Of Particular Significance

The Topic(s) of the Upcoming Book

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 06/16/2023

Every book on science focuses attention on a little sliver of a vast, complex universe. In Waves in an Impossible Sea, I had intended to write mainly about the Higgs field, and the associated Higgs particle that was discovered in 2012 to great fanfare. I was planning to explain how the Higgs field does its job in the universe, and why it’s so important for the existence of life.

However, this plan had a problem. The Higgs field would be irrelevant were it not for quantum physics on the one hand and Einstein’s relativity on the other, and to comprehend the latter requires some understanding of Galileo’s earlier concept of relativity. To show why the Higgs field can give mass (more precisely, rest mass) to certain types of particles requires combining all of these notions together. Each of these topics is daunting, worthy of multiple books, and I knew I couldn’t hope to cover them all in 100,000 words!

To my surprise, resolving this problem wasn’t as difficult as I expected, once I picked out a few crucial elements about each of these subjects that I felt everyone ought to know. Lining up those conceptual points carefully, I found I could give a non-technical yet accurate explanation of how elementary particles can get mass from a Higgs field. (A more mathematical explanation has been given previously on this website, in two series of articles here and here.)

Yet what surprised me even more was that the book’s main subject slowly changed as I wrote it. It became focused on the question of how ordinary life emerges from an extraordinary cosmos. Though a substantial section of the book is devoted to the Higgs field, it is situated in a much wider context than I originally imagined.

This shift of emphasis happened naturally. I had to explain how quantum physics, relativity, and the nature of space are blended together in quantum field theory (our best guide, so far, as to how to describe the basics of the cosmos.) But along the way I had to introduce a slew of counter-intuitive ideas. That task, in turn, required deconstructing human intuition about the world we live in, and replacing it with something deeper and stranger, a child of lessons learned from modern physics.

A key question raised by this replacement is the value of common sense. Under what circumstances is common sense a help, and when is it a hindrance? What are its pros and cons? How has it aided or obstructed science, both historically and in the present day? When should we rely on it, and when should we disregard or distrust it? I’m curious to know what readers think: are you a fan of common sense, or not?

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47 Responses

  1. “Common sense” may have validity and utility over the range of systems and situations it evolved from, but applying that same “common sense” to entirely new and different phenomena is a recipe for gross misunderstanding and poor decision making.

    And for the record, I don’t have a STEM background. Very much looking forward to your book!

  2. A conversational definition might well be, “Common sense is that set of expectations about the world which at its best allows magicians and illusionists to be entertaining.”

  3. Common sense when dealing with human interactions, I strongly believe in. For example, the idea that if someone calls me out of the blue with a “special offer, just for today”, that it’s probably not worth pursuing..

    Common sense when dealing with physics? Certainly not the kind imparted from my parents, who still think global warming is a liberal conspiracy…

  4. Dear prof, by enjoying your wisdom about Higgs Field a lot, I was amazed at your knowledge, about a very recent matter and a little kind of post Doctoral that knowing something about it. I know a several Phd and no one dominates the matter as you do. I read again and deeply your mathematical articles about it and I can now understood a little more about it, but that is an extreme complex matter, but I don’t know how you will be able to transmit it to the lay people, because you will undoubtedly creates much more questions that they will can understands it, just as I have some questions and I ask you them, of course, if you can, please, explain us them, because they are questions and points not addressed in all your articles mentioned, even it on your various texts:

    “Is was there all the particles, out of mass, massless, in the Big Bang?”

    -Why didn’t they continues without it, and which phisics laws do deal that?

    -If they were without mass, massless, in the BB, how and why the Higgs Boson was the only one with mass?

    -Do Higgs Field Provide itself from Higgs Boson, or from more/other physics phenomena? Would it have endless mass to give or to reacts, or is it not their mass that is transfered? Then, from whom?

    -If post BB, today, there is no more massless particles that needs mass, then, what HBoson and HField done today?

    -How is it possible HField had reacted with all of the particles in this infinite universe? Is there in the far infinity, Bosons with no mass?

