms is due to:
            - The electric force to attract the electrons to the nucleus
            - Quantum mechanics to prevent infinite output of radiation
            - Fermion statistics to prevent collapse
            - Strong nucleus force to prevent the nucleus from “exploding”
            - Asymptotic freedom for confinement
            - The mass of the electron from the Higgs
            In fact the last point that the electron is massive, is in a sense only weakly connected to the Higgs field. There exists a low energy effective field theory for the SM, coming from integrating out the Higgs, which perfectly well describes atoms. The only need for the Higgs is to UV complete the theory. So to say it is all due to the Higgs, as is implied by your article, is about as sensible as saying that the stability of atoms is due to string theory, or whatever the underlying UV theory is. Its just not a good way to represent the physics at all.

          • This is absurd.

            To make the claim that the only purpose of the Higgs field is to UV complete a long-distance theory is the silliest thing I’ve heard a physicist say in a long time. What was the point of even looking for it then? We have done the experiments that go beyond that long-distance theory’s region of validity; we can no longer rely upon that long-distance theory. The Higgs field becomes necessary as an explanatory element of the full set of experiments we have done, including both the short- and long-distance ones. A unified explanatory approach is possible in particle physics; why would you discard it? [Your crack about string theory is a very low blow; there are no experiments at the relevant distance scales, so the comparison is totally false.]

            And your comparison to saying “the human body works because of the liver” is also absurd. At no point in my note, or in any article that I have written, did I say anything that puts the Higgs field above the other things you listed. I said: “the Higgs field is a vital organ”; I did not say “the Higgs field is the only vital organ”, nor did I say “the Higgs field is the most vital organ”. What you are doing is putting words in my mouth, which I don’t appreciate. If you’re going to continue to attack me for no reason, then be a man and show yourself. I think I know who you are and I know no reason why you would not stand behind these comments in public.

            And let’s see your version of this paragraph. Remember it is for the public, not experts, and you only get six sentences. There’s no time to explain the importance of the weak nuclear interaction, whose weakness would of course be a better example than the electron mass. Or would you say that the weakness of the weak nuclear interaction is of no importance?

          • I cannot understand the aggressive tone in your response. I wrote a polite informative comment including interesting facts about the atom and effective field theory, and was suggesting that this puts the claim that the higgs is “the” reason for the stability of matter in perspective, and you might adjust your article accordingly.
            You respond by repeatedly saying: “this is absurd” and this is an “attack”. Give me a break.

            Anyhow, yes we should look for the UV completion, thats what high energy physics is all about, and it is vitally important to have done so. I’m surprised you would ask. In fact this is what really cuts to the depth and importance of the Higgs; without it, or something like it, high energy physics would destroy quantum mechanics.

            But putting that aside, you could have said “the higgs is one of several reasons why atoms are stable” or just say “the higgs provides electrons with mass”; but the moment you connect it to the stability of atoms, without any qualifications, most lay readers will not appreciate that it is but one of many facets of its stability. What is so “absurd” and “attacking” about this?

          • Your previous comment [with its very low blow about string theory] did not strike me as polite. (If you don’t want people to over-react, it is best not to throw politically-charged but irrelevant issues into the fray.) And you certainly didn’t need to list for me the various other crucial issues that lie behind atomic stability — not to mention the fact that you didn’t explicitly account for how the Higgs affects atoms in other ways (changing the confinement scale, the masses of the other quarks, the spectrum of hadrons, nuclear structure, radioactive decay rates, neutron production in the Big Bang, and the like. By the way I have no idea how you would account for all of these in your favorite effective theory where the Higgs is integrated out.) But I will accept your claim that I misread what you were saying, and I apologize for my tone.

