My Public Talk on the Higgs, Now Online

One year ago today, I arrived, bleary-eyed from my overnight flight, at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, host of the Large Hadron Collider.  Everyone at the lab was very excited, anticipating what promised to be the biggest event during my career in particle physics — the announcement of the discovery, or at least strong evidence, of something resembling a type of Higgs particle.  The following day did not disappoint, nor did the ensuing weeks of thinking and discussion and hard work.  A year later, we no longer wonder whether this is a type of Higgs particle; instead we have moved on to ask which type it is, and whether it has cousins — other types of Higgs particles still waiting to be found.

Since that time, I’ve been working to find new methods of explaining particle physics, and specifically the Higgs field and particle, to a variety of audiences, with a diversity of backgrounds and with different amounts of time to spare.

  • For the average person who wants a short story, I wrote a brief article about “Why the Higgs Particle Matters”, my most popular piece ever.
  • Then I wrote a long sequence of articles — actually two sequences, one about fields and particles, and one specifically about how the Higgs field works — intended for people who have had the equivalent of first-year university physics.
  • I recently gave a set of four 90-minute classes intended for highly interested non-experts, assuming little or no background in math or science.
  • And I developed a new one-hour public talk (see below), entitled “The Quest for the Higgs Boson”, for a general audience, in which I tried to explain, as accurately as possible but with no math at all, what fields and particles are, how a Higgs field can give mass to the known elementary particles, and what finding and studying Higgs particles is all about.

That one-hour talk was first delivered a few months back, as part of the Nick and Maggie DeWolf Public Lecture Series, at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado.  It was filmed by a local TV station, GrassRoots Community Television.  And they have made this film available online. Click here to reach the GrassRoots TV page, then click “Watch Now” on the right-hand side. [It's a .wmv file that should, after a little delay, begin streaming; if it doesn't, it will laboriously download, which may take quite a while.  In any case you'll want a good internet connection. And if it is super-slow, try again another day; their server could easily get overloaded, I suspect.]

By the way, the talk is preceded by about 5 minutes of introductory remarks by Professor Howard Haber (a Higgs-particle expert who has been mentioned before on this blog), and concludes with about 20 minutes of questions from the audience, so altogether the film is almost 90 minutes long.

13 responses to “My Public Talk on the Higgs, Now Online

  1. If the simplest model of the Standard Model of particle physics is correct, then are the majority of experts in agreement on the properties of the Higgs field at least after the first 10^-12 seconds of the Big Bang?

    • Yes. Maybe you have to go just a very little bit later in time. If the simple Standard Model is really correct, then you can pretty much calculate the answer to any question you’d like to know about the Higgs field after that time, so there aren’t any unanswered questions about what the Higgs field is doing during that period. In particular, it is “on” and constant across the universe by that point, with a value that is the same as it has today.

  2. Truth and oblivion:
    Professor, we will be grateful for considering laymen to teach basic science amidst the commotion of Hedge fund institutions.

    Mass is effable ?, but its field is ineffable.

    Max Planck wrote, “…The belief in miracles must retreat step by step before relentlessly and reliably progressing science and we cannot doubt that sooner or later it must vanish completely:”

    Max Planck said “All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter”.

    Max Planck endured many personal tragedies after the age of fifty. In 1909, his first wife died after 22 years of marriage, leaving him with two sons and twin daughters. Planck’s oldest son, Karl, was killed in action in 1916. His daughter Margarete died in childbirth in 1917 and another daughter, Emma, married her late sister’s husband and then also died in childbirth in 1919. During World War II, Planck’s house in Berlin was completely destroyed by bombs in 1944 and his youngest son, Erwin, was executed due to the attempted assassination of Hitler in the July 20 plot. Erwin consequently died at the hands of the Gestapo in 1945 destroying Planck’s will to live. By the end of the war, Planck, his second wife, and his son by her moved to Göttingen where he died on October 4, 1947.

    A consequence of the law of conservation of energy is that no intended “perpetual motion machine” can perpetually deliver energy to its surroundings. Any delivery of energy by such a device would result in delivery of mass also, and the machine would lose mass continually until it eventually disappeared.

    So the perpetual vibration embedded in the ripple of the Higgs field will remain as miracle ?

    • Actually, the vibration in the ripple of a Higgs field isn’t perpetual; it dies away, because Higgs particles decay.

      But the vibration that is an electron is perpetual; electrons last forever.

