The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer [AMS] finally reported its first scientific results today. AMS, a rather large particle physics detector attached to the International Space Station, is designed to study the very high-energy particles found flying around in outer space. These “cosmic rays” (as they are called, for historical reasons) have been under continuous study since their discovery a century ago, but they are still rather mysterious, and we continue to learn new things about them. They are known to be of various different types — commonly found objects such as photons, electrons, neutrinos, protons, and atomic nuclei, and less common ones like positrons (antiparticles of electrons) and anti-protons. They are known to be produced by a variety of different processes. It is quite possible that some of these high-energy particles come from physical or astronomical processes, perhaps very exciting ones, that we have yet to discover. And AMS is one of a number of experiments designed to help us seek signs of these new phenomena.
The plan to build AMS was hatched in 1995, and the detector was finally launched, after various delays, in 2011, on a specially-ordered Space Shuttle mission. Today, Sam Ting, winner of the Nobel Prize for a co-discovery of the charm quark back in 1974, presented AMS’s first results — a first opportunity to justify all the time, effort and money that went into this project. And? The results look very nice, indicating the AMS experiment is working very well. Yet the conclusions from the results so far are not very dramatic, and, in my opinion, have been significantly over-sold in the press. Despite what you may read, we are no closer to finding dark matter than we were last week. Any claims to the contrary are due to scientists spinning their results (and to reporters who are being spun).
In a letter entitled “Am I Wrong?”, Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief of the major journal Science, asks how the United States has gone so far off course. The leading nation in a technological age has lost sight of its scientific foundation; what will be the consequences?
A mere twenty years ago, this nation was clearly the best place in the world to do scientific research. Since 2000 the decline has been precipitous, and though the U.S. still surely ranks in the top ten, few would say it clearly is the best anymore. In general, the country remains a relatively great place to live and work. But any excellent young scientist from abroad has to think carefully about coming to or staying in the U.S. for a career, because there might not be enough money to support even first-rate research. Similarly, any young U.S. scientist, no matter how devoted to this country and no matter how skilled, may face the tough choice of either going abroad or abandoning his or her career. (It’s not just young people either, as I can personally attest.)
Whereas before the year 2000 it was easy for U.S. universities to attract the best in the world to teach and do research at their institutions, and to train the next generation of American scientists, the brain drain since that time has been awful. (I see this up close, as more and more often I fail to hire talented individuals specifically because they see a better scientific and personal future outside the United States.) And it is getting worse. All of this affects our economy’s future, our society’s health, and even our ability to defend ourselves, especially since some of the most active spending on science is being done by countries that are hostile or potentially hostile to the free world.
It’s easy to blame this on the recession. “Oh, these are bad times and we all have to share the pain.” That’s true, but this problem started long before 2008. The system became threadbare during the Bush administration, and now, in the ensuing recession and political chaos, it’s at risk of falling apart.
Please forward this letter by Mr. Alberts to your friends. This is serious business with long-term consequences.
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
The big news overnight for science was the best measurement yet of the Cosmic Microwave Background [CMB], by the Planck Satellite. The CMB consists of microwave photons (particles of light with microwave wavelengths) that are the tell-tale leftover glow from the universe’s hot period, the Big Bang. These photons are almost entirely uniform across the sky, and consistent with a glowing object of temperature 2.7 degrees
Kelvin (or Centigrade) [poorly written] above absolute zero, the temperature where everything moves as slowly as allowed by quantum mechanics. (Note added: A change of 1 degree Kelvin is the same as a change of 1 degree Centigrade, but absolute zero is 0° Kelvin and -273.15° Centigrade. Centigrade and Celsius are the same.) But they aren’t quite uniform! And those slight non-uniformities, which speak volumes about the universe, have now been read with the greatest precision ever achieved.
The Cosmic Microwave Background – as seen by Planck and its predecessor, WMAP. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration; NASA / WMAP Science Team
Today my chores prevent my writing a proper post, and it doesn’t help that Planck released over a dozen papers overnight… it will take a while to sift through this. But the bullet points that everyone is talking about are Continue reading
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
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