    -There is impossible to talk about HBoson and HField with no speaking about mass, so what it is mass in quantum level, on particles properties like spin, load, taste, color, etc,?

    -Why mass is wins or loses and it never occurs in many particles properties like its spin, charge, color, taste, etc?

    -Does mass changes in particles, to more or less, because the HField?

    -Are virtual particles come with mass, or do it need HField to get mass, but then, on it disintegration, where mass goes?

    -Does HField violated thermodinamics and conservation laws when creating or giving masses to the particles?

    -I saw that you describe the BB particles being without mass, massless, and then you describes them with mass after it. But I understood these transformations under the activity of HField, then I ask how particles would look today without their masses, on no HFiled, but you did not explain which properties they had before, massless, such as spin, charge, flavors, color, etc, then I ask you if such mathematics you used about it, If you could not can describe us those details about them in the premise massless?.

    -I undestand that massless particles situation in the BB, would be extremely instable, and the get-mass gave them such stability that they needed and then get their all properties, but how do you explain todays massless elementary particles, that they been stable now?

    -You described that the real property of particles, one in relation to the others, and in/to other interactions, they been that by their energy and not by their mass, so then, why do they get mass if it is not necessary for their gravitational stability? That is, if the mass is not relevant, why would be relevant the HField action so necessary? Or is there any other particle to be discovered yet, or some field, which that acts like HField and HBoson, but acting only on energy transmission? Would there been a transmitter or power supplier, like HField?

    Great prof, there are millions of doubts around the world about HBoson and HField, blowing up all this doubt after its discovered in LHC, but if you can, please, help us and explain something about those questions, we would thank you a lot. I know that not everything is known about it and much research is waited for, and some discoveries, until LHC, but I also know that you are at the tip/peak, on top of discoveries, in your environment, and we waiting your help and to elucidate us as you can. Sorry for mistakes, a lot of. Thank you very much, noble prof.

    1. Oh, goodness. There should be no doubt about the Higgs field and the Higgs boson; the proof is in the data, and the issue is largely settled. There are still questions of detail, but you would not see data lining up as in Figure 3 of https://atlas.cern/updates/briefing/higgs-boson-finds-strength-unity if there were still doubts worth having.

      Many of your questions are answered in my book. As you might guess, a lot of your questions represent confusions about what it means for the Higgs field to “give” particles their masses; it’s not really a gift. No conservation laws are violated.

      Virtual particles are a completely different story from real particles; real particles have a definite mass, virtual particles are not even particles and their masses can be anything, even imaginary numbers — and before you worry about what that might mean, let me say again: ***virtual particles are not particles: they don’t behave like particles and don’t follow the rules that particles have to follow, and therefore using particle intuition to try to understand them leads to confusion and failure.***

      Mass at the quantum level is exactly what it is before quantum physics: there are several types of mass (after Einstein) so we need to be precise, and when we are precise, the *rest mass* of an isolated object is the energy that it contains internally (disregarding any energy it may have from any motion it might have), divided by a constant of nature, c^2. That’s it. Nothing more or less.

      I do think you will find my book useful, not because it will answer every one of these questions but because it will answer some of them and show others to be based on conceptual misunderstandings. You will probably still have a few left over at the end.

  5. Am I write to presume that the face lift you have given to your blog/website is in anticipation of more traffic from the book release?

  6. Please, last question: in what time does HB give mass to other mass-less particle? And why it would need mass? And most of all, why did this mass-less particle that received mass before, need recive mass? What kind of reaction caused that? And in what kind of particles do this occur? All particles? Then, why them was mass-less before? Thanks noble prof

