Of Particular Significance

TIME for a Little Soul-Searching

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 12/03/2012

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.

On good days I like to think that blogging is a step forward, which allows for much broader, more accurate and more rapid communication with the public and with journalists than was previously possible.  There are many good websites and blogs that can address the physics of the Higgs particle far better than any science magazine or newspaper science section could hope to: these include (but are by no means not limited to) Resonaances, Quantum DiariesCosmic Variance, Life and Physics, A Quantum Diaries Survivor, The Reference Frame, Not Even Wrong, Vixra, …  there must be a dozen others. Even though I often disagree with some of the more polemical and extreme bloggers about details of the science — what is or isn’t excluded by data, how data ought to be analyzed, what the important issues in the field are — all of these bloggers are expert enough to get most of the particle physics right most of the time, and readers, by reading the various blogs, can get something of a balanced point of view and figure out what’s mainstream sensible and what’s polemic overstatement.  [Of course, there are other blogs out there are packed with misleading information about the basic science, but that’s an issue for another day.]  But even collectively, we’re simply not reaching enough of the public at large yet.  We saw that in the craziness about faster-than-light neutrinos last year.  We’re seeing it this year with the Higgs particle.

I’m sure I’m not alone among the bloggers and book authors in feeling that if the journalist or editors at TIME had ever once read one — just one — of the many short articles we’ve all written for laypersons explaining something about the Higgs particle (e.g., Why the Higgs Particle Matters) many of the errors in the TIME piece would never have happened.  How can we collectively get a wider readership, at least among journalists?

Ok.  Here we go.  Here’s what TIME said, and what’s wrong with it.  Read it and weep.  Or laugh.  Or both.

Take a moment to thank this little particle for all the work it does, because without it,

  • The field, not the particle, does the job; the particle is just a ripple in that field.  No reason to thank the Higgs particle, except in that it is very useful for providing deeper insight into the nature of the Higgs field.  (Or fields; we don’t yet know there’s only one.) But the journalist is making a very common mistake.  As I wrote in the Higgs FAQ, “…the Higgs particle gets all the attention, while the poor Higgs field labors in obscurity, protecting the universe from catastrophe but getting none of its deserved credit…”  And this mis-attribution of credit is, I fear, largely scientists’ fault, because of glib shortcuts taken in explaining things too briefly to journalists and to the public.

you’d be just inchoate energy without so much as a bit of mass.

  • Well, this is so wrong it’s hard to say how it’s wrong.  Of course, you wouldn’t be, so it’s hard to say exactly what you’d be.  What would really happen is that your electrons would no longer form atoms with the protons and neutrons in your atomic nuclei, so you’d explode.  Without the Higgs field, atoms would not form and there could be no ordinary matter; BUT protons and neutrons, composite particles made out of massless elementary ones, would still have a mass.  And since protons and neutrons make up most of your mass, it’s not true at any level that you would simply turn into massless things.  And massless things aren’t the same as energy, anyway; see below.

What’s more, the same would be true for the entire universe.

It was in the 1960s

  • Correct! (phew)

that Scottish physicist

  • English (according to all my sources, including his CV and Wikipedia — didn’t they do any fact-checking at TIME? this wasn’t difficult…); works in Scotland

Peter Higgs

first posited the existence of a particle

  • Field! and then Higgs noted (slightly later) that it would have a particle as a consequence.

that causes energy to make the jump to matter.

But it was not until last summer that a team of researchers at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider — Rolf Heuer, Joseph Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti —

  • Oh wow.  TIME OUT!!!   This is bad.  Thousands of people on two huge teams (CMS and ATLAS) worked for many, many years to make this possible; hundreds were directly involved in the discovery.  Yet somehow the writer imagines that this all was carried out by three people?!?  The latter two are the currently-elected spokespersons for their teams, but they are not somehow responsible for the majority of the work (for although they are very highly respected scientists, they couldn’t possibly have the time!) and the third, Rolf Heuer, who currently directs the CERN laboratory, does not do research on the Large Hadron Collider at all!   What is sad about this is that erases the contribution of many great scientists, and it completely loses sight of what an incredible and historic collaborative effort was involved in this discovery.

at last sealed the deal and in so doing finally fully confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

The Higgs — as particles do —

immediately decayed to more-fundamental particles,

  • No! This is a common and very natural misconception; the writer is by no means alone in being confused on this point.   Our ordinary daily-life intuition would suggest that fundamental (or “elementary”, a term I much prefer) objects should not be able to fall apart into other fundamental objects — that the ability to fall apart is limited to objects that are composites constructed out of other objects, the way a wall can fall apart into its constituent bricks.  But for particles, decay is not a falling-apart.  It is a transformation.  And so yes, fundamental objects can in fact decay/disintegrate/transform into two or more objects that are just as fundamental (or even may be less-fundamental!)  What is required to make the decay possible is that the sum of their masses of the decay products is smaller than the mass of the decaying object; a few other rules must be obeyed as well.  Other rules determine whether a particular decay pattern is likely, but that gets more technical.

but the scientists would surely be happy to collect any honors or awards in its stead.

  • True.  But I really think they’d be a little embarrassed about this award.  I don’t think a particle should be Person of the Year.  That’s just plain silly.  Discovery of the Year?  Maybe!

Hahaha; ok, we’ve had our laughs.  But now what I want to know is what more we scientists can do to change a bad situation.  Although the writer and the editors at TIME made avoidable serious errors in this little paragraph, it’s by no means entirely their fault that this happened. Is there more that we — scientists and journalists — can do to open up the communication channels?  Can we work to eliminate some of the inaccurate short-cuts in what we scientists tell the public, often via the journalism community?  How can we make this kind of trust-eroding mistake less likely?

Suggestions welcome.

