Category Archives: History of Science

Wednesday: Sean Carroll & I Interviewed Again by Alan Boyle

Today, Wednesday December 4th, at 8 pm Eastern/5 pm Pacific time, Sean Carroll and I will be interviewed again by Alan Boyle on “Virtually Speaking Science”.   The link where you can listen in (in real time or at your leisure) is

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtually-speaking-science/2013/12/05/alan-boyle-matt-strassler-sean-carroll

What is “Virtually Speaking Science“?  It is an online radio program that presents, according to its website:

  • Informal conversations hosted by science writers Alan Boyle, Tom Levenson and Jennifer Ouellette, who explore the explore the often-volatile landscape of science, politics and policy, the history and economics of science, science deniers and its relationship to democracy, and the role of women in the sciences.

Sean Carroll is a Caltech physicist, astrophysicist, writer and speaker, blogger at Preposterous Universe, who recently completed an excellent and now prize-winning popular book (which I highly recommend) on the Higgs particle, entitled “The Particle at the End of the Universe“.  Our interviewer Alan Boyle is a noted science writer, author of the book “The Case for Pluto“, winner of many awards, and currently NBC News Digital’s science editor [at the blog  “Cosmic Log“].

Sean and I were interviewed in February by Alan on this program; here’s the link.  I was interviewed on Virtually Speaking Science once before, by Tom Levenson, about the Large Hadron Collider (here’s the link).  Also, my public talk “The Quest for the Higgs Particle” is posted in their website (here’s the link to the audio and to the slides).

The Twists and Turns of Hi(gg)story

In sports, as in science, there are two very different types of heroes.  There are the giants who lead the their teams and their sport, winning championships and accolades, for years, and whose fame lives on for decades: the Michael Jordans, the Peles, the Lou Gherigs, the Joe Montanas. And then there are the unlikely heroes, the ones who just happen to have a really good day at a really opportune time; the substitute player who comes on the field for an injured teammate and scores the winning goal in a championship; the fellow who never hits a home run except on the day it counts; the mediocre receiver who turns a short pass into a long touchdown during the Super Bowl.  We celebrate both types, in awe of the great ones, and in amused pleasure at the inspiring stories of the unlikely ones.

In science we have giants like Newton, Darwin, Boyle, Galileo… The last few decades of particle physics brought us a few, such as Richard Feynman and Ken Wilson, and others we’ll meet today.  Many of these giants received Nobel Prizes.   But then we have the gentlemen behind what is commonly known as the Higgs particle — the little ripple in the Higgs field, a special field whose presence and properties assure that many of the elementary particles of nature have mass, and without which ordinary matter, and we ourselves, could not exist.  Following discovery of this particle last year, and confirmation that it is indeed a Higgs particle, two of them, Francois Englert and Peter Higgs, have been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics.  Had he lived to see the day, Robert Brout would have been the third.

My articles Why The Higgs Particle Matters and The Higgs FAQ 2.0; the particles of nature and what they would be like if the Higgs field were turned off; link to video of my public talk entitled The Quest for the Higgs Boson; post about why Higgs et al. didn’t win the 2012 Nobel prize, and about how physicists became convinced since then that the newly discovered particle is really a Higgs particle;

The paper written by Brout and Englert; the two papers written by Higgs; the paper written by Gerald Guralnik, Tom Kibble and Carl Hagen; these tiny little documents, a grand total of five and one half printed pages — these were game-winning singles in the bottom of the 9th, soft goals scored with a minute to play, Hail-Mary passes by backup quarterbacks — crucial turning-point papers written by people you would not necessarily have expected to find at the center of things.  Brout, Englert, Higgs, Guralnik, Kibble and Hagen are (or rather, in Brout’s case, sadly, were) very fine scientists, intelligent and creative and clever, and their papers, written in 1964 when they were young men, are imperfect but pretty gems.  They were lucky: very smart but not extraordinary physicists who just happened to write the right paper at the right time. In each case, they did so

History in general, and history of science in particular, is always vastly more complex than the simple stories we tell ourselves and our descendants.  Making history understandable in a few pages always requires erasing complexities and subtleties that are crucial for making sense of the past.  Today, all across the press, there are articles explaining incorrectly what Higgs and the others did and why they did it and what it meant at the time and what it means now.  I am afraid I have a few over-simplified articles of my own. But today I’d like to give you a little sense of the complexities, to the extent that I, who wasn’t even alive at the time, can understand them.  And also, I want to convey a few important lessons that I think the Hi(gg)story can teach both experts and non-experts.  Here are a couple to think about as you read:

1. It is important for theoretical physicists, and others who make mathematical equations that might describe the world, to study and learn from imaginary worlds, especially simple ones.  That is because

  • 1a. one can often infer general lessons more easily from simple worlds than from the (often more complicated) real one, and
  • 1b. sometimes an aspect of an imaginary world will turn out to be more real than you expected!

