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 Diaries, Cosmic 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’s not clear what the writer means here, but it’s certainly not correct. Within the universe, many things with mass, including protons and neutrons but also black holes, and probably dark matter, would maintain their masses even with no Higgs field. And the mass of the universe (no matter how you might define it, which is not so easy) certainly wouldn’t shift from non-zero to zero if the Higgs field were turned off. So this statement doesn’t make sense.
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
- and also Englert and Brout, and also Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble (and actually the history is a lot more subtle even than that); please give these other folks some credit, by saying “Higgs and others” or something like that!
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.
- The Higgs field does not cause energy to become matter. Both the language and the meaning are wrong; the writer has fallen into classic traps that I’ve written about extensively (see this link and this link). What happens when the Higgs field becomes non-zero is that certain types of massless elementary particles end up having some mass. What’s wrong with the writer’s language? Energy is not the same thing as massless particles; rather, energy is something that particles can have, whether they have mass or not. And “mass” and “matter” are not the same thing; “matter”, in fact, is ambiguous as a term, but generally is related to the notion of ordinary material made from atoms or their constituents, while mass is again something that particles can have, whether those particles make up matter or not. [For example, top anti-quarks are not part of matter, by most definitions of “matter”, but they certainly have mass! all of it obtained from the Higgs field(s).)] I often feel that physicists do a bad job of making these points clear to the public, and I fear we’re largely responsible for these confusions, along with high-school science classes.
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.
- Oh woe. Oh woe. Oh calamity. SO wrong. Definitely the most disastrous mistake of them all. There’s zero/zilch/nada/no-way/nothing to connect the Higgs story with gravity, which is what Einstein’s general relativity is about. The discovery of the Higgs particle changes nothing in our understanding of general relativity. And hey, general relativity is already fairly well confirmed (though one never stops testing a theory for weak points; it took hundreds of years to find a weak point in Newton’s.) Repeat: there is no obvious or direct connection between the Higgs field, or its particle, and gravity! Discovery of the Higgs particle merely represents (partial) confirmation of the idea that the masses of various elementary particles come from a Higgs field (or fields).
The Higgs — as particles do —
- as most but fortunately not all particles do — I suspect the writer meant this, but it’s not so clear…
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?