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96 Responses

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  5. This issue about the complexity of physical laws and our ability (or lack thereof) to understand them is both cogent and futile to discuss. We are what we are and all we can do is stumble along with the best formulations that we can conjure up and validate. Meanwhile, I have a more basic observation and question for you.

    As one who is moderately well trained in physics, I am disappointed by the fact that as time goes on, and physics advances in its attempts to explain, a significant change has taken place in the nature of physical ‘evidence’ – the basis for all physics formulations.Namely, it is no longer possible for the individual physicist or scientists to even observe this evidence. We cannot come even close to ‘seeing’ the evidence for a Higgs.The evidence that is presented to us is the results of both physical and mental activities by huge teams of other scientists, none of whom actually ‘knows’ what the other teams are doing in detail. One team designs the accelerator, one designs the detectors, one designs the data collectors, one does the first pass of interepretation, etc. It’s a long way from a physicist sitting in a lab and observing cloud chamber tracks or meter readings.

    So, because of my lack of understanding of all of those things, I would like to somehow estimate the veracity of our latest evidence, which the pundits are proclaiming as the arrival of another important epoch in physics history. My understanding is that the evidence (for a Higgs event) consists of a pair of coincident photons within a certain energy range, and that the appearance of this pair is not like the proverbial needle in a haystack – it is more like one atom of the iron in the needle! Here is the question: roughly speaking, how many of these ‘events’ have been observed to date? That is, if we are to seriously accept the arrival of this new epoch on this basis, how many pieces of experimental data are we using to back that up?

  6. It is a great post, and I wish more people will do the same, taking apart some popular magazine (and even some books) line by line. But the real mystery, harder to understand than quantum field theory, is how you, as a professor of physics, has the time to do this?

  7. Why blame reporters while many scientists declare their speculative views as facts ?
    Science cannot be separated from truth even if what are debated considered mere models……a separation which i always find in ” scientific ” books which always present “” facts “‘.

  8. Professor Matt. :
    Do you mean that mass is just a behavior of particles not intrinsic property ?
    mere term in equations with no physical real existence ?
    only how particles interact ?
    so is mass mere how not what ?
    I read your articles , consequently i have these questions.

  9. I wonder if I’m the only one who chuckled upon reading your list of blogs. I noticed right away that they were not exactly in random order… 😉

  10. yeah,I just thought you might want to know that your site is messed when I view it on my iphone. Im not sure if it has something to do with my phones browser or your website? just saying

  11. Why don’t you write an article at a level suitable for TIME readers to show how it should be done

    You’re complaints about some of the technical stuff regarding field/particle distinction is a bit unfair, since anyone who hasn’t at least some idea of the mathematics involved can’t really understand this distinction. But I agree that the TIME article is really sloppy.

    But do remember, that this is all based on EFFECTIVE models of reality – we’re not really sure this is the true way reality works yet – it may turn out that this Higgs mechanism is another epicycle type theory which has a much simple underlying explanation – and future bloggers will laugh not just at TIME magazine but at you too. (Well maybe not, it is a great achievement for this age of humans even if it is only an approximate model of reality)

    My point is, that the reason it’s all so difficult to explain is probably because it’s not the fundamentally correct way to explain things. Yes, the fantastically difficult mathematical models seem to work and the approximate computer models seem to work – but one does have the nagging doubt that it’s all so extremely complicated – epicyclelike even.

    1. What is your honest opinion of my article http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/the-higgs-particle/why-the-higgs-particle-matters/ ? This was intended for a broad audience. I’ll try to write a five-line paragraph later this week for your critique.

      About “effective models”; all models are effective models. There will never be a point at which we are “sure this is the true way reality works”. And if future bloggers don’t pity me for what I don’t know [they may not laugh, if I’m doing the best possible job at the current time — we don’t laugh at Newton just because his theory of gravity left some things out, just as Einstein’s surely does] then that will be quite sad, because it will mean the field is not advancing.

      I know very well that what I am doing is providing not the story of how reality actually works, but rather the story of our best model of how reality may work. I do it as clearly as I can. I try to strike a balance between reminding readers that some things (concepts) will change and confusing them into thinking that everything (even predictions) will change. I also try to remind them that one can rewrite equations and look at things from different points of view, while not confusing them by presenting multiple and apparently inconsistent points of view. This is a tough balancing act, I will tell you! But certainly I myself am not so foolish as to lose sight of what I am doing.

      As for your claim: “that the reason it’s all so difficult to explain is probably because it’s not the fundamentally correct way to explain things” — that is an interesting point of view. I don’t see how you can justify it, though, as anything other than a personal hunch. My counterpoint of view is that all of this stuff is astonishingly simple; I learned it in just a few years, even without working on it 18 hours a day every day. I’ve explained how the Higgs field works in just 10 or so articles that can be read (or at least attemtped?!) by someone who’s had one semester of college physics and one semester of differential calculus; how hard is that? I’d instead ask: Why should you expect nature to obey rules that are so easy that mere humans (we are not as smart as we seem to think sometimes) can figure them out? The rules are not simple enough for monkeys to figure out; they could easily have been too hard for humans. (There are times when I think understanding the brain will exceed human ability.)

      The real reason this stuff is so difficult to explain, I believe, is that human beings are born and brought up with notions about the physical world that are useful for surviving in that world but counter-productive for understanding how it really works. All of us know instinctively that all non-living moving things come to a stop eventually; we’re all wrong about that, but we’re born with or quickly learn that instinct because around us it is true. We instinctively believe that our eyes are windows on the world that tell us what is out there; the notion that most of the physical world (as opposed to any spirit world) is invisible to us is counter-intuitive. We sense that relative velocities add, but we sense they add linearly; we don’t know they add the way they actually do in our relativistic world. I could go on, but won’t do so here.

      1. Presumably the anthropic principle could play a role.

        Intelligent behaviour seems to be all about the ability to predict the immediate future and so life could only have evolved in a region of the universe where the rules are easy ( i.e linear f=ma, etc…) and where living things can easily anticipate where the food is coming from and react accordingly.