            You are right that I *could* have said “the higgs is one of several reasons why atoms are stable”. Still, this was a paragraph of six short sentences for a public magazine. As I said in my post, it cannot hope to be 100% accurate; it can however hope to avoid any statement that is more false than true. And a journalist does have to think carefully about balancing accuracy against readability; in my judgment your phrase makes the paragraph much less readable, and the factual clarity gained is largely canceled by losing the reader’s attention. So whether to add this caveat seems to me to be a judgment call; your judgment is as good as mine, and vice versa.

            In any case, I certainly did *not* say “the higgs is the only reason why atoms are stable”, and so the question you are raising is whether the public will jump to the wrong conclusion on the basis of what I wrote. I don’t know that you are right about this; it’s a matter of opinion, and on this point we apparently differ.

        • Dear Bob,

          please go troll somewhere else.
          And not that Prof. Strassler’s article does not contain anything even remotely related to ST, so trolling about it is way way way off topic …

          Cheers

          • I don’t think there is a more lame response on the internet than name calling someone a “troll”. it only occurs when the name caller has nothing to say of substance. It would be nice if such comments were banned.

          • I basically agree with you, Bob, though your own comment to Dilaton isn’t nice either. This is inappropriate, Dilaton; Bob is obviously an experienced scientist.

  12. Hate to say it, but I don’t like your paragraph at all. I think the tone is exactly that which drives my non-science colleagues beserk – it sounds like you are addressing a 12 year old, rather than a smart lawyer. My own experience is that many members of the Great Public would feel patronized by the first sentence, and more so by the crack about the Awards ceremony.
    I guess this business of communication is pretty subjective….

  13. Well done.

  14. Hi Mr. Strassler. Forgive me if it is out of topic, but I couldn’t find your email address anywhere. I wanted to ask you some advice about which college would be, in your opinion, the best choice for me. I’m 17 years old, and I live in northern Italy. I’m in Massachusetts now, because I’m staying here this year as an exchange student. I really like physics, and I’m attending an AP Physics class in my american high-school. I’m supposed to come back to italy next year and go to university there. But I was wondering if there’s a better choice. I was thinking about looking for scholarships here or in England, and try to see if I’ll find a good university. I know there are good colleges here in Usa, but I have to take in account that I can’t afford it.
    At school I’m pretty good (here I got an A in the physics class), so maybe there would be a chance to get some good scholarship. Or maybe I should look for a college in England, since I can pay the fee after finishing it.
    What do you think will be the best idea? Take in account that italian universities are good, the problem in italy is working. Maybe I should go to university in italy and then look for a job abroad. What would you suggest me? Do you know any good college that could offer me a significant scholarship?

    • Davide — I am afraid I am not the right person to advise you. There are many, many options and I don’t know much about the current situation with regard to financial support for students from Italy.

      One suggestion I could make to you is that there are many, many Italian physicists who have worked or are working in the United States or in the UK. Those are the people who can give you some insights into the differences between being back in Italy or being abroad… much more than I could do. Pick any top US university physics department; there is probably an Italian professor there and you can write to him or her. Most won’t reply, but a few will, and maybe the replies will be useful. And you can similarly try writing to Italian graduate students who are studying in the United States or in the UK. (If you can’t find email addresses, call the university physics department’s main phone number, and explain who you are and why you’re trying to contact someone; with a legitimate reason, you’ll be able to get the email address.)

      Remember also that there’s no obvious reason that you can’t get a good undergraduate education in Italy and then do graduate studies in the US, UK or Italy.

      In considering your options, keep in mind that the UK undergraduate system is completely different from the US one; also in the US there are universities and colleges of many different sizes and types. You will need to ask people who know about the different systems to describe them to you.

  15. Now this is what I call scientific writing for the general public at its best! Strassler ist so viel kluger als Kluger!

  16. Thanks for all the writing you do here – it’s invaluable for those following along and, I suspect, for more than a few journalists trying to do a good job.

    I think there’s a serious problem with your paragraph, though, which presupposes that the average TIME reader knows what is meant by a ‘field’; the trouble is that explaining would take more than a few lines.