      The statement that there can be no perpetual motion machine has nothing to do with this. The electron delivers no energy to its surroundings, and takes none. In its vibrations, it simply stores energy indefinitely. Storing energy indefinitely neither violates conservation of energy — no energy is being created, no energy is being destroyed — nor the second law of thermodynamics — the entropy associated with the electron is not decreasing.

      This is no different from the fact that a perfect pendulum, with no friction, could swing forever. That would violate no law. A pendulum stops only because friction takes energy away from the pendulum’s swing, and increases the systems entropy. Remove the friction, and the pendulum will never stop swinging.

      A Higgs particle decaying is like a pendulum losing its energy to friction. The Higgs particle loses its mass-energy to the motion-energy of other particles, somewhat as a pendulum loses its energy to heat, which is just motion-energy of molecules.

      • “The statement that there can be no perpetual motion machine has nothing to do with this.”

        Well, the fact that energy is conserved is relevant for both.

        • To a limited extent, yes; I won’t argue. But also, a “perpetual motion machine” is not something that merely violates energy conservation; it is an engine. If energy non-conservation were all that we were talking about, we wouldn’t need a machine; energy would spontaneously appear and disappear from nowhere in all basic particle physics processes.

  3. …. Professor, we will be grateful for you….

  4. Congratulations on a marvelous talk.
    Question on your answer to veeramohan above: you wrote:
    “The Higgs particle loses its mass-energy to the motion-energy of other particles,”
    Why does the electron not lose its mass energy to the motion energy of other particles?

    • It simply can’t.

      Conservation (physics-speak for “preservation”) of energy and momentum say that if the electron is to lose its mass-energy to the motion- (and mass-)energy of other particles, those particles must have smaller masses than the electron (indeed this is true for any decaying particle, that what it decays to must have less total mass than the original does; this is explained at the above link). But conservation of electric charge says that since the electron has charge -e, what it decays to must have total charge -e. Well, there are no objects in our universe that have any electric charge and have smaller mass than the electron. The only things with smaller mass are neutrinos and photons and gravitons, and maybe other unknown things that have no charge. Anything with lower mass than an electron and with an electric charge would have been easily discovered by now. So therefore it is impossible for the electron to decay… i.e., it is impossible to turn the electron’s mass-energy into the motion- and mass-energy of other particles, because to do so would violate known conservation laws.

      • John Duffield

        Actually Matt, it is possible to turn the electron’s mass-energy into the motion and mass-energy of other particles, because of conservation laws. You just drop it. Imagine the electron is in a brick. When you lift the brick you do work on it, you add energy, and we call it gravitational potential energy. Conservation of energy tells you that the mass of the brick has increased. When you drop it, the gravitational potential energy is converted into kinetic energy, which you can use to raise another brick containing another electron.

        Note that if you drop a 1kg brick into a black hole, the black hole mass increases by 1kg. Now imagine what happens when you drop an electron into a black hole from a great distance. It falls faster and faster and faster. Its rest mass is being converted into kinetic energy, and its “relativistic mass” remains constant. And yet the coordinate speed of light varies in a non-inertial reference frame. There comes a point when the infall speed crosses with the coordinate speed of light. Matter can’t go faster than light, IMHO something bad has to happen, such as annihilation into orthogonal photons/neutrinos. I know that goes against the grain, but I just can’t see any other option. You cannot convert the 511keV rest mass into relativistic mass and keep the rest mass at 511keV.

  5. jim schoenberg

    Thanks Dr. Matt!
    Thank you very much for the educational work dude, you awsome
    jim s.

  6. Excellent talk! Thanks for this!

    I understand that a particle has energy stored in its vibration. And that if the particle isn’t moving (relative to me), we see that energy as mass. And the Higgs field “tightens” the other fields, giving them a higher frequency, and thus more energy and mass.

    My confusion is the “not moving” part. I thought that in order for a particle to be stationary, it had to have mass. A photon, for example, must travel at c relative to everything else because it’s massless. So, I feel like I’ve built a circular argument in my head: It appears to have mass when it’s moving slowly relative to me, but in order to move slowly relative to me it has to have mass to begin with. Do I misunderstand?

    My second question is hopefully less abstract. If the Higgs field didn’t exist, the elementary particles would still have *some* vibrational frequency, correct? And thus have some mass? The Higgs field only tightens the other (affected) fields, it doesn’t give them all of their energy, does it?

  7. Pingback: Bayesian Führer finds out about CERN using p-values | Alea Deum

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