I’m back, after two weeks of teaching non-experts in a short course covering particle physics, the Higgs field, and the discovery of the Higgs particle. (The last third of the course, on the politics and funding of particle physics and science more broadly, is wisely being taught by a more disinterested party, an economist with some undergraduate physics background.) And I’ve been reminded: One of the great joys (and great secrets) of teaching is that the teacher always learns more than the students do.
At least, this is generally true for a new class that the teacher hasn’t taught before. In many university physics departments, and elsewhere, there is an informal requirement that professors teach a class no more than three years in a row. [Let us ignore for the moment that all of this will be overturned in the coming years by the on-line revolution; we can discuss the possible consequences later.] After the third year, they are expected to switch and teach something else. Now you might think that the benefits of the division of labor would suggest a different approach; after all, shouldn’t each professor perfect a course, become the expert, and teach it year in, year out? This usually doesn’t work (though there are exceptions) because each professor’s interaction with a new course has a natural life cycle. Continue reading
This week and next, I’m very busy preparing and delivering a new class (four lectures, 1.5 hours each), for a non-technical audience, on the importance of and the discovery of the Higgs particle. I’ll be giving it in Western Massachusetts (my old stomping grounds). If it goes well I may try to give these lectures elsewhere (and please let me know if you know of an institution that might be interested to host them.) Teaching a new class for a non-technical audience requires a lot of concentration, so I probably won’t get too much writing in over that period.
Still, as many of you requested, I do hope soon to follow up last week’s article (on how particle physicists talk about the strength of the different forces) with an article explaining how both particles and forces arise from fields — a topic I already addressed to some extent in this article, which you may find useful.
Now — a few words on the flap over the suggestion that math Ph.D. and finance expert Eric Weinstein, in his mid-40s, may be the new Albert Einstein. I’ve kept my mouth shut about this because, simply, how can I comment usefully on something I know absolutely nothing about? (Admittedly, the modern media, blogosphere and Twitter seem to encourage people to make such comments. Not On This Blog.) There’s no scientific paper for me to read. There’s no technical scientific talk for me to listen to. I know nothing about this person’s research. All I know so far is hearsay. That’s all almost anyone knows, except for a few of my colleagues at Oxford — trustworthy and experienced physicists, who sound quite skeptical, and certainly asked questions that Weinstein couldn’t answer... which doesn’t mean Weinstein is necessarily wrong, only that his theory clearly isn’t finished yet. (However, I must admit my expert eye is worried that he didn’t have ready answers to such basic questions.)
What I do know is that the probability that Weinstein is the new Einstein is very low. Why? Because I do know a lot about how very smart people with very good ideas fail to be Einstein. It’s not because they’re dumb or foolish. Continue reading
Posted in History of Science, Particle Physics, Public Outreach, Quantum Gravity, The Scientific Process, Uncategorized
Tagged DoingScience, Einstein, gravity, particle physics, press, PublicPerception, relativity
Yesterday I gave a public talk at Ursinus College, a liberal arts college in aptly named Collegeville, Pennsylvania. [For those outside the U.S.; a `college' in the U.S. is a university whose students are all undergraduates, mainly 18-22 years old; and a ``liberal arts college'' aims to give students a broad education in the arts and sciences, along with more focused training in their chosen discipline.] My visit was sponsored by the college’s Center for Science and the Common Good, an impressive little program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (kudos to them!). Its goal is to assure that the Center’s `fellows’ — the students in the program — are not only trained in their scientific fields but also become versed in thinking broadly about the role of science in our culture and society, and about how science is communicated to the public.
These wider issues are ones I think about a lot — I myself was educated at a liberal arts college — and are what motivated me to start this website and blog. So I was honored that the Center invited me to visit. And they kept me (pleasantly) busy! In addition to the public talk, I spoke at length with the fellows of the Center about the role of science and scientists in society, as well as about the Center’s program and their career plans, and I also gave the undergraduate physics majors a slightly more technical tour of modern particle physics.
Since the Center was my host, my public talk was somewhat different from ones I’ve given previously. Rather than focus entirely on the science behind the Higgs particle and field, I included some comments concerning the role of scientists in communicating science to the public. Among the meta-scientific questions I touched on were these:
- What role should and can be played by blogs and websites run by scientists?
- Can (or should) anything be done about the wildly inaccurate science reporting that one so often sees in the media?
- Is it really that important that the public be informed about scientific research — given that public knowledge of the details of law, medicine, construction, accounting, plumbing, and other technical fields is also very limited?
