A Last Stand — But Whose?

Ever have the experience of feeling that no one is listening to you, and so, to make yourself heard, you yell really loudly? And then discover that one of the key people you were trying to reach is standing right behind you?

That’s a bit how I feel after my recent post about Tuesday’s article in the New York Times on the search for the Higgs particle at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC]. My readership is minuscule compared to Dennis Overbye’s, so I shouted. But Mr. Overbye, to my surprise, read the post. Clearly I could have made my points more gently, and for the unnecessary stridency of my tone, Mr. Overbye, I apologize.

I also believed the NY Times article contained an error, and said so. Mr. Overbye defended himself in a comment to my post, saying that the phrasing he chose was meant to imply the correct situation without going into too much detail. I accept this was his intent; I do understand that squeezing these complex ideas into very short articles is a huge challenge, one that he and his colleagues often do very effectively.

Still, in this case, the phrasing chosen could easily lead to an unfortunate and problematic misunderstanding in the wider public — negating the otherwise admirable features of the article. And the risk of causing this particular misunderstanding is the hot button issue on this website. I’ll explain why in a moment.

Before I go into detail, let me balance my negative comments, in the interest of fairness. As a commenter noted, Mr. Overbye carefully avoids referring to the Higgs particle (or “Higgs boson”, as most physicists call it [what’s a boson? just a particular type of particle — click here to read more]) as the “God particle”, a term invented purely to sell a book, and detested by most physicists I know. Thank you, Mr. Overbye, for setting a high standard here. And Mr. Overbye successfully evokes the current mood of extremely high excitement in the field — that 2012 is a very, very big year, in which huge questions bothering particle physicists for decades are finally coming to a head.

But what precisely are those questions? And why do I think it matters?

I do think it’s useful to look at why Mr. Overbye’s phrasing could be disturbing to some particle physicists. First off is the notion that the upcoming conference called ICHEP is “the boson’s last stand”.

In disagreeing with this statement, I am not (as some commenters thought) making a statement of theoretical prejudice. This has nothing to do with what I believe about nature, or what anyone else believes. I am making a simple logical point.

What is the “Standard Model”? It is the set of equations used by particle physicists to describe all known particles and forces at the LHC, along with the simplest possible Higgs particle. [Sometimes this is called the Minimal Standard Model.]

What the LHC experimenters are doing right now is an exhaustive search for this `simplest Higgs’. This search is nearing completion. (Caution: completion may not come at ICHEP. The limited data available so far means that ambiguities may still remain, due to statistical flukes. In that case we’ll have no choice but to wait for the end of 2012.) When the search is done, either a Higgs particle will have been found (perhaps a simple one, or perhaps a more complex one uncovered more or less by accident) or the simplest Higgs will have been ruled out.

Suppose indeed the simplest Higgs is definitively excluded by the data. Which of the following conclusions follows logically?

  • The simplest Higgs particle does not exist in nature.
  • The (Minimal) Standard Model is not a complete description of nature.
  • There is no Higgs particle in nature.

The first two conclusions are logically correct, as well as scientifically spectacular. The third would be even more spectacular, but does not follow. But in saying that ICHEP is “the boson’s last stand”, Overbye gives the strong impression that the third conclusion will follow.

What is actually having its last stand, now or soon, is the Standard Model, [or Minimal Standard Model if you prefer that name] and its simplest Higgs. Professor Higgs and the others — Brout, Englert, Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble — will be disappointed if the Higgs doesn’t show up in its simplest form, but will have no reason to give up hope.

Why is this such an important distinction? Because a non-expert reading the phrase “the boson’s last stand” might naturally conclude that if no Higgs particle discovery is announced at ICHEP, it’s all over… that we know there is no Higgs particle in nature, and the search for the Higgs is done. And the natural next question for many people will be: “ok, but then what do we need the LHC for?” And for others, “so you mean to tell me that theorists said for 50 years there’d be a Higgs particle, and we paid for this 9 billion dollar machine, and the Higgs isn’t there?!” Personally, I do not want to see the New York Times creating these sorts of very dangerous misunderstandings, at a time of severe economic crisis. (Anyone who thinks no dangers lurk here should consider the last two decades of history carefully.) And that’s why I reacted so strongly to Mr. Overbye’s article.

