As I think most of us in the field expected, professor Alexander Polyakov was selected from among the nominees as the winner of a
cool $3 million check Fundamental Physics Prize today. Continue reading
Professor Michio Kaku, of City College (part of the City University of New York), is well-known for his work on string theory in the
1960s and 1970s, and best known today for his outreach efforts through his books and his appearances on radio and television. His most recent appearance was a couple of days ago, in an interview on CBS television, which made its way into this CBS news article about the importance of the Higgs particle.
Unfortunately, what that CBS news article says about “why the Higgs particle matters” is completely wrong. Why? Because it’s based on what Professor Kaku said about the Higgs particle, and what he said is wrong. Worse, he presumably knew that it was wrong. (If he didn’t, that’s also pretty bad.) It seems that Professor Kaku feels it necessary, in order to engage the imagination of the public, to make spectacular distortions of the physics behind the Higgs field and the Higgs particle, even to the point of suggesting the Higgs particle triggered the Big Bang.
In doing this, Professor Kaku sows confusion among journalists and the public, and undermines the efforts of serious particle physicists to explain and convey, both vividly and accurately, the science and the excitement of our time. And on what grounds does he justify this? Doesn’t the taxpaying public deserve the truth? Isn’t the truth already exciting enough? And what will the public think of science if, in this information era, the promulgation of falsehoods and near-falsehoods on national media is unanswered by complaints from other scientists?
I’m so frustrated with Professor Kaku’s unfortunate remarks that rather than write more today, I’ll simply direct you to Sean Carroll’s blog — Sean’s response was much more measured and polite than mine would be if I spoke my mind. For now I’ll just conclude by suggesting that Professor Kaku has some serious explaining to do — to his scientific colleagues, to the science journalist that he misled, and to the public.
(Perhaps you will ask me the same question: “Why DOES the Higgs particle matter?” Here’s my own article from July giving the answer; it’s short and condensed, but it’s not false, as my colleagues will attest! For a longer explanation with more details and fewer shortcuts, you can try Sean Carroll’s book or Lisa Randall’s book, or you can poke around on my website for various related articles; there’s the Higgs FAQ, the story of the Higgs discovery, an article on why the Higgs is not related to gravity, or if you’re really ambitious you can try this set of articles [which requires you first read this set] which is suitable for people who once took a little first-year college physics.)
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.]
This is a modified version of last year’s 11/11/11 article, in case you missed it.
Today is a special day — at least if you are fond of the number 12, and especially so if you’re willing to buy in to one of the oldest human pseudo-scientific pursuits: numerology. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love numbers and I always have. When I was five years old I was mesmerized when my parents’ car reached 99,999.9 miles, and I think 12:34:56 on 7/8/90 is just a cool a time as anybody else does. But I do this with a sense of humor.
Unfortunately it happens that a few influential people attempt serious and consequential numerology involving the calendar — predicting disaster and convincing people to sell their homes and give away their belongings. Now that makes me mad. Outraged, in fact — because it’s often obvious from the way these predictions are generated that those who made them don’t understand much about the calendar, about time, about history and about astronomy or physics… and yet they speak with authority, an authority they haven’t earned and don’t deserve.
So as we celebrate this one-two-of-a-kind moment, let’s also remember, and enjoy, just how absurd it really is. Let us even count the ways. Continue reading
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?
Yes, it was funny, as I hope you enjoyed in my post from Saturday; but really, when we step back and look at it, something is dreadfully wrong and quite sad. Somehow TIME magazine, fairly reputable on the whole, in the process of reporting the nomination of a particle (the Higgs Boson; here’s my FAQ about it and here’s my layperson’s explanation of why it is important) as a Person (?) of the Year, explained the nature of this particle with a disastrous paragraph of five astoundingly erroneous sentences. Treating this as a “teaching moment” (yes, always the professor — can’t help myself) I want to go through those sentences carefully and fix them, not to string up or further embarrass the journalist but to be useful to my readers. So that’s coming in a moment.
But first, a lament.
Who’s at fault here, and how did this happen? There’s plenty of blame to go around; some lies with the journalist, who would have been wise to run his prose past a science journalist buddy; some lies with the editors, who didn’t do basic fact checking, even of the non-science issues; some lies with a public that (broadly) doesn’t generally care enough about science for editors to make it a priority to have accurate reporting on the subject. But there’s a history here. How did it happen that we ended up a technological society, relying heavily on the discoveries of modern physics and other sciences over the last century, and yet we have a public that is at once confused by, suspicious of, bored by, and unfamiliar with science? I think a lot of the blame also lies with scientists, who collectively over generations have failed to communicate both what we do and why it’s important — and why it’s important for journalists not to misrepresent it. Continue reading
Posted in Higgs, LHC Background Info, Particle Physics, Physics, Public Outreach, Science and Modern Society
Tagged atlas, cms, DarkMatter, DoingScience, Einstein, energy, Higgs, LHC, mass, press, proton, PublicPerception, relativity, top_quarks