Category Archives: Public Outreach

Wednesday: Sean Carroll & I Interviewed Again by Alan Boyle

Today, Wednesday December 4th, at 8 pm Eastern/5 pm Pacific time, Sean Carroll and I will be interviewed again by Alan Boyle on “Virtually Speaking Science”.   The link where you can listen in (in real time or at your leisure) is

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtually-speaking-science/2013/12/05/alan-boyle-matt-strassler-sean-carroll

What is “Virtually Speaking Science“?  It is an online radio program that presents, according to its website:

  • Informal conversations hosted by science writers Alan Boyle, Tom Levenson and Jennifer Ouellette, who explore the explore the often-volatile landscape of science, politics and policy, the history and economics of science, science deniers and its relationship to democracy, and the role of women in the sciences.

Sean Carroll is a Caltech physicist, astrophysicist, writer and speaker, blogger at Preposterous Universe, who recently completed an excellent and now prize-winning popular book (which I highly recommend) on the Higgs particle, entitled “The Particle at the End of the Universe“.  Our interviewer Alan Boyle is a noted science writer, author of the book “The Case for Pluto“, winner of many awards, and currently NBC News Digital’s science editor [at the blog  “Cosmic Log“].

Sean and I were interviewed in February by Alan on this program; here’s the link.  I was interviewed on Virtually Speaking Science once before, by Tom Levenson, about the Large Hadron Collider (here’s the link).  Also, my public talk “The Quest for the Higgs Particle” is posted in their website (here’s the link to the audio and to the slides).

Sean Carroll’s Higgs Book Wins a Big Prize

Congratulations to my friend and colleague Sean Carroll, blogger at Preposterous Universe!  For his book, The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the theoretical idea and experimental discovery of the Higgs field and its particle (the Higgs `boson‘), he has won the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize!  Not the 3 million that you get for being a famous string or field theorist, or the few hundred thousand that you get for inventing the [Anderson]-(Brout-Englert)-Higgs-(Guralnik-Kibble-Hagen) mechanism, but 25,000 pounds sterling will cover expenses for a few months.  And more importantly, the recognition is well-deserved.  Well done, Sean!

For those who don’t know of him, Sean is a very fine scientist, an expert on the early and current universe, among other things, as well as a very skilled and engaging writer and speaker… and very importantly, he maintains very high standards for accuracy and clarity.  I recommend him highly!

Sean and I were interviewed on a Virtually Speaking Science on-line radio show in February (you can listen to it here) and will be appearing again in early December.  (By the way, I also appeared on this show when the hunt for the Higgs was still on…)

Freeman Dyson, 90, Still Disturbing the Universe

I spent the last two days at an extraordinary conference, “Dreams of Earth and Sky”, celebrating the life and career of an extraordinary man, one of the many fascinating scientists whom I have had the good fortune to meet. I am referring to Freeman Dyson, professor at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), whose career has spanned so many subfields of science and beyond that the two-day conference simply wasn’t able to represent them all.

DysonPhoto

The event, held on the campus of the IAS, marked Dyson’s 90th year on the planet and his 60th year as a professor. (In fact his first stay at the IAS was a few years even earlier than that.) The IAS was then still a young institution; Albert Einstein, John Von Neumann, Kurt Gödel and J. Robert Oppenheimer were among the faculty. Dyson’s most famous work in my own field was on the foundations of the quantum field theory of the electromagnetic force, “quantum electrodynamics”, or “QED”.  His work helped explain its mathematical underpinnings and clarify how it worked, and so impressed Oppenheimer that he got Dyson a faculty position at the IAS. This work was done at a very young age.  By the time I arrived to work at the IAS in 1996, Dyson had officially retired, but was often in his office and involved in lunchtime conversations, mostly with the astronomers and astrophysicists, which is where a lot of his late career work has been centered.

Retirement certainly hasn’t stopped Dyson’s activity. His mind seems to be ageless; he is spry, attentive, sharp, and still doing science and writing about it and other topics. When I went up to congratulate him, I was surprised that he not only remembered who I was, he remembered what I had been working on in 1992, when, as an unknown graduate student on the other coast, I had sent him a paper I had written.