According to Mr. Overbye, he was trying to convey this distinction. I realize these things are very hard to do, but, with respect, I think in this case it wasn’t done clearly. And that’s partly because he added the statement that “theorists will have to go back to the drawing boards” — which implies that theorists will all be so astonished and befuddled if the Higgs doesn’t turn up at ICHEP that they’ll all have to go back to square one.

Will the demise of the (Minimal) Standard Model and its simplest Higgs send theorists back to the drawing board? No. Theorists have not been idle over the past decades. They’ve been at the drawing board the whole time; it’s their job not to be satisfied with the conventional wisdom. It’s not the drawing board but the library and the desk drawer and the computer archive to which they will turn. And in those places you will find dozens and dozens of sensible alternatives to the simplest Higgs, many of which are harder to find than the simplest one and will still be worth searching for, well beyond 2012. And you will find numerous papers, by famous and less famous scientists, showing how nature can have a Higgs field but no Higgs particle; this situation (usually omitted by science journalists, because it is admittedly very hard to explain in a few words) always comes with other scientific opportunities for the LHC. [I’ve written about this here, if you want to learn more; see section 6 — the article is out of date in its details but not in its scientific points.] [Experts: by “Higgs field” I specifically mean any effective field whose would-be Nambu-Goldstone bosons provide the longitudinal components of the W and Z particles. You may prefer a different terminology, but I hope you do not disagree with the science. The example I have in mind is technicolor, and its various cousins.]

If late this decade there’s still no Higgs particle and still nothing else unexpected in the LHC data, then you’ll find most of us at the drawing board.

I should note that a few commenters stated their opinion that if the simplest Higgs, or something like it, doesn’t show up in the current search, then they will be sure there is no Higgs particle in nature, because “nobody believes” these alternatives to the simplest Higgs. First, their opinion is one of theoretical prejudice, not logic; and if scientists’ beliefs were always right, experiments would be a lot less important than they are. And second, the point is not that anyone believes a particular alternative; I don’t “believe” in any specific one myself. The point is that there are so many, and so easy to create. It would be foolhardy to dismiss the possibility that nature might hide the Higgs from our initial searches.

Also, there is an unfortunate public perception (partly due to physicists cutting corners in public statements) that theoretical physicists said that “there is a Higgs particle in nature” and that the experimental physicists built the LHC to find it. This is too glib. As I have written in more detail elsewhere, what theorists said (collectively) is that “there is a Higgs field in nature” — a Higgs particle being likely but not a certainty. The LHC was built to help us understand the Higgs field, and was designed to handle both the cases where a Higgs particle would be found early on, and the cases where it would not be found early, or at all. In short: particle physicists have come to this point fully prepared.

And we need the news media to convey this. Having provided several billion dollars for this machine, taxpayers and politicians around the world rightly expect particle physicists to do a first-rate job with the money. We have a reputation to uphold. If the media, directly or indirectly, leads the public to view us unfairly as bewildered, stunned, unprepared, or otherwise incompetent, this would be very damaging. And so I feel that cannot sit idly by if a New York Times article, even unintentionally, could imply to many readers that not finding the Higgs by ICHEP would mean that nobody in the field would have any idea what to do next.

I myself write to explain science, mainly particle physics, to the public, and I know that science journalists everywhere have a very tough job. Mr. Overbye, in his position at the NY Times, can have huge influence on scientific understanding and science policy in the public, and consequently he has responsibilities that make his job even tougher. His contribution to public excitement about the current moment in particle physics is more than welcome. But isn’t there some way, in a few words, also to convey the decades of careful preparation by the particle physics community, not just for the conventional wisdom but also for the broad range of alternatives? And not just for this critical moment, but for the decade of LHC studies that lies ahead?

For even if we see strong evidence of a Higgs-like particle at ICHEP, the correct understanding of that particle — in particular, determining whether it is or isn’t a `simplest Higgs’ — may take many years. And we’re prepared for that.