        So once you move outside our region to large or small scales there is no longer any reason to expect the rules to be linear and so easy to understand.

        1. I don’t think this argument holds water (and I have thought about it a lot over the years). By this argument the laws of nature should be simple enough that all living creatures, including mice and protozoans, can figure them out. The laws of nature have to be (or effective laws of nature have to be) sufficiently simple that living creatures can survive; they do not have to be simple enough that the brains of living creatures can figure out those laws.

          In other words, the limiting factor here is not the laws of nature; it is the human brain. How can you argue that the human brain had to be smart enough to figure out these laws, even if you had an argument that the laws should be relatively simple?

          1. By intelligence I meant to include mice and protozoans with an understanding of the laws of physics encoded in their DNA.

            So the (effective) laws of physics have to simple enough so that DNA can encode rules that allow an organism to predict future events, like where the next meal is coming from. Human brains then just follow on by evolution. So maybe the DNA argument forces the laws to be simple enough that eventually after some evolutionary time a reasonably intelligent higher brain can figure them out.

            Hmm, but anyway I’m not sure the argument is watertight, just one of those fun things people sometimes like to discuss over a beer.

            1. Well – this I have a half-written article about; I’ve been working on it for some time, and it will appear within the year. I still see no correlation between brain power and what’s encoded in DNA — note that we are a long way from understanding how our bodies and brains work. I’m not yet convinced we’ll figure it all out.

          2. Cool – really Looking forward to your future article:

            ( sorry for this noise – but just needed to summarize my view ).

            My definition of Life :
            something that can predict and then react to future events.

            Q1. Why are the effective laws of physics simple?
            A1. Because otherwise life could not have evolved.

            Q2. Why are human brains capable of understanding the effective laws of physics?
            A2. Because the laws are simple ( see A1. )

      2. Well it seems reasonable that the ‘intelligent’ cheetah requires simple laws to catch the antelope, but yes maybe making it all watertight could be harder.

        I look forward to you explaining “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe” 🙂

        1. Ah I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this, and wondering if one could make an argument that evolution could be considered a driver for life to efficiently internalize the laws of physics. First in DNA, then simple groups of connected neurons, and finally human brains who can therefore ‘understand’ those laws. So perhaps we find ourselves in regions where this internalization is the most efficient, and so we find the laws are as simple as they could be.

          It certainly seems in other regions, say at the quantum scale, a cheetah would have a torrid time trying to catch an antelope which was quantum jumping from here to there. So a quantum cheetah could never internalize those laws. So in fact never evolve.

          I’ve always wondered why the anthropic principal is often described in terms of different laws at different locations rather than different scales. Because processes happen more quickly at a smaller scale, perhaps we could predict that we should find ourselves at the smallest scale where the effective laws of physics are both simple and capable of supporting life.

          But none of this really explains your point that the laws could be a little more complex and so out of reach of the understanding of human brains.

          Well I need to go and read some books on the anthropic principle to understand all this better…..

          1. Tim — as I said, I have a half-written article about this. I would like to take this off-line at this point, especially out of this thread, where it isn’t directly relevant. We’ll get back to it.

      3. Your article is great, but I fear the general public are so poorly educated scientifically and mathematically that it’s not possible to explain some things. It annoys me how popular news discusses pseudo-science like economics in lots of pointless detail but as soon as real hard science like physics appears the broadcasters/reporters seem to turn into childlike idiots in their attempt to discuss it.

        I posted a sarcastic reply to your new thread, which you can ignore if you like, the point isn’t really worth pursuing – the average TIME reader (or anyone else) won’t understand fields/particles unless they study basic QFT – otherwise they will just have some wrong classical type understanding of the concepts – which is useless.

          1. Yes, you can understand money by a fairly easy read of the history of how it came about – all the concepts are simple and very “human”.

            You cannot understand quantum fields in any other way than studying the papers (or subsequent textbooks) of those who created the theory and their students.

            It involves diffilcult mathematical calculations, and MUCH WORSE, difficult points of interpretation (wrt to the probabilistic nature of QM)

            1. If you ask expert, academic economists this question, and give the answer you just gave, they will laugh. I don’t think you’ve thought about money carefully at all, from the way you’ve answered it. It is not at all simple.

              I think you are both over-estimating how hard quantum field theory is to understand at a non-expert level, and under-estimating how difficult it is to understand what money really is at a non-expert level. You don’t have to agree with me, but I encourage you to have a conversation with an expert about money.

  12. “… a public that is at once confused by, suspicious of, bored by, and unfamiliar with science.” According to Einstein, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” The world’s systems of formal education are not very satisfactory.

    1. Or… they weren’t in Einstein’s day, when rote memorization was much more highly valued. If anything, today, some institutions have tended toward the opposite extreme. I, for one, like formal education and feel that it was very useful to me. Not a view I hear repeated very often, though.

  13. Professor Matt. :
    Almost all explanations of how the higgs impart mass assume external effect similar to drag not an intrinsic property of particles themselves.
    Am i right ?
    If not , what is the actual physical effect by which massless particle get its mass ?

    1. I have described this in detail in http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/how-the-higgs-field-works-with-math/1-the-basic-idea/ . Have you read these articles yet? (Are they too technical?) What the Higgs field is doing, when it becomes non-zero, is changing the environment in which other particles propagate; why shouldn’t a change in one’s environment change one’s behavior? But it isn’t really drag; drag wouldn’t affect motionless particles, but the Higgs field does. The effect is something that we are not directly familiar with in daily life.

  14. “Is there more that we — scientists and journalists — can do to open up the communication channels? Can we work to eliminate some of the inaccurate short-cuts in what we scientists tell the public, often via the journalism community? How can we make this kind of trust-eroding mistake less likely?”