By the way, it’s somewhat bizarre that Dyson never won a Nobel Prize.  Arguably it is part of the nature of the awarding process, which typically rewards a specific, deep line of research, and not a polymath whose contributions are spread widely.  Just goes to show that you have to look at the content of a person’s life and work, not the prizes that someone thought fit to award to him or her.  Still, he has his share: Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics 1965; German Physical Society, Max Planck Medal 1969; Harvey Prize 1977; Wolf Foundation Prize in Physics 1981; American Association of Physics Teachers, Oersted Medal 1991; Enrico Fermi Award 1995; Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion 2000; Henri Poincaré Prize 2012.

The thirteen talks and several brief comments given at the conference, all of which in one way or another related to Dyson’s work, were organized into sessions on mathematics, on physics and chemistry, on astronomy and astrobiology, and on public affairs. All of the speakers were eminent in their fields, and I encourage you to explore their websites and writings, some of which were controversial, all of which were interesting. For non-scientists, I especially recommend Stanford Professor Emeritus Sid Drell’s extremely interesting talk about nuclear disarmament (which he’s been working towards for decades), and a thought-provoking if disconcertingly slick presentation by Dr. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute on what he sees as a completely realistic effort, already underway, to wean the United States of its addiction to oil — with no net cost. Those with a small to moderate amount of scientific background may especially enjoy MIT Professor Sara Seager’s work on efforts to discover and study planets beyond our own solar system, Texas Professor Bill Press’s proposal for how to rethink the process of drug trials and approvals in the age of electronic patient records, Sir Martin Rees’s views on the state of our understanding of the universe, and Caltech’s Joseph Kirschvink’s contention that scientific evidence tends to favor the notion that life on this planet most likely started on Mars.

But really, if you haven’t heard about all the different things Freeman Dyson has done, or read any of his writings, you should not miss the opportunity. Start here and here, and enjoy!

Many happy returns, Professor Dyson; you have been an inspiration and a role model for several generations of young scientists, and may you have many more happy and healthy years to come!

Light-Hearted Higgs Questions From a High School Teacher

So I got the following questions from a high school English teacher this morning, and I thought, for fun, I’d put the answers here for you to enjoy. Here (slightly abridged) is what the teacher wrote, and my answers:

I’ve turned my classroom into a video game to increase student engagement. In my gamified classroom, the villain is experimenting with/on the Higgs field. Your article on what would happen if the Higgs field was turned off answered a lot of my questions, but … I was hoping you could answer a couple of questions for me. I am sure these questions probably don’t have “real” answers, and are completely ridiculous, but I’d love to hear from you. Continue reading

A Short Break

Personal and professional activities require me to take a short break from posting.  But I hope, whether you’re a novice with no knowledge of physics, or you’re a current, former, or soon-to-be scientist or engineer, or you’re somewhere between, that you can find plenty of articles of interest to you on this site.  A couple of reminders and pointers:

* If you haven’t yet seen my one-hour talk for a general audience, “The Quest for the Higgs Boson”, intended to explain accurately what the Higgs field and particle are all about, while avoiding the most common misleading short-cuts, it’s available now, along with a 20-minute question and answer session.

* If you want a slightly more technical and written discussion of the Higgs field and particle, complete with animated images, and suitable for people who may once have had a semester or two of university physics and math, try this series of articles first, and then go to this series.

* If you’d like to better understand the language of “matter”, “mass”, and “energy” that is everywhere in popular explanations of science, but eternally confusing because of how different authors choose to talk about these subjects, you might find some useful tips in these articles: #1, #2, #3, #4.

* If you need a reminder about what “ordinary matter” (i.e. things like pickles, people and planets) is made of, try this series, which goes all the way from molecules down to quarks.

* If you’re curious about what “particle/anti-particle annihilation” does and doesn’t mean, try this article.

* And here are the types of particles and forces of nature that we know about, and (for the moderately advanced reader) here’s how they’d be rearranged if the Higgs field were turned off.

Hopefully there’s something on that list that interests you, and many links within those articles to other things that may even interest you more.  Have fun exploring!  And stay tuned; I’ll be writing more in the near future…

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.

Who Learns the Most in a Science Class?

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

Courses, Forces, and (w)Einstein

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