2. One must not assume that research motivated by a particular goal depends upon the achievement of that goal; even if the original goal proves illusory, the results of the research may prove useful or even essential in a completely different arena.

My summary today is based on a reading of the papers themselves, on comments by John Iliopoulos, and on a conversation with Englert, and on reading and hearing Higgs’ own description of the episode.

The story is incompletely but perhaps usefully illustrated in the figure below, which shows a cartoon of how four important scientific stories of the late 1950s and early 1960s came together. They are:

  1. How do superconductors (materials that carry electricity without generating heat) really work?
  2. How does the proton get its mass, and why are pions (the lightest hadrons) so much lighter than protons?
  3. Why do hadrons behave the way they do; specifically, as suggested by J.J. Sakurai (who died rather young, and after whom a famous prize is named), why are there photon-like hadrons, called rho mesons, that have mass?
  4. How does the weak nuclear force work?  Specifically, as suggested by Schwinger and developed further by his student Glashow, might it involve photon-like particles (now called W and Z) with mass?

These four questions converged on a question of principle: “how can mass be given to particles?”, and the first, third and fourth were all related to the specific question of “how can mass be given to photon-like particles?’’  This is where the story really begins.  [Almost everyone in the story is a giant with a Nobel Prize, indicated with a parenthetic (NPyear).]

My best attempt at a cartoon history...

My best attempt at a cartoon history…

In 1962, Philip Anderson (NP1977), an expert on (among other things) superconductors, responded to suggestions and questions of Julian Schwinger (NP1965) on the topic of photon-like particles with mass, pointing out that a photon actually gets a mass inside a superconductor, due to what we today would identify as a sort of “Higgs-type’’ field made from pairs of electrons.  And he speculated, without showing it mathematically, that very similar ideas could apply to empty space, where Einstein’s relativity principles hold true, and that this could allow elementary photon-like particles in empty space to have mass, if in fact there were a kind of Higgs-type field in empty space.

In all its essential elements, he had the right idea.  But since he didn’t put math behind his speculation, not everyone believed him.  In fact, in 1964 Walter Gilbert (NP1980 for chemistry, due to work relevant in molecular biology — how’s that for a twist?) even gave a proof that Anderson’s idea couldn’t work in empty space!

But Higgs immediately responded, arguing that Gilbert’s proof had an important loophole, and that photon-like particles could indeed get a mass in empty space.

Meanwhile, about a month earlier than Higgs, and not specifically responding to Anderson and Gilbert, Brout and Englert wrote a paper showing how to get mass for photon-like particles in empty space. They showed this in several types of imaginary worlds, using techniques that were different from Higgs’ and were correct though perhaps not entirely complete.

A second paper by Higgs, written before he was aware of Brout and Englert’s work, gave a simple example, again in an imaginary world, that made all of this much easier to understand… though his example wasn’t perhaps entirely convincing, because he didn’t show much detail.  His paper was followed by important theoretical clarifications from Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble that assured that the Brout-Englert and Higgs papers were actually right.  The combination of these papers settled the issue, from our modern perspective.

And in the middle of this, as an afterthought added to his second paper only after it was rejected by a journal, Higgs was the first person to mention something that was, for him and the others, almost beside the point — that in the Anderson-Brout-Englert-Higgs-Guralnik-Hagen-Kibble story for how photon-like particles get a mass, there will also  generally be a spin-zero particle with a mass: a ripple in the Higgs-type field, which today we call a Higgs-type particle.  Not that he said very much!   He noted that spin-one (i.e. photon-like) and spin-zero particles would come in unusual combinations.  (You have to be an expert to even figure out why that counts as predicting a Higgs-type particle!)  Also he wrote the equation that describes how and why the Higgs-type particle arises, and noted how to calculate the particle’s mass from other quantities.  But that was it.  There was nothing about how the particle would behave, or how to discover it in the imaginary worlds that he was considering;  direct application to experiment, even in an imaginary world, wasn’t his priority in these papers.

