News Flash: Has a New Axial Higgs Boson (Possibly Dark Matter) Been Discovered?

No.

No, no, no.

I was tempted to blame the science journalists for the incredibly wrong articles about this, but in fact it seems entirely the fault of the scientists involved.

Look at the opening of their abstract in Nature.

“The observation of the Higgs boson solidified the standard model of particle physics. However, explanations of anomalies (for example, dark matter) rely on further symmetry breaking, calling for an undiscovered axial Higgs mode.”

These first statement is true. The second is true/false, Ă  la Cicero, where you can’t say it’s either one. It weaves grains of truth into a misleading sentence, implying all sorts of false things that would give any non-expert the wrong impression. What comes next?

“The Higgs mode was also seen in magnetic, superconducting and charge density wave (CDW) systems.”

Suddenly we’re not talking about the Higgs boson anymore. We’re talking about “the Higgs mode” — that’s a Higgs-like ripple in an object made of atoms — an analogue to the Higgs boson found in an physical material. This kind of “Higgs mode” cannot exist outside of that material.

“Uncovering the vector properties of a low-energy mode is challenging, and requires going beyond typical spectroscopic or scattering techniques. Here we discover an axial Higgs mode in the CDW system RTe3 using the interference of quantum pathways.”

Oh, so that’s what this was all about… finding an axial mode in a physical material, which cannot exist outside of that material. Cool. But not what it sounded like initially.

In short, this discovery has nothing directly to do with either Higgs bosons such as we see at the Large Hadron Collider, nor dark matter as seen in its possible effects on galaxies… both of them being phenomena which can exist in empty space anywhere in the universe. If you’d gotten the impression that this was going to be a paper about particle physics, well… Bait and Switch.

It’s not unusual for material (“condensed-matter”) systems to have analogues to phenomena in high energy physics. The Higgs mechanism, which gives the W and Z bosons their mass, has an analogue which gives the photon a mass inside a superconductor; indeed that was behind Anderson’s thinking when he first suggested there might be a mechanism to do this in particle physics. The universe may have cosmic strings, and it certainly has confining flux tubes, both of which are analogous to another phenomenon, Abrikosov vortices, in superconductors. Not that long ago there were claims of discoveries of Majorana-type particles in material systems, which may or may not be analogues for neutrinos, sort of. (Many press articles unfortunately failed to make clear that these were “analogues”.) Then there’s the use of “dumb holes”, artificial systems in materials from which sound cannot escape, as analogues for “black holes” — objects in empty space from which light cannot escape. There are many more.

Analogues like this are wonderful, worthy of study, and can sometimes provide important new insights. But let’s not get confused here. An analogue to dark matter isn’t going to form the backbone of galaxies, nor is an analogue to an axial Higgs boson related to the Higgs field which gives mass to your electrons.

The blatant over-advertising of this discovery in condensed-matter physics, as though it were a major discovery in particle physics as well, has directed attention away from this nice experiment (which I would otherwise have been happy to blog about), and focused our attention instead on the authors’ public relations. What is the public to think when claims of huge discoveries are made, and broadcast through the media as virtually Nobel-Prize-worthy, which have nothing to do with what has actually been done in the experiment? When journalists are led to write headlines such as “Physicists Discover Never-Before Seen Particle Sitting On a Tabletop; The Newly Discovered Particle Could Account For Dark Matter”, when in fact this is a “quasi-particle” inside a material from which it cannot escape (and moreover, table-top discoveries of quasi-particles are not uncommon), then something has gone very wrong indeed. The authors have caused immense confusion, and damaged science’s reputation, for the sake of fifteen minutes of infamy.

11 responses to “News Flash: Has a New Axial Higgs Boson (Possibly Dark Matter) Been Discovered?

  1. Pingback: When is a Higgs not a Higgs? | Life and Physics

  2. I thank you for giving clarity to sensational titles !!

  3. @UN
    If the world was in a space race? Then I guess I win.
    #superearth

  4. Rare Earth is particular 🙂

  5. Pingback: ObservaciĂłn potencial de una cuasipartĂ­cula de tipo Higgs axial en telururos de tierras raras - La Ciencia de la Mula Francis

  6. Daniel Arovas

    All physicists should be aware that any “particle” observed in condensed matter is either a quasiparticle or a collective mode, and not “elementary.” The authors of this interesting paper weren’t trying to snow anybody.

  7. Bhibuthi bhusan Patel

    As Higgs boson has mass,can aquire gravity so as to produce this magnetic flux.

  8. Bhibuthi bhusan Patel

    Thus this experiment can verify the mass difference in the W boson by Fermi Lab. with confirmation.No dark matter but common gravity is responsible for the phenomena.Congratulation to the aithor and physicsts for discovery Higgs boson magnetic mode.

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