    As the second contribution to this party game, here’s my version of your paragraph which tries to make more explicit the fact we’re not explaining what it means to have a field pervading the Universe.

    It may be unusual to nominate a particle for person of the year, but the Higgs Boson discovered this year at the Large Hadron Collider deserves the accolade. Not because of what it itself does, but because its discovery by two huge teams of researchers confirms the presence of something called the Higgs field, which pervades the Universe. Just as well, because without it you’d explode; it supplies electrons (and many other particles) with their mass, thus preventing ordinary matter from disintegrating into a ghastly vapor. As scientists quickly realised after the existence of the field was first suggested by British physicist Peter Higgs and others in the 1960s, the Higgs particle is just a consequence of the field wiggling a bit. Just as sound, a ripple in the air, can’t be heard unless there’s air in the room, there wouldn’t be Higgs particles to discover unless Higgs and friends were right all along about their famous field. Now the Higgs — as most particles do — decays in an instant to other particles, so it wouldn’t be able to attend the award ceremony; however, the scientists would surely be happy to appear in its stead.

    • I like your version better than mine, for precisely the reason you stated; the field concept is introduced later and more naturally. Thanks! We could probably edit yours one more step, but it is clearly a better structure; I was a bit too narrow-minded in following Kruger’s structure.

  17. Apologies – that comment somehow appeared several hours after I wrote it, thus ignoring the discussion that’s sprung up above.

  18. /Now this is what I call scientific writing for the general public at its best! Strassler ist so viel kluger als Kluger!/- albattani.

    tactical kluger als strategic Kluger!- Professor Matt Strassler is a great person.

  19. Marcel van Velzen

    Dear Matt,
    Your contribution made me realize how well the Jeffrey Kluger article is written. This journalist knows what he’s doing. The best deal would be to let a scientist like you correct the worst errors while leaving intact the rithm of the piece. Then I think you would get something like this (the last 8 words I didn’t change because (sorry I’m from Holland) I don’t understand the English, I left the CERN names in because obviously a journalist finds names important and mass I interpreted as fundamental particle rest mass):

    Take a moment to thank this little particle’s field 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 British physicist Peter Higgs posited the existence of a particle that causes energy to make the jump to mass. But it was not until last summer that a team of researchers at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider — led by Rolf Heuer, Joseph Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti — at last sealed the deal and in so doing finally confirmed the famous Standard Model of particle physics. The Higgs — as many particles do — almost immediately decayed to other particles, but the scientists would surely be happy to collect any honors or awards in its stead.

    • :-) I completely agree about Kluger’s writing; and that’s the way it should be, given that he’s a professional journalist and writer of books. And I often have been asked to look a piece over for errors in the content, but I’ve never been asked to edit it for style :-); that restricted role is one I would be happy to continue to play.

      Your approach, to edit the little details, is an option I also considered. Certainly it reads well, and Kluger would certainly have avoided disaster (and three blog posts on my part) by making these corrections. The remaining issue is a judgment call about whether the errors that it leaves intact (the points about you turning into energy, about energy jumping to mass, about the entire universe) could also have been avoided. Clearly there are many solutions to this problem which would have been better than the original piece.

  20. I agree that your, Matt’s, paragraph is better. It’s even more entertaining (somewhat unexpectedly, sorry for this parenthesis). But I may imagine that the editors – and most readers – genuinely feel differently about this point. And that’s the real long-lived problem here.

    Another question is whether it would be easily cheap to hire Matt to write similar things and if they hired him, whether it would mean that they’re also forced to publish lots of texts that would be considered boring and not entertaining at all.

  21. During the run up to the discovery, I was as excited as I was during the 1960s space program (except the LHC is, I presume, safer than those old rocket ships). But only on the internet did I find people who shared my enthusiasm. My local popular culture wasn’t paying much attention to physics, even among infotech professionals. Their loss, I guess. (BTW, thank Cern for the WWW that they built for us all to share the adventure).