Equation (2b) is the first time the Higgs particle explicitly appears in its modern form

In his second paper, Higgs considers a simple imaginary world with just a photon-like particle and a Higgs-type field.  Equation 2b is the first place the Higgs-type particle explicitly appears in the context of giving photon-like particles a mass (equation 2c).  From Physical Review Letters, Volume 13, page 508

About the “Higgs-type” particle, Anderson says nothing; Brout and Englert say nothing; Guralnik et al. say something very brief that’s irrelevant in any imaginable real-world application.  Why the silence?  Perhaps because it was too obvious to be worth mentioning?  When what you’re doing is pointing out something really “important’’ — that photon-like particles can have a mass after all — the spin-zero particle’s existence is so obvious but so irrelevant to your goal that it hardly deserves comment.  And that’s indeed why Higgs added it only as an afterthought, to make the paper a bit less abstract and a bit easier for  a journal to publish.  None of them could have imagined the hoopla and public excitement that, five decades later, would surround the attempt to discover a particle of this type, whose specific form in the real world none of them wrote down.

In the minds of these authors, any near-term application of their ideas would probably be to hadrons, perhaps specifically Sakurai’s theory of hadrons, which in 1960 predicted the “rho mesons”, which are photon-like hadrons with mass, and had been discovered in 1961.  Anderson, Brout-Englert and Higgs specifically mention hadrons at certain moments. But none of them actually considered the real hadrons of nature, as they were just trying to make points of principle; and in any case, the ideas that they developed did not apply to hadrons at all.  (Well, actually, that’s not quite true, but the connection is too roundabout to discuss here.)  Sakurai’s ideas had an element of truth, but fundamentally led to a dead end.  The rho mesons get their mass in another way.

Meanwhile, none of these people wrote down anything resembling the Higgs field which we know today — the one that is crucial for our very existence — so they certainly didn’t directly predict the Higgs particle that was discovered in 2012.   It was Steven Weinberg (NP1979) in 1967, and Abdus Salam (NP1979) in 1968, who did that.  (And it was Weinberg who stuck Higgs’ name on the field and particle, so that everyone else was forgotten.) These giants combined

  • the ideas of Higgs and the others about how to give mass to photon-like particles using a Higgs-type field, with its Higgs-type particle as a consequence…
  • …with the 1960 work of Sheldon Glashow (NP1979), Schwinger’s student, who like Schwinger proposed the weak nuclear force was due to photon-like particles with mass,…
  • …and with the 1960-1961 work of Murray Gell-Man (NP1969) and Maurice Levy and of Yoichiro Nambu (NP2008) and Giovanni Jona-Lasinio, who showed how proton-like or electron-like particles could get mass from what we’d now call Higgs-type fields.

This combination gave the first modern quantum field theory of particle physics: a set of equations that describe the weak nuclear and electromagnetic forces, and show how the Higgs field can give the W and Z particles and the electron their masses. It is the primitive core of what today we call the Standard Model of particle physics.  Not that anyone took this theory seriously, even Weinberg.  Most people thought quantum field theories of this type were mathematically inconsistent — until in 1971 Gerard ‘t Hooft (NP1999) proved they were consistent after all.

The Hi(gg)story is populated with giants.  I’m afraid my attempt to tell the story has giant holes to match.  But as far as the Higgs particle that was discovered last year at the Large Hadron Collider, the unlikely heroes of the story are the relatively ordinary scientists who slipped in between the giants and actually scored the goals.

Some Pre-Nobel Prizes

This year’s Nobel Prize, presumably to be given for the prediction of the particle known today as the “Higgs boson”, will be awarded next week.  But in the meantime, the American Physical Society has made a large number of awards.  A few of them are to people whose work I know about, so I thought I’d tell you just a little about them.

The J. J. Sakurai prize went to Professors Zvi Bern, Lance Dixon and David Kosower, for the work that I have already described on this website here and here.  Dixon, a wide-ranging expert in particle physics, quantum field theory and string theory, was a young professor at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center when I was a Stanford graduate student.  He taught an excellent course on string theory, and provided a lot of scientific advice and insight outside the classroom.  Bern and Kosower were young scientists using string theory to learn about how to do computations in quantum field theory, and their surprising results formed the starting point for my Ph. D. thesis (which has their names in its title.)   The range of their work is hard to describe in a paragraph, but let’s just say that no one is surprised that they were awarded a prize of this magnitude.

The Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics was awarded to my former colleague Greg Moore, a professor at Rutgers University.  “For eminent contributions to mathematical physics with a wide influence in many fields, ranging from string theory to supersymmetric gauge theory, conformal field theory, condensed matter physics and four-manifold theory.”  Allow me to translate:

  • string theory: you’ve heard about it, probably
  • supersymmetric gauge theory: quantum field theories with supersymmetry, which I’ll be writing about soon
  • conformal field theory: basically, quantum field theories that are scale invariant
  • condensed matter physics: the study of solids and liquids and their mechanical and electrical properties, and lots of other things too, in which quantum field theory is sometimes a useful tool
  • four-manifold theory: the mathematics of spaces which have four-spatial dimensions, or three-spatial dimensions and one-time dimension.  These spaces are very interesting to mathematicians, and also, they’re interesting because we live in one.

This is not the complete range of Moore’s work by any means.  Unfortunately this website doesn’t yet have pages that can put his work in proper context, but perhaps I’ll return to it later.  But again, no surprise here to see Moore’s name on this award.

The Tom W. Bonner Prize in Nuclear Physics was awarded to experimental physicist William A. Zajc, currently chairman of the Columbia University physics department.  Zajc has been heavily involved in one of the most surprising discoveries of the past fifteen years: that a hot dense fireball of quarks, anti-quarks and gluons (produced in the collision of two relatively large atomic nuclei) behaves in a very unexpected way, more like a very low viscosity liquid rather like than a gas.  I’ve known him partly because of his interest in the attempts to apply string theory to certain quantum field theories that are perhaps relevant in the modeling of this novel physical system… something I’ll also probably be writing about in the relatively near future.

And the W.K.H. Panofsky Prize in Experimental Particle Physics went to Kam-Biu Luk (Berkeley) and Yifang Wang (Director of China’s Institute of High Energy Physics): For their leadership of the Daya Bay experiment, which produced the first definitive measurement of the theta-13 angle of the neutrino mixing matrix.  For the same experiment, the Henry Primakoff Award for Early-Career Particle Physics went to Daniel A. Dwyer of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.  I wrote about the Daya Bay measurement here; their result is one of the major measurements in particle physics in the past few years.

I wish I knew more about the other recipients outside my areas of expertise, but other bloggers will have to cover those stories.

Anyway, no surprises, but some very deserving scientists.  Let’s see if next Tuesday brings the same result.

Strings: History, Development, Impact

Done: All three parts of my lecture for a general audience on String Theory are up now…

Beyond the Hype: The Weird World of String Theory (Science on Tap, Seattle, WA, September 25, 2006). Though a few years old, this talk is still very topical; it covers the history, development, context and impact of string theory from its earliest beginnings to the (then) present.

Be forewarned: although the audio is pretty good, this was an amateur video taken by one of the organizers of the talk, and because the place was small and totally packed with people, it’s not great quality… but good enough to follow, I think, so I’ve posted it.

  1. Part 1 (10 mins.): String theory’s beginnings in hadron physics and the early attempts to use it as a theory of quantum gravity.
  2. Part 2 (10 mins.): String theory was shown to be a mathematically consistent candidate for a theory of all of quantum gravity and particle physics, and became a really popular idea.
  3. Part 3 (9 mins.): How string theory evolved through the major technical and conceptual advances of the 1990s.

By the way, if you’re interested in other talks I’ve given for a general audience, you can check out my video clips, which include a recent hour-long talk on the Quest for the Higgs Boson.

Happy IndependHiggs Day!

July 4th will never be the same.  As a child growing up in the United States, it meant flags, humidity, Sousa marches, democracy, and fireworks.  Now it means something else: Switzerland, laboratories, technical wizardry, Higgs particles and — fireworks!

ATLASH2e2mu

Yes, this picture is a representation of the data taken by the ATLAS experiment during a 2012 proton-proton collision at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], in which (probably) a Higgs particle was created and swiftly decayed to (i.e. was transformed into) a muon, an antimuon, an electron and an anti-electron [“positron”]. Also flying about are many proton-like particles, called hadrons, the debris always seen in a proton-proton collision.  Boom!  (Admittedly a very quiet boom!)

2012 was a remarkable year that we’ll never forget, and its July 4th, when the Higgs particle’s discovery was announced, was unique.   [And if you’re still confused about what the excitement is all about, or want to learn more, click here for some of my writing and speaking about it all.]

But as we wait for the LHC to start running again in 2015, analysis of the 2011-2012 data continues.  People are working very hard, even on July 4th :-), and the possibility of other discoveries in that data is real!  So stay tuned as more results emerge over the summer and fall and into 2014.