36 thoughts on “A Last Stand — But Whose?”

  1. From reading comment sections below popular articles about fundamental physics, I know very well that there are enough people who begrudge fundamental physics every cent it gets … ;-(

    So I think clarifying ambiguous or not quite right sentences provided by the mass media, that possibly lead to threatening misunderstandings, is very important and nicely done by Prof. Strassler.

    That Dennis Overbye has read the somewhat strong statements in the previous article too can probably be ascribed to Murphy’ s law … 😉

    Hopefully the issue is reasonably resolved now such that nobody feels insulted or anything … 🙂

  2. Dear Professor, I find the American idiom “last stand” to be problematic on its face. It evokes a notorious image of a historic, foolhardy and irrational mission.

    It’s a strange metaphor for science. I didn’t even pay attention to anything else dangling from it.

  3. It all depends on what the science writer thinks of his audience. I am afraid many of them assume that the readers will just think: ‘oh this sounds exciting. what’s for lunch?’ and that they will not remember anything except ‘Higgs, dramatic, fundamental, LHC’ in the best case. And this is probably often not far from the truth.

    However, I still agree with you. If someone reads this article with the prejudice ‘the LHC is useless and burns our money’, then they might think they have found confirmation for this view, simply by believing the over-dramatization that the science writer used.

    My opinion on this is that one should try to overestimate the intelligence and memory of the public a little. Some of them might care and might remember, and for the rest adding half sentences adding extra clarifications doesn’t hurt.

    Anyway, I can imagine that the public gets kind of tired of these ‘extreme breakthrough nearby’ articles, and it would be better to tone them down a little and be more accurate instead.

  4. \”Why the NY Times doesn\’t get the right spin on our data\”, a seminar by Melissa Franklin/Harvard at Rutgers (? or was it Syracuse). It would be interesting to find out the NY Times author..was it Overbye? There was a \”Discovering Women\” episode on MFranklin, where she was doing an Outreach talk to HS students @Fermilab. She even mentioned the ludicrous NY Times article ridiculing Particle Physics (cancellation of SSC?), based on the strange names.
    Your explanation is clearly understood by a typical High School Physics student, so why wasn\’t it done? (probably a typical media oversimplification like you 1st pointed out). I know for a FACT that some Science media have editors who will deliberately DUMB down the articles from scientists, in order to connect to the \”ignoramuses\”
    \”We\’ve turned into a nation of Idiots\”
– Joanne Hewett/SLAC
[ referring to funding cuts of basic Science, including HEP..Fermilab CDF terminated ]
    The term \”dumbing down of America\” is an oft used phrase by a geologist friend of mine. Both he & Dr Mike Newberry (adjunct U of Arizona/Steward Observatory) have both told me
    \”We\’re in the Dark Ages\”
    It\’s a consequence of a real insidious problem in USA
    \”Increasingly, it\’s a race between Education & Disaster\”
– H.G. Welles, 193x (?)
    A Washington politician has stated that the STEM crisis amounts to a National Security issue, since USA cannot be competitive in the STEM sector. This is the trend in HEP & Astronomy. See this NY Times article & various comments:
    NASA\’s Quest for Dark Energy May Fade to Black
    The news has dismayed many American astronomers, who worry they will wind up playing second fiddle to their European counterparts in what they say is the deepest mystery in the universe.
    “How many things can we do in our lifetime that will excite a generation of scientists?” asked Saul Perlmutter, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, who is one of dark energy’s discoverers. There is a sense, he said, “that we’re starting to give up leadership in these important areas in fundamental physics.”
    \”Alan P. Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who heads a committee that advises NASA on astrophysics, said: “If Euclid goes ahead, they’re [ Europe ] going to own the field. There’s no way the U.S. can stop them.”
    Last month, the American astronomers’ worries about falling behind seemed to be validated by a second Academy panel convened to consider the Euclid option. The panelists pointed out that part of the reason that Wfirst had been given such high priority was that it could be launched sooner rather than later. The panel urged NASA to stay the course or to explore merging Wfirst and Euclid in a joint operation.\”
    we\’re in a terrible mess/Michael Turner
    The author is D. Overbye, so his inaccurate reporting on Higgs is part of this whole problem of \”Dumbed Down of America\”
    Science Funding (big ticket projects especially) can be tied directly to Public Perception, an uneducated/uninspired Public is a real problem.