    1. Hi — these are questions that I have addressed on the blog, and will be addressed anew (less technically) in the book. The Higgs boson gives mass to nothing at all. The Higgs field gives mass to things. Do not confuse the boson (a ripple in the field) with the field itself. The Higgs field gives mass to those massless particles with which it interacts directly. It does not interact directly with photons and gluons, so it leaves them massless. (If you have some math background, you can follow this series of articles: https://profmattstrassler.com/technical-zone/the-triplet-the-w-mass/1-the-vacuum-of-field-theory/ ; if not, you’ll want to wait for the book.) The Higgs field “switched on” in the very early moments of the Big Bang and immediately settled down; those particles which got their mass from the Higgs field have had it ever since then. Particle do not “need” mass, but if they interact with the Higgs field directly, they got it. The details of why these other particles were massless before the Higgs field “switched on” is specifically covered here: https://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/how-the-higgs-field-works-with-math/4-why-the-higgs-field-is-necessary/ ; it’s a math fact, one that involves the details of our universe, and is not a conceptual issue that would be true in all possible universes.

  7. Hi prof, I just read all your mathematical articles of Higgs field , although I did not understand them very well, but I ask you if it would not be possible in theory, Higgs particles provides mass to particles originally without mass, like photon and gluon, or even increasing Them more mass for Eletron and Quarks? All this iby theory. Thanks

    1. Improving the question: If Higg Boson gives mass to less-mass particles (what particles? All them?), then could it give mass to photons and gluons? What do says about the Higgs Field Theory?

  8. No fan of “common sense” in many or most of its meanings, especially when it is used to express personal (and possibly uncommon) opinion and/or attack misunderstood science.

    The evolutionary roots of the “controlled hallucination” which underlies our notions of “common sense” consciousness has recently been explored in a Quanta article [ https://www.quantamagazine.org/what-is-the-nature-of-consciousness-20230531/ ]. The interviewed neuroscientist share my hypothesis that all animals are conscious to various degree, but he interestingly expands into “a vast space of possible minds” which can describe the limitations:

    “I think it’s very likely that very many animals have consciousness because consciousness is a very functional thing. You know, it brings a lot of information together for an organism in a way that’s sort of unified and also informative with respect to what actions should be made. We experience the body in motion and the state of the world all kind of at once. So it’s solving a problem for organisms about how to take a lot of things into account in a relevant way for continued survival. So I think it’s likely, but it’s incredibly hard to come up with 100% confidence about this stuff, especially when we get beyond mammals to insects, to fish, to bacteria. Where do you draw the line? It’s very hard — or even to know whether there is a line to draw, or whether consciousness just kind of peters out into nothingness in a very, very graduated fashion.”

    An interesting question when is if “social snapshots” such as Large Language Models (such as ChatGPT) are or can become conscious!? We are after all biochemical machines ourselves that embodies a set of embedded and often nested Turing machines in various ways (biochemistry, cells, brains). Today LLMs are not, their uncontrolled hallucinations show that. But soon they may be able to read what sounds like it will be an illuminating read, “Waves in an Impossible Sea”.

    1. “Today LLMs are not, their uncontrolled hallucinations show that.” – Today LLMs are not conscious, their uncontrolled hallucinations show that.

  9. I’m a fan of what one might call persistent consensual common sense — sense that’s survived the test of time and that most intelligent experienced people embrace. While I’m fully aware of how our senses are only a narrow window onto reality, I don’t agree that our perceptions are necessarily false because of that. I think we perceive a kind of wireframe model of reality. Accurate enough for us to navigate the world but missing an awful lot of details and textures.

    [Obligatory comment about how “common sense” isn’t common.]

    “…the question of how ordinary life emerges from an extraordinary cosmos.”

    Ah, but I’d opine that life is extraordinary, too! We are, after all, a part of that cosmos. Possibly one of its most stunning achievements.

    1. I’ll agree with your last lines (indeed that’s part of the book’s point.) As for the first paragraph — what would you say about the common sense that color is real? i.e., it’s common sense that clouds are white. But they aren’t. They just look white to the human eye; there’s nothing in the physical world corresponding to “white.”

      1. Well, we might need to agree on exactly what we mean by “common sense”, but I’d argue that color is real in the sense that photons have a frequency, and the human visual system responds differently to photons of different frequencies in the “visible light” range.