    To a great extent your blog is doing exactly that. Some of us with the physics and math background have become disciples and attempt, as Steve pointed out, to inspire others, to pass the torch if you will that will light the fire of the wonder of it all. For my part, I have a private blog for friends and family where I share the wonder of it all. Your blog and others you mentioned help me immensely in being as accurate as I can. As Campbell would have said, Matt you are following our bliss. Keep it up.

  15. Dear Matt
    Many thanks for this post, which also corrects some of the (admittedly smaller) mistakes that Scientific American made in trying to correct the TIME nomination!
    I completely agree that us scientists need to make more of an effort to explain things to the press in simple – but accurate – terms. Sometimes it is very difficult. I have been fortunate enough to be interviewed on a few occasions for written press, radio, tv. The former do take some time to try to understand things but often either misquote, simplify (!) or write incorrect statements in any case; and it is very rare that they ever send text for proof-reading. Radio and TV are a different matter: they are mostly interested in “news” and thus do not want to go into any detail at all. I recall several years ago being interviewed by the BBC and being told not to mention “Big Bang”, “Higgs Boson”, “CMS” (who I work for!) etc. I was only allowed to say things like “we aim to answer some fundamental questions about the Universe” etc. Of course, this was a few years ago and “Higgs boson” is now a phrase known to (nearly) everyone and his dog.

    I am not saying that scientists are perfect and we can just blame the media; far from it. We (scientists) can all profit from some media training and be encouraged more to take to the virtual world of social media as the public are increasingly turning to this information source instead of traditional media. In fact the recent interview of Elise Andrews (of “I F*^*^&^ Love Science” fame) by Carin Bondar was really interesting. When asked about the quality of science writing in the popular press she responded (I paraphrase) “it is crap, but it doesn’t matter as people who are genuinely interested will turn to the people who really know this stuff”.

    Thanks for being one of the “people who really know their stuff”!


    1. I had a very similar experience, as I related above – reporters just don’t really care about truth and accuracy because they are fairly certain their audience doesn’t.

  16. Just curious, isn’t interaction with the higgs field explained at least mathematically through virtual higgs bosons? Why is it such a bad thing to talk about the higgs particle doing the work?

    Also I’ve read that fields with carrier particles that have mass are short range because of the upper bound on the time they can exist for because of the HUP with Energy and time. How does this affect the Higgs Field Interactions because as far as I know the field doesn’t have a source to emit these virtual particles?

    1. “isn’t interaction with the higgs field explained at least mathematically through virtual higgs bosons?” No. In fact, that’s the whole point.

      Interaction of other particles with the Higgs field does NOT occur through virtual Higgs bosons (or if you insist on writing it that way, it requires interaction with virtual Higgs bosons that carry zero momentum and zero energy, and that disappear into empty space.) This is the Higgs field doing something that is both extremely awkward and extremely misleading to try to write in terms of virtual Higgs particles… which, in any case, are not particles at all: http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/virtual-particles-what-are-they/

      Furthermore, the key for the various particles to obtain mass is not that there IS a Higgs field — that it merely exists — but that it is **non-zero**. The fact that it is non-zero is something that you cannot express in terms of Higgs particles, virtual or not, in any physically or mathematically useful way.

      And your second question reflects this as well. When the Higgs field gives mass to the various particles, Higgs particles are **not** serving as carrier particles; and moreover the Higgs field affects each particle even if it is way off by itself, far away from all other particles — and so there’s no notion of range. (Range from what?) The Higgs particle’s mass has no effect on how the other particles get mass from the Higgs field.

      The Higgs particle’s mass DOES affect the range of the attractive force that is exerted when **two** particles scatter off each other by exchanging a virtual Higgs particle, similar to the way the exchange of a Z particle allows neutrinos to scatter off each other with a short-range weak nuclear force. [In my view, non-experts should not think of this as the exchange of a physical particle anyway — physically, it is a field effect, which is why we can teach how this works to freshman using the language of fields, never saying the word “particle”. This is too long a story for the moment; how much math/physics background do you have?] But that is an additional, separate effect — a “fifth force” — not related to the non-zero Higgs field giving mass to particles. It’s not been observed yet, but is obviously going to be there.

      For those with a very minimal but non-zero physics and math background (1 semester of calculus, and 1 semester of physics) I have explained in detail how the Higgs field works — without ever appealing to the notion of virtual Higgs particles: http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/how-the-higgs-field-works-with-math/ I especially encourage you to try to read the first article. You may want to read these articles first: http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/fields-and-their-particles-with-math/

      1. Ok I read through the higgs articles, the fact shifting the equilibrium point of a field with mass leads to quanta with mass in other fields was really awesome to see.

        Some questions

        I might have missed it but I didn’t see how the higgs field quanta has to have mass, is it just because the equation of motion for the higgs field has to be type -1. Its just the way the universe is?

        Im also having trouble understanding how the electron which is a quantised rippled in one field can be the source of another field(the electromagnetic field). Did I miss something?

        And because these fields are relativistically invariant are these ripples essentially standing still in the fields?

        1. In principle the higgs quantum could have been massless, as far as the equations I gave you. But this would have required the parameters in the equations be adjusted very finely. (No such adjustment is necessary for the photon, for instance, nor would it be for neutrinos if they had been massless, or for electrons for that matter. The Higgs is a bit special.) To really explain this more carefully requires a longer discussion, which perhaps I’ll provide at some point.

          There are various ways, but typically the field X can be the source of a second field Y if there is a term X^2 in the equation of motion for the Y field. [If Y is the electric field, X^2 is proportional to the charge density that is normally the source for electric fields in first-year physics classes.] I didn’t describe examples of this in detail in these articles; maybe I’ll add one.

          For particles with mass there is indeed always a frame of reference in which the ripples aren’t moving from one place to another (though the field is still oscillating). Standing waves, these are called. There are a few subtleties here too; don’t forget the uncertainty principle forbids me to know where an electron is if I know exactly how it is moving, so the ripple for a strictly motionless electron is spread out over all space.