  22. “Man muss nicht so viel reden”(W.Pauli)

  23. /because without it, you’d be just inchoate energy without so much as a bit of mass./
    /about energy jumping to mass, Clearly there are many solutions to this problem which would have been better than the original piece./

    /And that’s the real long-lived problem here./

    /There’s no time to explain the importance of the weak nuclear interaction, whose weakness would of course be a better example than the electron mass.
    The Higgs field becomes necessary as an explanatory element of the full set of experiments we have done, including both the short- and long-distance ones./

    /The mass of the electron from the Higgs. In fact the electron is massive, is in a sense only weakly connected to the Higgs field./

    /I am aware that an expansion of space is different from the explosion of a material object in a given volume of space, and both is different from the processes called “Big Bang”;/

    /This is a very complicated story because generally the mass of the Higgs particle is computed through a complex quantum mechanical calculation, in which all of the parameters of the Standard Model and of any other parts of the theory (including gravity) may in principle enter. Only by making additional assumptions can one compute the Higgs mass (such as assuming one of the parameters of the Standard Model is zero in some particular context for some unknown reason), but those assumptions cannot generally be independently checked at this time/

  24. “But it was not until last summer that two huge teams of researchers at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider at last sealed the deal by discovering a new particle — the Higgs boson — which confirms the Higgs field exists.”

    ? … You meant “Higgs-like” particle, yes? There was been no discovery yet.

    “You see, the particle is a consequence of the field wiggling a bit; …”

    Ah, the chicken and the egg problem, again. Do fields create particles or do particles create fields, or do fields create particles that create fields that create more particles … anyway the question, seems to me, is there a fundamental mechanism upon which everything is composed from?

    In my humble opinion, the most interesting news coming out LHC, so far, is the the recent evidence that the gluon-quark plasma is not really a plasma but a liquid (closer to an ideal liquid than we even seen before?). Like many, I have always wondered what state would the primordial space-time, just past the Big Bang, could have been to create rotations and get everything started. If liquid, and better still, ideal liquid was the answer then that would go very far in explaining the fundamental mechanism. One version could be that assume at t>0 there was an ideal liquid then “immediately” cooling started and created currents of variable densities (of energy) and, voila, first bosons appeared. If this was valid then particles create fields, since after some time a consistent pattern would develop for all the bosons popping in and out of existence and more and more stabilized and remained in existence long enough to create a field which in-turn reinforced the bosons and created other particles at at increasingly higher densities which gave rise to another generation of fields and so on. And here we are at t ~ 13.5 billions years and we popped in existence.

    If we are a “particle” (at a much more complex state than that first boson) then what is the “Field” that created us and/or reinforced us?

    • I do mean “Higgs-like” particle, and in any text longer than a paragraph, that’s what I would say. Clearly the intent of the TIME article was not to raise this issue, and I ran with that intent.

      It’s not chicken and egg. People used to think it was, but it’s not. You can have fields without particles; in fact most field theories do NOT have particles. But you cannot have particles without fields. Also, fields do additional things, such as giving mass to yet other particles; particles can’t do that. Modern quantum field theory has essentially put the field before the particle.

      • Thank you for that, …
        I am looking forward in reading your next article on the “gluon-quark Plasma (liquid?).

        They (LHC) believe it behaves like liquid, is that because that is the state in which it is at within the protons and neutrons or is it liquid because of the interaction with present day space-time medium when they get blasted out at impact?

        Regardless, do you believe (is there any evidence in recent theories) that the initial state of energy was in an ideal liquid form? If so, is there a contradiction in the physics, you need mass to make liquid but what field gave mass so early after the Big Bang?