        The water vapor in clouds generally scatters those same frequencies, so if the mixture of frequencies we define as “white light” are scattered, then clouds appear white (or in lovely colors at sunset). I would say that anything in the physical world that does scatter the full range of visible light could be called “white”.

        1. Well, you’re mistaken, but you’re not the first intelligent person to be confused by common sense about color. Newton, for instance, identified the rainbow as having seven colors (whereas the true number is infinite, and the tendency to see finite bands is a matter of human physiology) and linked color to the seven notes of the western musical scale (not knowing it was western) and the seven days of God’s week ( also cultural of course.) This was a red herring and a white elephant, and not his best scientific work. It is a perfect example of applying human intuition in a cosmic setting and thinking it tells you how things actually work. For physicists, it is important to avoid mistaking the physiology of a particular species, even our own, for fundamental physics of the universe, which is what we’re actually trying to learn.

          I encourage you to read http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/vision/colper.html and think about it for a while. (I believe it is somewhat out of date as far as the physiology, but the rough ideas are right and the text is basically right.) Also, ask yourself the following questions. You said ” anything in the physical world that does scatter the full range of visible light could be called “white”.”, but what about pink, light blue, grey and brown, not to mention off-whites and beige — can’t they be created by scattering the full range of visible light? Simply saying “broad-band” is not enough, so please be more specific. Also, what about the fact that the combination of three ultra-narrow bands — red, green and blue — also combine to make white? And finally, if you went back in time six billion years ago, before Earth and humans, and you met an alien, how would you define white for that creature? You said “visible light” — but what is that in the physical universe? Suppose humans and their visual systems had never existed — would “white” exist?

            1. Which, again, is why I specifically called out the “human visual system”. Mantis shrimp, dogs, cats, and insects all have different visual systems.

              1. All this is true; but you’re just proving my point. Most people think that “white light” is a thing that exists in the wide universe… that there are stars that are white, and planets that are white. But this is not true. There are planets that ***appear white to humans.*** That is a very different thing from saying that there are planets that ***are white.***. “White” is a physiological response and a conscious experience, and it exists only in the human brain. It can only be defined relative to the human visual system. Without that visual system, it has no meaning.

                I do think you are confused about what “white” is from the scientific point of view, but this is too long a discussion for today. In short, color-perception is an infinite-to-one map from an infinite-dimensional function space F(frequency) to a color perception space that is few-dimensional, and your definition of white takes a tiny slice of that map and assigns it meaning that it does not have.

                1. Well, this is why I said we might need to agree on what’s meant by “common sense”. For those who know nothing about the physics of color, yeah, they might think “white” was something universal, but anyone who does know something about how color works (photographers, cinematographers, lighting designers, graphic designers, and many others) have a different “common sense” about it.

                  Our perception of color is certainly subjective, but why we perceive various wavelengths of light as various colors can be objectively defined. Frankly, I think it’s unbecoming to call someone “confused” without a better understanding of their background. Nothing here or on the page you linked to is new to me.

          1. With respect, sir, I don’t believe I’m mistaken or confused. I referenced the “human visual system” and quoted “visible light” exactly because of the issues you mention. As I’m sure you know, I was referring to light in the 400-790 THz range. I wrote ‘the mixture of frequencies we define as “white light”‘ (emphasis added) because of these issues. I’m quite aware of how fundamental physics as well as how the human (and other) visual systems apply.

            Were I in the position of defining “white light” for aliens, I’d start by calling out the frequency range just mentioned (or by referring to the wavelengths involved). I’d also explain how humans typically have three receptors, the S, M, and L cones that react to different frequency ranges. I might add that other creatures have different visual systems and perceive light differently.

            As for pink, light blue, grey, brown, off-whites, and beige, objects we would so label scatter light differently than objects we’d label “pure white”. As I pointed out by mentioning clouds at sunset, the color of the source illumination matters in our perception of an object’s color. As you know, the human visual system is very good at defining “white” in relative terms (film isn’t, which is why there are “outdoor” and “indoor” film types). Ideally, to define the color of an object, one would need to measure the wavelengths it scattered using a light source emitting the full range of wavelengths of interest.