  17. In Higgs particle, energy and momentum is conserved, system mass also conserved despite the change in spacetime(relativistic mass)- ie.. Higgs particle can decay into two massless photons. Gravity effect negligible and no change in system mass.

    First there is no massless photons here. Photons are only relatively massless. I ask the binding energy of those photons in Higgs particle. Because energy is quatized and conserved, both photons cannot share the extra energy and carry away in opposite direction- they cannot exceed their own speed.

    In the fig # 2(post mar 27, 2012), no object’s velocity can be faster than “c”.
    In fig #3 if p is 0 E = mc^2 and m = 0 E = c, so the “stuff”(all fields are stuffs) carries enormous energy(but it is not energy).
    The Pythagorean relation satisfied classical experiments, but adding and cancelling the very large “c” to its units will not alter the basic equation(like the negligible gravity). But at quantumlevel it does make difference and lead to hierarchy problem- the anomaly of standard model?.

    In fig #1 E2 = (p c)2 + (mc2)2 , if the momentum p is 0, E= mc^2. If the mass is 0(massless) then, energy E is also must be zero(without adding c). But photons carry immense kinetic energy. KE = 1/2mv^2, so if the speed “v” is relative with constant “c”, then the momentum not become zero but equals(cancel) the speed of light c. ie.. “one step forward and one step backward” at the same speed “c”, but different vector(spin zero?). So when momentum is zero mass and velocity also zero(p = m x v without adding immence c)- a difference between Aristotle and Galileo.

    Mass is phenomenological, it exist only with the relativistic momentum?. The energy of a wave in a field is quantized as particles, is an excitation of a particular field. In this, “quantized” is called conservation of energy and momentum. In classical terms it is mass and momentum, here needs external force for momentum. But in particle physics the momentum is quantized because of “intrinsic energy”. So the mass is not conserved(replaced by energy)- only because the momentum is relativistic.

    Because momentum is very small relative with c, the mass(invariant mass) of system(relative mass) is conserved. If it near c(fig #2) it jitter between 0 and c – there is no zero relative momentum for particles(fields) like Higgs.

    1. I’m not sure what you were trying to do with this comment, but it contains a great number of errors. Do you have a question? Because as a set of statements, it’s full of mistakes, too many for me to try to correct. One of the worst is KE=1/2 m v^2, which is not true in relativity. And you say “photons carry immense kinetic energy”; no. The energy for a photon can be arbitrarily large or arbitrarily small; the energy in a radio-wave photon is much smaller than the energy in an X-ray photon.

      1. Thanks Professor,
        errors, no questions. Photon means light wave photons travel at speed of light. For common sense if m = 0 in E = mc^2, E = 0- but it is E2 = (p c)2, pc/E = 1 = v/c. E = pc. It is positive and immense?
        Light photons are “stuff” carry energy and travel at speed of light. this relation E=mc2 does not mean that energy is always equal to mass times c2; only for an object that is not moving (and therefore has zero momentum).

        The energy(bundles of energy or quanta) for a photon can be arbitrarily large or arbitrarily small means, “a particle move at the speed of light have different energy?”.

        Fields are stuff but particles are excitation, carrying energy as quanta of a particular field. We can convert mass into matter, but cannot change energy into matter. The equation E = mc^2 connect mass and energy.
        For a massive particle, speed grows when momentum grows, while for a massless particle the speed is always c no matter how large the momentum is.

        “chickens(mass) are not eggs(energy). But eggs came from hens(momentum). That does not mean, that chickens must come from spoons(speed of light “c”).

        1. Indeed E = m c^2 is only correct for stationary objects [with the definition of mass used by modern particle physicists]

          For massless objects like photons, E = p c, and both p and E can be arbitrarily small.

          Yes, green photons and red photons both move at the speed of light, but they have different energy. That’s crucial in the photo-electric effect.

          “We can convert mass into matter, but cannot change energy into matter.” This is an incorrect use of terms; the sentence does not mean anything. Please read carefully http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/mass-energy-matter-etc/matter-and-energy-a-false-dichotomy/

          “For a massive particle, speed grows when momentum grows, while for a massless particle the speed is always c no matter how large the momentum is.” Correct.

          Momentum, energy and mass and speed are properties that all localized objects possess (though different observers disagree about how much momentum, energy and speed an object has.) http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/mass-energy-matter-etc/mass-and-energy/ I cannot follow your chicken/hens/eggs/spoons statement; perhaps it is purely a joke, which would be fine.

          1. Thanks Professor,
            “chicken&egg” is only a joke context withi this….
            If Higgs particles(field) give “mass” to known particles, it is a start of “identifying” the matter?. sorry, I have wrongly said, We can convert mass into matter.

            /First of all, we convert energy back to mass all the time/– means, mass is identified as energy through Einstein’s equation.

            /— that’s how we make Higgs particles (and top quarks and W particles and Z particles) at machines like the Large Hadron Collider!/.
            /As for whether “mass is a form of energy” — you can certainly take that point of view, and I personally do. We’ll see better reasons for it soon, when I get to the mass of the proton and the stability of neutrons inside of atomic nuclei. But I don’t see anything in the equations that absolutely requires you to say it that way, and sometimes people object, so I don’t insist on it./

            “mass is not identified as energy”- means, chickens not come from hens, but definitely not from spoons- eggs were not ruled out (only joke).

            Inside a closed system, massless photons get rest mass. Photons carry only bundles of energy, did they convert those energies into mass by their momentum?. Why they be massless with that same momentum outside a closed system?. Any unknown binding energy involved in closed system?.

  18. Professor Strassler,

    I am so thankful for your blog and feel I’ve learned so much about the Higgs field and the rest of modern high-energy physics from your words. I very much look forward to your first book on the subject and can guarantee I’ll be among the first to purchase it.