        Do we really have a good grasp on what mass really is? I understand the “ripples in fields” and I also understand the “stress-enegry-momentum tensor” and I tend to side with Einstein, of course. Could the ripples be the minute residue of the of the major wave (tensor) that washes out and creates ordinary matter? I like to think of it like the waves along the shore, as the wave comes in and collapses (impacts residing waves) they create the “whitecaps” (ordinary matter).

        So many questions and so little time, … or is it … So many questions and so little money? :-)

  25. Now as susy failed what is the new speculation to prevent weak force from being much more weaker thru much more mass of W AND Z particles thru much stronger higgs field thru non-existence of superpartners ?
    ( RE. scientific american magazine : susy failed test….)

    • Don’t believe everything you read in scientific american; every author has a bias. First, there were always other speculations: extra dimensions, little Higgs, composite Higgs, and others. Second, SUSY has not yet failed. I had long technical conversations about this with experts on Tuesday, and we went through the data analyses confirmed for ourselves that there are still plenty of gaps in the searches for SUSY that need to be filled before anyone can make such strong claims as “SUSY has failed”. Third, one doesn’t just invent a new speculation overnight. There’s been one invented every few years.

  26. Supersymmetry is an extension of Poincar´e (= Lorentz plus translation) invariance which has the surprising feature of mixing bosons and fermions.
    Einstein’s equation has the surprising feature of mixing energy and mass.

    Supersymmetry is the only symmetry that can be added to the symmetries of Einstein’s theory without making the resulting equations inconsistent with the world we live in. So supersymmetry is, in this sense, very special.

    Supersymmetric quantum mechanics was introduced (or at least
    popularized) by Witten, Nucl. Phys. B185 (1981) 513 section 6.- about the superfield formulation from a book by Misra, Introduction to supersymmetry and supergravity.

    The mass conservation of closed system is stronger?. The particle decay and the weak nuclear force interaction(at the distance of 3×10^-10, almost direct contact) is very strong?.
    If there is chirality and guage invariance the Higgs vev(ripple) maintain the symmetry breaking, and thus creating mass. If the frequency of chirality flip is more, the mass will be more.
    More frequent “stress” for the closed system, more mass. Energy and momentum is conserved but mass conservation weakened. The distance of interaction increased – rendering as gravity?.

  27. To all those who have nothing better to do than to try to correct Prof. Strassler’s wording on the TIME article with their own opinion of how it should have been said, or who like to inject their own off topic theories, keep this in mind:

    Here’s a guy who is taking time off his day job, and bringing information – correction – FREE and organized information to those interested in the many topics he has brought up since the start of this blog, and does so in a manner that is more timely and concise (and may even be a bit rushed) than if you were to search the web for days looking for it. Moreover, for “laymen” like myself, he does so in a manner that is mostly understandable.

    Forty years ago, I should have followed a physics path but life did not turn out like that for me, so the fact that this blog is available and its comments get personally responded to where warranted, is something we should all give thanks for and not supply criticism for the sake of criticizing.

    So, instead of finding fault, take your seat and listen to the Prof, and try to make a contibution to the dialog. If you can’t, then start your own blog.

    • Thanks, Cary, it’s kind of you.

      But really the issue is not the criticism, but how it’s carried out. I do not want in any way to discourage critique. I am here to learn as well as teach. If I’ve made an error or can improve what I’ve done, I want to know it. What I don’t appreciate is critique that mis-states what I’ve said, or is in some direct way insulting. That’s a distinction I’d like to draw.

  28. ( Susy fails test….) is not scientific american original , it belongs to SIMON,s FOUNDATION on the responsibility of respected scientists……….
    The article even mentioned that related physics could decay in 3 decades !!
    This is what respected professor said , who are we – lays- to believe ?

    • When respected professors widely disagree, then you know the issue is not settled. Often it takes a long time for the community to come to consensus.

      I showed you in may article from just before Thanksgiving http://profmattstrassler.com/2012/11/21/details-behind-last-weeks-supersymmetrystory/ that a large group of respected scientists disagree with this statement that supersymmetry has failed. We simply do not know yet, according to them. That is also my personal impression after looking at the situation myself on Tuesday.