  5. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2006/02/27/any-publicity-is-good-publicity/

    Joanne Hewett/SLAC

    I should have learned this in high school – then, the local newspaper did a feature each week highlighting a group of seniors from the various schools. There was a theme each week and the group answered questions on topic. I was chosen and was pretty excited about it – until the interview started and I learned the theme was religion. Being my honest, naive, 17-yr-old self, I stated that I was rather unsure about the existence of God and that I thought churches were money making organizations. Naturally, I was quoted in print. In a smaller midwestern town. I received a barrage of truly hateful mail – some letters acusing me of devil worship, others wanting to save my soul. My senior science teacher summed it up best by saying `What you said was probably correct, but it’s not what you say to a newspaper reporter.’ That’s when I should have learned to be careful with reporters.

  6. GREAT for higgs , but a much more basic information is needed by the public , a piece of knowledge many times asked for and not once given .
    If electric charge creates a train of electric field values , and if movement of that charge creates a train of magnetic field values ,and if both existence and movement creates EMF , then we may ask :
    What is charge ?
    What physical relation exists between charge and field ?
    What directs the train of values from extreme low frequency /amplitude to extreme high ?
    What causal power the charge exert on the field ?
    How come we can find no answers for these basics in physics references while so much fascination shines on the higgs theater ?

    • Sorry you aren’t getting the answers you wanted. Let’s see if I can answer your questions.

      1. Charge is the quantity that represents the strength of an object’s interaction with the electromagnetic field.
      2. Maxwell’s equations are the relationship between electric charge amd the electromagnetic field. To put it in simplified English terms, a charge creates an electric field around it, a moving charge creates a magnetic field around it, an electric field causes a charge to move, and a magnetic field causes a charge to turn. That is the relationship between the charge and the field.
      3. I don’t quite understand your question about frequencies and amplitudes, but maybe the answer you’re looking for is electromagnetic waves.
      4. I don’t think I understand what you mean by “causal power”, either, but maybe your question is answered in #2.
      5. Sorry you’re having trouble finding what you’re looking for. There are a huge number of resources throughout the internet to explain these things. You could try looking up “electromagnetic field” on Wikipedia in your own language. Also, there are other places online you can get questions answered, too, such as physicsforums.com.

      Hope that helps.

  7. Matt, great admirer of your blog. Have learned much and the veil of darkness has been lifted on many things. Regarding this Overbye “episode”, you are both right in your own way. Perhaps Mr. Overbye did not have the column space, or the right technical arguments, to back up his statements. He did a good job given his time and space limitations.
    And you are right too! Very right, in fact.

    Yesterday, I had a little exchange with a friend who was griping about the Higgs hype and the massive cost of the LHC, saying that all these billions were spent just on scientists’ “belief” and “faith”! So, if CERN says, “we are not sure yet if Higgs exists” or something to that effect, it will give tremendous fodder to the naysayers and would be very bad for future science.

    Having said that, I think you have a done a good job in explaining yourself and this is a good time to let the matter rest.

  8. Well my sympathies to both you Matt and Mr Overbye. I tried explaining what is going down at the LHC to a relative who is a retired movie producer. He replied that the “Higgs Bosom” was beyond him.

  9. Matt, I am sympathetic about your position. But I do not see any problem in Mr. Overbye’s two statements while I do not see myself as a layman.

    First, although there are many alternatives (such as my own) already available, the majority of the mainstream theorists must go back to “their” drawing board, at least to review a different drawing, as most of them despised those alternatives.

    Second, while most of the SUSYs are ruled out already, the hope for finding a SUSY-Higgs is not good with the current evidences, especially after the SM Higgs is disfavored. I personally see this as indeed the last stand for the Higgs.