    Now you’ve asked a question about which I feel I have a tiny bit of knowledge. My job is to teach science to the general public at a science museum. When asked how we (meaning everyone in the chain, from the scientists to the writers to the front-line content deliverers) can do better, my response goes like this:

    Joseph Campbell was a brilliant mythologist. When Bill Moyers asked Campbell “Why mythology? Why should we care about mythology? What does it have to do with my life?” Campbell replied, “Well, my first answer would be, go on, live your life, it’s a good life, you don’t need this. I don’t believe in being interested in a subject because it’s said to be important or interesting. I believe in being caught by it somehow. But,” Campbell went on, “I believe with the proper introduction this subject may just catch you.”

    This is how I feel about science education. I believe the biggest mistake we make is trying to scare people into learning science, intimating that because science is so important they’d better understand it or else. Instead, I think we should seduce, intrigue, and excite. And if most people choose not to be interested, so be it. There are many (I’m sure) fascinating subjects that will never catch me. But science has caught me, and, as Carl Sagan once said, “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.”

    Our best tool, I believe, is our own enthusiasm. What makes you love this subject so? Share it, don’t ever be embarrassed or self-conscious. Accuracy is important, of course, but more important I believe is lighting the fire in your audience by giving them the desire to know themselves. I’ve never learned anything that I myself did not want to learn. Light the fire, catch them, and the rest will take care of itself.

    Keep up the great work.

    Steve Whitt

    1. And thank *you* for this comment. It is true that although I’m sure my passion for the subject shines through my writing, I have not written anything explicit about it. And on this website I have not yet focused on the larger audience of those who do not already have interest in science.

    2. Hello Steve, what a great contribution to this topic! Obviously you know what you’re talking about. Thanks.

  19. Unfortunately, these kind of articles will always appear in the popular press and glossy magazines. A scientist with a *true* understanding of the Standard Model, String Theory, cosmology etc, does not have the time (and maybe not the skills?) to be a journalist. And I cannot imagine a journalist would possess the humility to ask someone with the required knowledge to proof read every scientific article he or she writes!
    All we can do is, teach those who are just starting on their career paths into science that, just because something is written on a webpage, it doesn’t mean it’s correct.
    Also, we should allow some poetic licence to the media… Although in this case, the author wrote a lymmeric rather than poetry.

    1. I guess I feel you are too fatalistic, one the one hand, about the limitations of journalism, and too generous, on the other, to those of our colleagues who make statements that aren’t accurate and that get picked up by both press and public. Poetic license is fine when writing literature, but it doesn’t have to lead to profound inaccuracies. You can check out the various levels of poetic license I took in my prose about the Higgs, http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/the-higgs-particle/why-the-higgs-particle-matters/ I believe you’ll see that I didn’t have to make significantly wrong statements in that article… I just had to leave certain points impressionistic, which is better, I think, then making statements that are both clear and clearly wrong. And a news magazine, or science journalist, is free to create prose with a poetic style, but is not free to mislead the public irresponsibly. One can hardly imagine them doing something similar with, say, the causes of the war in Syria. (Although unfortunately one can easily imagine individual journalists making similarly spectacular errors if they are not expert in the history of the region.)

      1. I agree with you to a point. In scientific magazines, websites (such as this) and serious documentaries (I’m excluding the likes of “Wonders of the Solar System” here) the information should be 100% accurate and complete. All I was saying is that, for a 5 paragraph BBC news article, for example, I think it is okay to say ‘The Higgs boson gives mass to all particles’. We know it is ‘hand-wavey’ and not correct. But it gets the message across to the average person who didn’t follow physics beyond high school and only clicked on the article when looking for the football results. It is not okay to show a photo of ATLAS and give it a caption “The Higgs Boson has been discovered at the LHC, shown above.” (I work on CMS, so this true example stabbed me in the heart twice! 😉 )

        Is there a way to improve mainstream scientific journalism? Only if people with the time and a complete understanding (I don’t include myself in this category, unfortunately) offer to work more closely with scientific editors to get the best balance of suitable writing style and scientific integrity.
        Any volunteers??? 🙂

        1. So — your first example is a good one, I think. On this website, I say not “The Higgs boson gives mass to all particles” but “The Higgs boson gives mass to all known elementary particles”. It’s two words longer; it’s (almost precisely) accurate, whereas the previous phrase is dramatically inaccurate (cf. the proton.) It seems to me that the cost of two extra words is worth the benefit of significantly increased accuracy.

          I try very hard on this site to find the shortest phrases which are still accurate, and I often find it’s not that hard to come up with something that works.

          As for your last comment: I think many in the blogging community *are* those volunteers. It’s just not a formalized relationship. Science journalists who sometimes contribute directly or indirectly to science writing in mainstream publications do occasionally request my advice on whether their articles contain any bloopers.

          And when I myself write an article about something I’m not as expert as I’d like to be, I usually ask for advice, if there’s someone obvious to ask.

      2. I would argue that journalists do, in fact, make errors constantly when reporting nearly anything. The reporting in my field is atrocious (medicine) and most experts I’ve talked to in other fields agree the reporting in their fields is atrocious also. I once, long ago, had the chance to act as an “expert” for a media story. Every comment I made was edited (dumbed down) until it was simplistic nonsense. The reporter kept telling me “That’s too complicated for our audience” and “too long”, “too hard” etc…etc… Journalists long ago gave up on serious reporting.

        1. Remember, by definition, 50% of American adults have below average IQs (and they get to vote…). Check out reality TV some time when you next have a break.

        2. I have no reason to disagree with your argument (which is why I’m very cautious with news reporting that isn’t in depth, and even then will read columns by experts if I can.)