      What is a lay person to believe in these circumstances? A key question is to look at who is saying what and why. I didn’t invent supersymmetry; it’s no skin off my nose if it isn’t true. I run this site to deliver the most accurate information possible to the public, and in particular, my bias has always been not to claim something is true until the evidence is truly convincing, and to present to you the evidence as best I can.

      You need to look at who said what in the Simon’s Foundation article and why they said it. Do note the following: the article was not written by physicists; brief quotations are always lacking in detail; and the Simon’s Foundation is a foundation for more mathematical and formal areas of physics, such as string theory, and it does not provide funding for the experimental particle physics at the LHC, nor does it support people like myself who work with the experimentalists closely.

  29. W.R.T SUSY , if a theory is a tailored structure of equations that we can never be sure it represent reality as it is , so we invent imaginary super particles to adjust higgs field value , how can we ever be sure that our equations match reality even if our predictions match observations ?
    OR WE – IN PRINCIPLE- CANNOT……

    • It is my view that we can never be sure that our equations match reality. If we have successful equations that allow us to make predictions that match past and future observations, then this gives us an option to believe that our equations match reality; however,
      a) we cannot check this belief experimentally, and
      b) any set of equations can be rewritten to look quite different, yet give the same set of predictions; thus the form and interpretation of equations is not unique. For instance, Newton’s laws of motion can be written in terms of what are known as Hamilton-Jacobi equations, in which case they are identical in all predictions but conceptually appear very different; another example is the operator version of quantum mechanics compared to the path integral version. There’s no experiment which can tell you which version of the equations is a better match to reality.

  30. Dr. Matt., your sincere responses are very much appreciated.
    THANK YOU PROFESSOR STRASSLER.
    aa.sh. with deep respect.

  31. /There’s no experiment which can tell you which version of the equations is a better match to reality./

    THANK YOU PROFESSOR STRASSLER.
    123nick. with deep respect.

    • thanks — just make sure you include the context:”when you have two sets of equations which are equivalent, in that they give the same predictions for all experiments, but have very different form and different concepts underlying them, then you can’t say which one is better, because…”

  32. Mike Anthis wrote in his version of the paragraph:
    This ubiquitous field imbues its own particle, and a few others, like the electron, with a tiny amount of mass, allowing matter to condense into the world we see today.

    Is it correct to say that the Higgs field “…imbues its own particle. . .with a tiny bit of mass.
    I thought physicists are not certain how the Higgs boson itself obtains its mass. Could you please clarify. Thanks

  33. One of the biggest riddles – as i see it – is WHY equations while does not match reality produce predictions that correlate with reality ????
    Would you please explain this IF some explanation exists .

    • I asked you before (and you did not answer): if you have a set of equations that makes successful predictions for all experiments, do the equations tell you what nature is or do they tell you what nature does?

  34. P.S. :
    I think the only answer is the ability of human mind to adopt opposing stands even if in complete contradiction.

    • I don’t agree. It is a matter of logical ambiguity, which is not the same as opposition or contradiction. I explained that I can have two or three or five sets of equations that all give the same predictions; that makes it ambiguous which of them, if any, is a better match to reality than the others. They all predict what nature does. They do not reliably tell me what nature is. We can use any one of them to develop a powerful, predictive, explanatory, and non-unique picture of the world. Each picture is equivalent to the others, in that (for all experiments that can actually be carried out) it gives the same predictions.

  35. I agree that equations tells what nature does not is , but i do not stand to the point that all pictures are equivalent to the others , ptelomey picture is in complete contradiction to ours while its equations match observations so again different PICTURES give same predictions , WHY ?

    • There are several matters here.

      Math is such that there are several ways to get to a result. 2 + 2 is the same as 3 + 1. What this means in physics is that we can have two or more different ways to get to the same answer. If my experiment says the universe is ’6′ I cannot tell if that is 4 + 2 or 3 + 3 without any further information.