            As to RGB synthesizing “white” (or any other color of) light, this works because of our tri-cone visual system. Some conference rooms are walled in “privacy glass” with tight notch filters for the RGB wavelengths (625, 525, and 460 nm respectively). Since all other wavelengths pass through, and because our three cones respond to nearby wavelengths, the glass appears transparent to the eye except that display screens appear black because those specific RGB values are filtered out. On the flip side, an object that scattered only the RGB values would appear white to humans, but I’d argue that it wasn’t truly white but very specifically a weird mix of red, green, and blue.

            The physics of visible light, color, and human vision are deep topics, and quite a lot more could be said, but as a brief precis I think my earlier reply is neither mistaken or confused.

  10. Maybe companion read woul be The Case Against Reality by Donald Hoffman and some related research.
    It makes intuitive sense: fitness trumps veracity.

  11. Related to my common sense is my belief, which in turn comes from the way my human biological makeup interprets and organizes information from my senses to create a coherent model of the ‘me’ I see in a mirror and the rest of the world. There’s an interesting interview related to the above between neuroscientist Dr David Eagleman and Robert Lawrence Kuhn in a video that can be found via Google: Is Time Real?

    I think that the physics community as a whole is composed in part at least, of the conservative older generation with their common sense to maintain their social group, and younger progressives with their common sense constructing their emerging social groups that will eventually become stable and conservative. From one another’s perspective, both are a hindrance to the other to a degree at least, yet essential in maintaining an evolving physics community with an exchange of information and ideas, slowly adapting to the human species learning more about everything else ‘outside’ of it.

    “How has it [common sense] aided or obstructed science, both historically and in the present day?”

    The radiating electron and its radiation reaction springs to my mind. Creating models for the electron was cutting edge physics up to 1913 when Bohr brought out his paper. Fermi and Frenkel continued to write their papers on the electron within classical electrodynamics in the early 1920s until Heisenberg published his famous 1925 quantum mechanics paper. Yet Dirac wrote his famous 1938 paper on classically radiating electrons, Wheeler and Feynman their papers in the late 1940s, Sydney Coleman wrote his classical electron theory paper in 1961.

    I find it fascinating that despite the superiority of quantum mechanics, many physicists still had a need to turn to classical electrodynamics for the electron, I’m guessing to fully understand it in the hope of resolving the difficulties that existed within QED at that time. Even today in 2023, papers are being written that still reference Dirac’s 1938 paper.

    1. Well, regarding the radiating electron, the intuition that electrons should radiate is already pretty sophisticated physics intuition, and not so common. By contrast, I would have said that the intuition that would really get in the way of quantum physics would include this one: that an object that comes in ones and twos and threes should be a particle-like thing, and not wave-like thing. In ordinary life, we never see waves come in chunks.

      1. I think I’ve misinterpreted the common sense you want opinions on: is it the type of common sense you expect from the readers your book is aimed at?

        I’d expect most of your readers are going into, are in, or retired from a STEM background; the types that are likely to have Stephen Hawking’s book on their shelf: A Brief History of Time or Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. I’m a fan of common sense and analogy if it’s skillfully used by an author to cut down on the number of pages required, balanced against the accuracy of the main ideas.

        One important example where a ‘common sense’ explanation has been obstructive for me, and others, is where physicists have their varying explanations on Coulomb’s law via action at a distance by virtual photons. For them, virtual photons are real photons that remain close to a particle where they’re quickly reabsorbed; yet somehow affect charges far away via their virtual photons.
        Your article elsewhere emphasized that a virtual photon is just a disturbance in the EM field that can still affect charged fields, but not enough to create a photon that can be measured, which cleared up my confusion over this.

        I love Wikipedia and the way people give their time and energy for free, but this article on the above appears all over the place in comparison:

        Static forces and virtual-particle exchange
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Static_forces_and_virtual-particle_exchange

  12. Common sense serves well as a connection point, even if you intend to depart from it. It allows me to calibrate what you’re talking, helping to alleviate the “I think I understand what you mean, but I understand you to mean something entirely different than what you actually mean” problem.