    But, most importantly, I did not pick up any hint from Mr. Overbye’s article about the LHC being useless if the SM Higgs is ruled out. When everyone goes back to the drawing board, the LHC must shoulder more responsibilities to check all those new designs. That is, no funding cut, but funding increase.

  10. >> dozens and dozens of sensible alternatives to the simplest Higgs

    So does this logically imply that the chance of seeing a standard model Higgs is actually very low.

    Reading you literally there are at least 12+12 other Higgs models and so ‘assuming’ they are all equally likely then the chance of finding standard model Higgs is < 5%.

    This is slightly tongue in cheek – since I'm sure not all Higgs models can be considered equally likely, but it does seem odd how nature often chooses the simplest model.

  11. Sanjay “…, if CERN says, ‘we are not sure yet if Higgs exists’ or something to that effect, it will give tremendous fodder to the naysayers and would be very bad for future science.”

    If SM Higgs is discovered, then the last chapter of physics is about written. So, the usefulness of LHC will be about over.

    If the SM Higgs is ruled out, we must put a lot more efforts to find the “correct” mass-giving mechanism as we do exist with masses ourselves.

    Thus, I do not understand the logic of “No Higgs, no future for science”.

  12. Actually, someone at the NYTimes, whether it was Dennis Overbye or someone else, had ‘God Particle’ in the title of that article when it was first posted. I don’t know who made the decision to take it down a couple hours later either, but the headline on the NYTimes.com homepage did indeed say ‘God Particle’ for a non-negligible amount of time.

  13. just out of interest. is that the main motivation in your great efforts to maintain this blog. cutting edge particle physics needs great sums of cash,which makes it very vulnerable to politicians whose first priority is not the good of mankind, but staying in their jobs.

    if you can convey the excitement and the importance of what is going on to the masses. you are securing the future of cutting edge paticle physics, in that you are making particle physics safe from the uncertain hands of politicians
    as you will have the masses to support you..

    if so, you are doing an excellent job. I find it hard to keep away from this website it is that good.

  14. Well, ignoring the rumors it would be quite possible for an SM Higgs to exist and not to be announced on July 4th. With a combination of CMS and Atlas data it would get a lot harder for it to hide.

    I also agree with your points on the non-SM Higgses. The main SUSY models can easily give lower cross sections. What seems likely to be the case for a while, finding something compatible with an SM Higgs, raises the real “back to the drawing board” scenario where the LHC finds no hints of BSM physics. The 14 TeV runs might give us something new and interesting but many physicists would be worried sick if the long wait for 14 TeV data has to happen without a single hint of BSM stuff.

  15. Once again, you’re making a big deal out of nothing. Politicians don’t read the Science section of the ny times. Politicians are stupid and corrupt. They are power hungry fools who accept bribes.

  16. These long rants are starting to look like Lubos Motl’s annoying rants. Please stop and get a life.

  17. Your articles about physics are great and very educational. However, you write countless posts about the details of a stupid and wrong result (superluminal neutrinos) and technicalities in an article in the science section of the ny times. Nobody cares, least of whom politicians.

    • Hi Filbert:

      1. US politicians fund DoE, NOAA, NSF, NIH, FDA, NASA, HEW , NEA and a few more things. European pols fund CERN, ECMWF, SKA, ELT, ESA etc. I reckon that’s very good of them.

      2. Special relativity admits superluminal particles. It just doesn’t say how they might get to be so fast.

      3. I wish I had the time to read all of Matt’s posts.

  18. For CERN to be making an announcement on the 4th says it is likely they have some conluding evidence, but it is too early for conclusion on the SM Higgs without complete 5-sigma data on all the other channels besides the diphoton. Do you think this means the announcement of a non-SM Higgs?

    • It’s more like they have a five sigma rejection of the Higgsless SM with data (likely) compatible with an SM Higgs. Even if the Higgs is different from the SM one, it’ll take more time to get a discovery of that. If it is exactly the SM one, that can never really be proven. It can always have deviations from SM predictions that are smaller than the data can show.