      Secondly a lot in physics is Occam’s razor; the simplest explanation that works. It is entirely possible to have an earth-centered solar system, nothing in physics forbids it, IF you use some really complicated math. The same sort of complicated math will give you a Mars or Jupiter centered solar system. But when you center things on the sun, everything becomes much, much simpler, so we use that. Likewise we can use the ‘epicycles upon epicycles’ method to turn the orbits of the planets into infinitely complex combinations of perfect circles, but why do that? Why do something so complicated when a simple elliptical orbit will make the same predictions for much less trouble?

      And of course some explanations ‘fit’ better with other areas of physics; the sun centered solar system fits well with gravity, the earth centered one does not.

      Finally there is the deeper question of what our equations DO; we can never say ‘This is what the universe IS.’, only ‘This is what we think the universe DOES.’ This is why it is possible to overturn an existing theory with a new one. If we knew what nature WAS we would be godlike; having access to ultimate truth. It is better to think of science as an attempt to predict what the universe does, one that started when man first predicted that rocks fall down. This is why we often call things ‘models’; they aren’t the real thing, just something we can look at to see how the real thing works.

      So sometimes we have two models that look the same, even if they are built differently, and we don’t know which is better.

    • You are confused about my point. If you have to sets of equations that make **different** predictions, even if they match all current observations, then you can distinguish them by making future observations: cf. Ptolemy vs Copernicus, Newton vs. Einstein.

      But Newton’s equations and Hamilton-Jacobi’s equations and the Maupertuis variational principle give identical predictions for everything; they are each a simple rewriting of the other. Same for Operator vs. Path Integral formulations of quantum mechanics. They cannot possibly be distinguished because *all* predictions they make, for all current and all future experiments, are provably the same.

  36. “Any resemblance between the Higgs field and gravity is purely coincidental!”. “If gravity only pulled on mass, then it wouldn’t pull on light, which consists of massless photons!”

    During bigbang, the enormous temperature locked Gold stone bosons(h+, h-, h0) inside symmetry breaking(made mass)- but not Higgs boson(h), photons, neutrinos?
    Higgs boson is locked, but also outside symmetry breaking for a while or simultaneously- thus behaving like photons awhile?- so it does affected by spacetime metric(or gravity)?

    • During the Big Bang, it was first hot enough that there were no would-be Goldstone bosons, and all Higgs particles were heavy;, then cool enough that the would-be Goldstone bosons were absorbed into the W and Z bosons, and the Higgs boson; except for a very brief instant, they were never actually massless particles.

      • Thank you Professor Strassler,
        I have only graduate Physics, master and research in another branch.
        I entered this blog to get some inner peace. I may have got now.

        Mathematics made present economy speculative and obsolute at the hand of 1%, replacing them with God(it may be unique).
        This kind of situation arriving in Physics also.

        How Higgs particle got its mass?, may be from potential energy of SM mathematics. Gravity pulled on mass doesn’t mean spacetime curvature created without massive objects- light only have free fall because it cannot escape the dimensions of spacetime?
        Jupiter mass: 1.8986×1027 kg, 317.8 Earths, 1/1047 Sun.
        Sun mass : 1.9891×1030 kg, 333,000 × Earth

        If we could find any other massive object in solar system, then we could rethink the concept of gravity.

        I get the solace from the words of Mr.Kudzu.
        If a Physicist says…
        /A lot in physics is Occam’s razor; the simplest explanation that works. It is entirely possible to have an earth-centered solar system, nothing in physics forbids it, IF you use some really complicated math. The same sort of complicated math will give you a Mars or Jupiter centered solar system. But when you center things on the sun, everything becomes much, much simpler.
        some explanations ‘fit’ better with other areas of physics; the sun centered solar system fits well with gravity, the earth centered one does not.
        we can never say ‘This is what the universe IS.’, only ‘This is what we think the universe DOES.’ “This is why it is possible to overturn an existing theory with a new one”. If we knew what nature WAS we would be godlike; having access to ultimate truth./

        It is really MARVELOUS!