    1. Your point being that it has a role in human communication…? That’s an important point, I think. We do have to interpret what people do and what they say, and it’s hard to do that without some “common sense” about why a reasonable person might be doing what they are doing, or why they might have said something in particular.

      1. Right. It’s not dissimilar to the writing advice to have a particular audience in mind: not so much because only that audience will possible gain value from it, or even that you only truly want to reach one audience, but that by making that decision, you’re implicitly selecting a stepping off point, that other people can recognize and adjust to.

        By extended analogy: I may not be at the convenience store down the street, but I know where it is and can translate directions given in terms of its location to fit my own circumstance, and if the directions proceed to tell me to turn on a street that isn’t anywhere near the convenience store I’m thinking of, I can easily recognize that something has gone wrong (vs directions that are more self-contained “go one block and turn left”, which may make sense locally even though they’re actually nonsense given the wrong starting point).

        And if none of this is what you were intending to talk about when discussing “common-sense”, well, that’s very much my point 😀

        1. Unrelated: very happy to see you back; the articles on this site have been invaluable as reference material in a great many conversations on the internet and in real-life.

        2. Well, no, I did want to explore the notion of common sense and what it works for and what it doesn’t. It’s common sense that if you’re mean to someone, they’re probably going to be mean back. On the other hand it’s also common sense that any object can be divided or broken into smaller pieces. So there’s sort of a social-world common sense and a natural-world common sense, and the distinctions and differences are interesting to think about.

  13. Common sense depends on what you can sense and at what scale. Someone blind will have difficulty with colors even though they can sense heat and get a doctorate in electromagnetic theory. Red-green color-blindness gives rise to “You’re pulling my leg! There’s no numbers in those dots”. I remember a scene in the old “Man From Atlantis” TV series. The man is asked, “Do you see what we see?” and he responds, “I don’t know what you see.” I realized then that everyone’s views are really subjective; so everyone’s sense isn’t ‘common’ at all. We just agree to agree. An amoeba probably realizes that there is no such thing as inertial. If you stop wiggling your flagella, you stop moving. That’s just common sense. Common sense seems to be when you work things out together from a set of axioms on which you both agree. And you have to take those axioms on faith – but I would suggest forgoing faith and substitute reproducible experiment.

  14. If common sense weren’t so subjective, I might be a fan. At present I’m just trying to stay out of trouble.

    1. Well, some common sense is subjective, but a lot of it isn’t. It was common sense for centuries that things won’t move for very long if you don’t push them. It’s common sense that heavier things fall faster than light things. Of course these particular examples are wrong beliefs, but there’s a reason why many people believe them.

  15. I think you are the best physics explainer on earth. I think it’s common sense to believe that i don’t know all the physics explainers, so it’s common sense to believe that i might be wrong. If however i somehow can prove to know all the physics explainers, then it’s common sense to accept that my initial statement was correct.

    Always happy to read news from you. Good luck.

    (i don’t know them all but still think I’m correct. Common sense? 🙂 )

    1. Well, on that you’re surely too kind; it’s a big planet. But hopefully I am the best explainer of the subject of the book. I’d be pretty happy with that!

  16. Matt: delighted to hear about your upcoming book. I will be first in line to buy it. As for “common sense”, I am a fan of John S Bell, whose last paper was called “Against Measurement”. I’m sure you’ve read it so I will leave it here.

    1. Universal among human beings, you mean? (Certainly not among all species, Earthbound and otherwise.) That’s a great question: how much of it is preprogrammed and how much is culturally learned? Presumably some things are preprogrammed, such as the sense that the ground is solid and stable and safe to walk on — in fact that’s probably preprogramming common to all walking species.

        1. In French common sense is “bon sense”. Following this I propose to use good sense instead of common sense, also following good smell, good taste, good looking, good feeling, good hearing.

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