          I also think this is why blogs written by experts across all fields both offer a competitive (and free, currently) alternative, and (ideally) would have some benefit on journalism, with writers knowing they’ll take criticism if they dumb things down to the point of inaccuracy, instead of finding ways to simplify without losing accuracy.

  20. Nice article, reading that the higgs confirms general relativity almost made me blow my coffee at the screen of my laptop :-D.

    I would probably not assign too much of the blame to the scientists.
    As I observe here in Germany, the media give not enough space, broadcasting time, etc to reporting about or explaining science generally. And particle physics for example gets at most featured during 5 minutes in the evening news of our most important TV channel or some space in a large newspaper is something like the claim of superluminous neutrinos or the announcement of a discovery happens …. for one day only 🙁

    So I think some kind of a redistribution of broadcasting time, space devoted to a certain topic in newspapers and magazines, etc away from unimportant noise to science reporting and explaing has to happen first.
    In my opinion, this is a precondition that has to be fullilled to allow scientists to explain what they are doing and why it is nice and important to the public more accurately and more carefully.

    To cheer Prof. Strassler up a little bit:
    I just cant stop praising and advertising this site in the “real world” were I live. I send all people who show just the slightest interest in fundamental physics directly to this blog 😀


  21. Were I writing this list, I would have added a couple of points. First, “sealed the deal” is a bit strong since there’s still ongoing to studies to test whether the properties of the new particle actually match what’s expected from the Higgs. I mean, the data released this summer couldn’t even confirm that the alleged Higgs couples to leptons at all. (Of course, the data released more recently looks better for that.)

    Then there’s the little matter of “immediately,” which implies a lifetime of 0, which is certainly not true. Granted, this is a pickier point than most; but, if we’re tearing this paragraph apart, we may as well go for complete accuracy.

      1. I’ve always thought that one’s literary license should be revoked for repeated factual errors that could be corrected with just a cursory look at wikipedia.

          1. If your complaint is that I semantically overloaded the word “fundamental,” then it’s a fair complaint, since the group-theoretic use is a technical one, while the one you’re identifying is a totally different and looser use of the word. The second use was simply meant as a shorthand for the situation where a mass is simply coupling constant appearing in the theory’s Lagrangian a priori (as, say, the electron mass does in QED as it is generally first introduced in the teaching of quantum field theory). There’s no factual error there – just an inartful use of language. Anyway, being that this is Matt’s website, it probably isn’t the place for any further discussion of this.

          2. Dear Parlyne, I agree we shouldn’t discuss this further on Matt’s blog, just a short response. The use of the word “fundamental” reflects, I think, the fact “fundamental” particles ONLY get mass from the Higgs field while composite particles also get mass from other sources like internal motion. In this sense (from your angle) there is now fundamental mass and mass. With poetry I really meant that your explanation really reads like poetry. The way you explained “fundamental” fermion masses helped me to really understand it. Nobody else could have written it like this, so thanks.

    1. Since present theory doesn’t predict that electrons are spherical, but rather are point-particles, finding that they have any three-dimensional shape would imply that they are actually composite particles, not fundamental ones.

    2. electrons have not been found to have any shape at all; they are smaller than we can currently measure, and we do not assume they are spheres in current theory, just that they are too small for their size and shape to be important. So the first change to theory would occur if their size was measured. It would certainly be a big change, just as it was a big change when the proton’s size was first measured. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1961/hofstadter-lecture.pdf We can only hope to measure the shape after we’ve detected and measured the size in considerable detail; as late as 2003 people were still debating the precise shape of the proton, and I don’t think all the issues are resolved yet.

      So I’m afraid you will have to be quite patient.

        1. The article is certainly problematic, but I think I see what they’re trying to communicate. Certainly this is not the way professionals talk about this experiment. Let me look into it and think about it further.

      1. Thank you very much for the reply. Hopefully a way to deduce whether or not electrons are, or behave like, coil-shaped particles that emit/produce elliptically polarized em will present itself to someone looking for it.

        Oh, the stubbornness of the reality/human interpretation interface.

        1. “While it’s easy to see matter bending light – just look through a prism – it’s rare to find light bending matter. But scientists saw just that in an experiment reported in March 2010. Researchers assembled flat ribbons of nanoparticles – tiny bits of matter only billionths of a meter long – in a darkened laboratory.

          Then when the ribbons were exposed to light, they curled up into spirals.

          http://www.livescience.com/12910-twisted-physics-top-findings.html (see #5)

          1. Hmm. My immediate reaction is distress.

            “While it’s easy to see matter bending light – just look through a prism – it’s rare to find light bending matter. ”

            This is a false analogy.
            * Matter bends the path that light is traveling on — the light itself does not have a structure and cannot be bent.
            * But in this case the light is causing matter — consisting here of highly structured arrays of groups of atoms — to bend; the structure of the matter is changing.

            So bending the travel path of one thing is made to sound equivalent to bending the structure of a second thing. Cute-sounding, but misleading.

  22. There was the Discovery channel, then the Science channel, then the History channel, all of them decay into more popular trash. But hey, even when they’re talking real science, there’s dramatic music and explosions. That’s what makes it.

  23. Maybe a tangent, but I think scientists need more precise language for facts / hypotheses / theories / well-established theories. I get tongue-tied trying to explain that the Standard Model is a well-established theory (with known limits of validity), but the Higgs is only now being experimentally confirmed (and is its mass now a fact?), SUSY is a class of models (or is it a hypothesis?) while String Theory is not so much a theory as a framework…

    1. This is a very, very good point. Even explaining the word “theory” is very difficult because it is has multiple meanings both in English and in physics. I run into this problem all the time also. No great ideas about it though; open to suggestions!