I’ve got my own (tentative) answers to these questions, but if you’d like to weigh in, I’d be interested in your opinions. (If you do decide to make a comment, please feel free to include a parenthetic remark describing how much science you yourself know, and whether you learned it, say, in college, from magazines or popular books, etc. This will give us all some perspective on what might shape your views.)
Thanks again to Ursinus College for the invitation and a very interesting visit!
Over the past week or so, there has been unnecessary confusion created about whether or not there’s some relationship between (a) the Higgs particle, recently discovered at the Large Hadron Collider, and (b) the Big Bang, perhaps specifically having to do with the period of “Cosmic Inflation” which is believed by many scientists to explain why the universe is so uniform, relatively speaking. This blurring of the lines between logically separate subjects — let’s call it “Cosmic Conflation” — makes it harder for the public to understand the science, and I don’t think it serves society well.
For the current round of confusion, we may thank professor Michio Kaku, and before him professor Leon Lederman (who may or may not have invented the term “God Particle” but blames it on his publisher), helpfully carried into the wider world by various reporters, as Sean Carroll observed here.
[Aside: in this post I'll be writing about the Higgs field and the Higgs particle. To learn about the relationship between the field and the particle, you can click here, here, here, or here (listed from shortest to most detailed).]
Let’s start with the bottom line. At the present time, there is no established connection, direct or indirect, between (a) the Higgs field and its particle, on the one hand, and (b) cosmic inflation and the Big Bang on the other hand. Period. Any such connection is highly speculative — not crazy to think about, but without current support from data. Yes, the Higgs field, responsible for the mass of many elementary particles, and without which you and I wouldn’t be here, is a spin-zero field (which means the Higgs particle has zero spin). And yes, the “inflaton field” (the name given to the hypothetical field that, by giving the universe a lot of extra “dark energy” in the early universe, is supposed to have caused the universe to expand at a spectacular rate) is also probably a spin-zero field (in which case the inflaton particle also has zero spin). Well, fish and whales both have tails, and both swim in the sea; yet that doesn’t make them closely related. Continue reading
One of the big challenges facing journalists writing about science is to summarize a scientific subject accurately, clearly and succinctly. Sometimes one of the three requirements is sacrificed, and sadly, it is often the first one.
So here is my latest (but surely not last) attempt at an accurate, succinct, and maybe even clear summary of why the Higgs business matters so much.
`True’ Statements about the Higgs
True means “as true as anything compressed into four sentences can possibly be” — i.e., very close to true. For those who want to know where I’m cutting important corners, a list of caveats will follow at the end of the article.
- Our very existence depends upon the Higgs field, which pervades the universe and gives elementary particles, including electrons, their masses. Without mass, electrons could not form atoms, the building blocks of our bodies and of all ordinary matter.
- Last July’s discovery of the Higgs particle is exciting because it confirms that the Higgs field really exists. Scientists hope to learn much more about this still-mysterious field through further study of the Higgs particle.
Is that so bad? These lines are almost 100% accurate… I’m sure an experienced journalist can cut and adjust and amend them to make them sound better and more exciting, but are they really too long and unclear to be useable?
Some False Statements about the Higgs Continue reading
We’re gearing up for another big-time storm predicted for the northeastern United States — we’ve had more than we need over recent months — so before we perhaps lose power (or you do)…
…I want to remind you that Sean Carroll and I were interviewed last night by science writer Alan Boyle. My impression is that the conversation (which touched on issues involving the Higgs particle, dark matter, and the nature of science as a process) went well, and I hope that you enjoy it. Just click on this link http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtually-speaking-science/2013/02/07/sean-carroll-matt-strassler-alan-boyle , endure the commercial, and you should get the radio broadcast (just about 60 minutes).
As for that big blizzard threatening Boston with over two feet (0.6 meters) of snow, and winds over 60 miles (100 km) per hour, along with some coastal flooding, it is interesting that the European Weather Model, which did the better job on forecasting Hurricane Sandy, appears to be doing better on this one too. The US-based Global Forecasting System may again have been a bit late to the party. The difference in the scientific approach of the two forecasting models was described in a previous post, after Sandy, thanks to one of my readers; if you missed it then, you may find it worth a read now.
Well, it will be interesting to see how the reality plays out; but given how well the European model forecast Sandy, it would seem prudent not to underestimate this storm. Be careful out there!
[Note Added: Julianne Dalcanton, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, pointed me to her university colleague Cliff Mass's article about various problems at the US National Weather Forcasting agency. See also this article. This is seriously disturbing stuff, if you live in the U.S.]