  37. Let me outline my intuition about the above mentioned WHY ??
    I believe that our universe have many COSMOS OPERATING SYSTEMS
    so what science propose is one of them , now the point is ; can we ever discover the true unique C .O. S ?
    If we assume ocam as a criteria we will never , ocam is just a human invention with no ontological reality……..
    I believe that science is not capable of finding the C.O.S as science can never prove it even if science found it.

    • Despite what many might say, the point of science is not to find some ‘ultimate truth’, but rather to find the best way of predicting how the universe works, the best, most accurate model.

      Occam’s razor is an approximation, a human construct, but it has proven to be a useful guide.

      Your belief of many ‘operating systems’ is interesting, but not scientific as there is no way to falsify it, among other things. Depending on what you mean, it may also be logically inconsistent. (Do you mean there are many equivalent ways of describing the universe? That works. Do you mean different areas of the universe use different physical laws? That’s possible but we see no evidence for it. Or do you mean the universe uses more than one non-equivalent COS at the same time, which is, I would argue, impossible?)

      As interesting as speculation is, this site is about what we can know and test and discover. There will always be a ‘why’ but this is not the place to discuss it.

  38. P.S. ;
    Then comes the question ; what mechanism determined one particular system ?
    Here we can offer only one unique explanation : GOD CREATED.

  39. To quote Steven Weinberg: “Science does not make it impossible to believe in God, it makes it possible not to believe in God”. I guess most of the readers of this website have chosen the second alternative, just like me…

  40. To Kudzu :
    I would say ; the universe could – in principle- be operated thru different operating systems within which only one is active , that is why we can describe its operations by many different mathematical systems where each one correlate with one C.O.S , take for ex. Q.F.T , this is one such system , then look at Bohm,s version , this is another system……..there is no known mechanism that direct the universe to be operated by Q.F.T , it could be operated by Bohm,s system OR i am wrong here ?

    • I still do not understand what it is you assert; are you saying the universe could operate according to several different sets of laws, only one of which is operating today? Does this mean the other sets of laws might have worked in the past?

  41. Well Matt. what is your explanation ?
    As for albattani comment i would just say : prove it by showing that physics can in practically explain every single HOW , WHAT and WHY questions , if you respect your own rationality you cannot be atheist unless you prove to your self that the universe is a closed physical system capable of generating its own C.O.S ………prove it.
    N.B.; this is a scientific discussion of great particular significance.

    • Absolutely not: this is not a scientific discussion. On this we completely disagree.


      Science is about doing experiments and making predictions
      . Once you go off in the direction you are going, you have left science. There’s nothing wrong with doing that; philosophy and religion are a part of life. But this is a science website, and you’re not going to get the answers you seek (or convince anyone else) here.

  42. Allow me one last question directed to atheists :
    If it is agreed upon that science can never- in principle- answer the WHAT and WHY questions , , then what makes you so sure that the answers to those questions will not prove that the cosmos is not a closed self dependent system ?
    Atheism is a structure built on no foundation.

    • I feel that you are failing (as many religious people do) to recognize the difference between an atheist (a person who declares with certainty that nothing divine exists) and an agnostic (a person who declares that he or she doesn’t know whether something divine exists.) There’s nothing in your question that directs it against atheists; also, it isn’t clearly written.

      In any case, I think it is time for this conversation to stop. This article that I have written, on which you are commenting, has nothing to do with this issue. Please desist. If it is so important to you to make these points, please start your own website. My goal is to teach people science, and to help people to understand the philosophical issues behind science. It is not to insult religion or atheism, or push people to think one way or another about the issues that lie beyond science, and I do not want to encourage my readers to do that here.

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