      1. Again, whilst physicists neglect epistemology we can expect more public confusion. I’d argue that the public confusions is, in fact, the product of such neglect. IOW, you only have yourselves to blame … 🙂

        1. What is epistemology?
          Is this not a philosophy technical term and what does it have to to with physics?
          In my opinion, trying to bring such things into physics is the most confusing thing. Questions tagged on Physics SE with the tag “epistemology” I ignore since they just contain very confusing things that give me a headache… 😉

          1. Ah, and herein rests the problem. Epistemology has nothing to do with philosophy and everything to do with physics, at least biophysics … which is – literally – the substance of physics (i.e., physicists).

            1. So far, I tend to roughly agree with what you say, but I am not sure I agree with what you mean, because I don’t think I understand from your various comments what you are getting at.

              Some branches of philosophy obviously are concerned with epistemology, so I am not sure why you say is has “nothing” to do with philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/

              On the other hand I agree with you (unlike Dilaton in his comment) that you can’t do science without encountering the subject, as should be clear from the link above. [But why biophysics per se? is that your area of expertise or something?] I would still consider this subject to be philosophy, but applied philosophy, of the sort that is essential to underpin the entire scientific enterprise.

              Most physicists are pretty lousy at philosophy, in my experience. On the other hand, some of the best physicists think very clearly about philosophical issues, in my view (not at the level of professional philosophers, but at the level you would want.) The notion that physicists (or other scientists) don’t think about these things at all seems to me a little brusque…

              1. I think we are generally in agreement in so far as you say of Epistemology “I would still consider this subject to be philosophy, but applied philosophy, of the sort that is essential to underpin the entire scientific enterprise.” But will, for technical reasons, prefer other (existential) terminology. Similarly, my discipline is generally be termed “Logic” or, more particularly, “Foundations of Logic and Apprehension,” an area informed by recent advances in biophysics disclosing the facts of the matter. I am simply concerned with the “underpinning of the entire scientific enterprise.”

                I am especially concerned that we understand (in terms of your pedagogical goals) the existential nature of that of which we speak. You are yourself often keen to point out a distinction between particles and fields, for example. I interpret what you say to mean that particles are “ways of speaking” about fields (the true nature of which is unexplained) – a position that I also take. Particles have no existential status beyond this apprehension – and I think that your audience is often missing the epistemic import of what you say (they still think of particle physics as they think of billiard balls) – and many fail to appreciate exactly what we are doing when we characterize the world using mathematical physics.

                These concerns preoccupied physicists in the early 20th Century, as I’ve mentioned before. An example for your audience to consider for its pedagogical value in this regard would be the Machian view advocated by Einstein in his 1916 paper concerning the existential status of space-time (i.e., that space and time have no existential status – unlike mass/energy, which, supposedly, does) – that view will likely surprise many (esp. those that still think about rubber membranes and steel balls as pedagogical tools) and it trips up many scientists both in physics and beyond.

                1. I don’t find your writing clear, but to the extent I follow your words, I don’t agree with you as much as you think. Your writing sounds as though you have an old-style view of particles and fields that was discarded from high-energy physics during the 70s and 80s. Particles are not a “way of speaking” about fields; they cannot capture the full behavior that fields are capable of. And fields are most definitely meaningful without discussing particles; in fact there are many examples of fields without any particle states at all.

                2. I understand your point. I am simply referring to the things that you have written in recent articles about particles and fields, in particular, as this question relates to Higgs.

                  I do not mean to imply that this is the whole of it. Even if particles are not simply ways of speaking about fields in full, you are still saying that particles are ways of speaking about fields in part – or at least you appear to be. I would not disagree with that position. But this still leaves the question concerning the nature of fields. Are not fields themselves simple a way of speaking about primitive nature … which surely has only one cause (ultimately).

                3. My view is strictly positivist. So, for me, our characterization of the world is constructed from primitive notions; i.e., by the scientific method.

                  In any theory there are the “necessary distinctions” that form the basis of the theory. These are the distinctions that we confirm empirically from results of the kind you discuss.

                  All the world derives from primitive nature. Aspects of primitive nature that physicists have determined as necessary distinctions are, for example, gravitation and mass/energy. But, continuing the example and following Mach and Einstein, space and time are simply ways of speaking about these distinctions.

                  What you say concerning particles and waves, epistemically, tells me that – whether you realize it or not – you treat particles as ways of speaking about fields, just as Mach or Einstein would have spoken about space-time as a way of speaking about the gravitational field. Fields appear to be your way of speaking about the necessary distinctions of the world. The field distinctions (the “kinds” of fields) being the means by which you speak about aspects of the underlying primitive of nature – that one assumes is a whole and the description of which is the goal of any unified theory.

                  From the existential point of view, not “philosophy” but rather in speaking about existence, existential status derives constructively from primitive nature alone. The aspects of primitive nature that are necessary distinctions are forced upon us by the world, whilst ways of speaking are forced by us upon the world.

                  Ways of speaking are useful because they enable us to make predictions that we can test – but they can be abandoned in favor of refinements or innovation.

                  In other words, particles are things that exist only in the sense that we may speak about them. Put another way: particles exist as differentiation’s of underling fields, that are themselves ways of speaking about a greater unity – a single unified field from which the structure in the world derives. The world is not discrete even when it may appear to be, it is a continuum.

                  Sometimes our ways of speaking lead us astray.

  24. I’m surprised that journalists don’t check facts with Wikipedia ( which for all it’s short comings is usually pretty accurate ).

  25. I was extra disappointed when I realized the blurb is credited to Jeffrey Kluger, who I had thought knew better. Among other things, he co-wrote with Jim Lovell the book on which the movie Apollo 13 was based, and he’s been a respectable science journalist for a number of years.

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A decay of a Higgs boson, as reconstructed by the CMS experiment at the LHC


A quick reminder, to those in the northwest’s big cities, that I will be giving two talks about my book in the next 48 hours:

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 04/17/2024

The idea that a field could be responsible for the masses of particles (specifically the masses of photon-like [“spin-one”] particles) was proposed in several papers

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 04/16/2024