      • Agreement with an SM Higgs (e.g., in branching ratios and production rates) can be achieved (or not) at the same level of significance (e.g., 5 sigma) as verification of a particle resonance at 125ish Gev. On the other hand I think even T. Dorigo would run from the question of when is it likely that this level of signicance would be achieved.

  19. Matt, I suspect there are many like me who would love to see a running series of expert-written articles in the NYT (or other newspaper of record, perhaps WaPo) that go into the kind of depth that your posts on this site go into. I’m not suggesting a dive into journalism, really, but simply a down-to-earth educational series that helps readers better place the news they read into context. Anyway, just a thought.

  20. casey. good idea. I am going to email nyt, to ask them to give matt a column. the exact level of depth will obviously have to be discussed.he is too good just to be kept for readers of this blog.

  21. No point of dwelling on this issue, but it would be fair to say I too had an impression from this article that – should there be a negative news on SM Higgs, it will be the end, the physics research will stop, LHC will be dismantled and the parts sold to the highest bidder, in this case probably Chinese.
    It is not what one says but how he/she says it. Article – if not erroneous, was not written correctly. The research (including SM-H) will continue, and new and exiting things will come forward. Of that I am sure with 95% CL !

  22. Fields Particles

    Are fields the interaction of particles of the same characteristics (quantum numbers)?

    In reality the universe is a collection of different particles at different densities and arrays. The fundamental being either the Higgs (or similar) or the graviton (or similar). In other words, as the universe cooled down the first array of particles (and hence filed) were (was) created (coalesced), (Higgs, graviton, something else). As the temperature further dropped more type particles were create (coalesced at different quantum numbers), some interacted with the fundamental field and some did not (reasons could be coincidence of Nature and nothing to do about meeting human’s math).

    Again, I ask the question, if everything is made of energy at different densities, then what is energy?

  23. I hope this dialogue doesn’t scare NYT and author to write future articles on this topic.

    The Higgs discovery is exciting, an important topic, and one that is difficult to get all sides and technical points represented at an appropriate level to readers.

  24. “The power of the Press relies on the Ignorance of the Masses”

    Perfect example of a journalist (Graham Hancock) delving into Science..pure CRACKPOTTERY


    This book has triggered a 3-part Discovery Channel episode, that joins the other kook programs (aliens, Bigfoot, conspiracy theories, etc)..TV version of Tabloids (junk entertainment).

    Sample Amazon review:

    “Everyone who gave this book one star should realize that this book is
entertainment. Hancock is not a scientist or an academic of any kind – he’s a journalist! … Of course Hancock tailors the facts to fit his theories – he is not constrained by truth, science, or even ethics. He is a journalist.
…This book, and all those like it that preach pseudo-science, appeal to the
majority of people in this world who are scientifically challenged. Most
Americans don’t have enough scientific knowledge to understand the technology they face everyday, much less untangle the fact and fantasy in this book. It is entertainment, but it’s dangerous – science interpreted by a journalist!”
– review of “Fingerprints of the Gods”

    “As a matter of fact I heard a proponent of this story on a local radio station on Wednesday morning. Within five minutes this gentleman [ G. Hancock ] uttered bits and pieces of every crackpot doomsday comet theory (some borrowed from Comet Lee nonsense) and loony bin alien conspiracy tale imaginable.”
– D. Mitsky, Penn State

    Look at how Scientific American & Sky&Telescope (once affiliation with Harvard Observatory) have degraded, it reflects the Market..dumbed-down Public.

    “me & my friends call S&T [ Sky & Telescope ], the National Sky Enquirer”
– Dr. Jay Freeman, amateur astronomer (UC Berkeley PhD, Particle Physics)

  25. Actually, I think Overbye wrote a quite accurate and fair article. Your response seemed rather inaccurate and crazy. What is going on?

  26. Also, Peter Woit said this on his blog:

    “Maybe someone can convince Matt Strassler to stop complaining about what the recent NY Times article said about what nothing being seen would mean (which is irrelevant), and write instead about this.”

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