Courses, Forces, and (w)Einstein

This week and next, I’m very busy preparing and delivering a new class (four lectures, 1.5 hours each), for a non-technical audience, on the importance of and the discovery of the Higgs particle.  I’ll be giving it in Western Massachusetts (my old stomping grounds).  If it goes well I may try to give these lectures elsewhere (and please let me know if you know of an institution that might be interested to host them.)   Teaching a new class for a non-technical audience requires a lot of concentration, so I probably won’t get too much writing in over that period.

Still, as many of you requested, I do hope soon to follow up last week’s article (on how particle physicists talk about the strength of the different forces) with an article explaining how both particles and forces arise from fields — a topic I already addressed to some extent in this article, which you may find useful.

Now — a few words on the flap over the suggestion that math Ph.D. and finance expert Eric Weinstein, in his mid-40s, may be the new Albert Einstein.  I’ve kept my mouth shut about this because, simply, how can I comment usefully on something I know absolutely nothing about?  (Admittedly, the modern media, blogosphere and Twitter seem to encourage people to make such comments. Not On This Blog.) There’s no scientific paper for me to read.  There’s no technical scientific talk for me to listen to.  I know nothing about this person’s research.  All I know so far is hearsay.  That’s all almost anyone knows, except for a few of my colleagues at Oxford — trustworthy and experienced physicists, who sound quite skeptical, and certainly asked questions that Weinstein couldn’t answer... which doesn’t mean Weinstein is necessarily wrong, only that his theory clearly isn’t finished yet.  (However, I must admit my expert eye is worried that he didn’t have ready answers to such basic questions.)

What I do know is that the probability that Weinstein is the new Einstein is very low.  Why?  Because I do know a lot about how very smart people with very good ideas fail to be Einstein.  It’s not because they’re dumb or foolish. Continue reading

Wednesday: Sean Carroll & I Interviewed by Alan Boyle

On Wednesday February 6th, at 9 pm Eastern/6 pm Pacific time, Sean Carroll and I will be interviewed by Alan Boyle on “Virtually Speaking Science”.   The link where you can listen in (in real time or at your leisure) is http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtually-speaking-science/2013/02/07/sean-carroll-matt-strassler-alan-boyle

What is “Virtually Speaking Science“?  It is an online radio program that presents, according to its website:

  • Informal conversations hosted by science writers Alan Boyle, Tom Levenson and Jennifer Ouellette, who explore the explore the often-volatile landscape of science, politics and policy, the history and economics of science, science deniers and its relationship to democracy, and the role of women in the sciences.

Sean Carroll is a Caltech physicist, astrophysicist, writer and speaker, one of the founders of the blog Cosmic Variance, who recently completed an excellent popular book (which I highly recommend) on the Higgs particle, entitled “The Particle at the End of the Universe“.  Our interviewer Alan Boyle is a noted science writer, author of the book “The Case for Pluto“, winner of many awards, and currently NBC News Digital’s science editor [at the blog  “Cosmic Log“].

I was interviewed on Virtually Speaking Science once before, by Tom Levenson, about the Large Hadron Collider (here’s the link).  Also, my public talk “The Quest for the Higgs Particle” is posted in their website (here’s the link to the audio and to the slides).

 

The Higgs Symposium in Edinburgh

I’m enjoying my first visit to Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom, as a visitor at the new Higgs CenterCentre (it is the UK after all) for Theoretical Physics, recently founded in honor of Professor Peter Higgs and of the discovery of a candidate Higgs particle at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  Today is the first day of the Higgs Symposium, a three-day workshop organized by the centre (and co-sponsored by the IPPP) that is celebrating the history of and the science behind (and ahead) of the recent discovery.  (I’ll be speaking on Friday.)

There was a quick introduction by Richard Ball, the centre’s director — who was the first one to show a photo of a blackboard containing the equations of Higgs’ work, along with an great old photo of Peter Higgs from the days when he was writing his famous papers, dug out of the records at the University of Edinburgh.  (Experts: For a Higgs doppelganger, see here.) Then a set of hour-long talks began.  The first of these was a wonderful historical talk, looking back over 50 years, by Chris Llewellyn Smith.  Professor Llewellyn Smith played a significant role in the Higgs discovery, with his contributions ranging from showing in the 1970s why a Higgs particle is necessary if quantum field theory (the types of equations we use today to describe particles) is correct, to pushing for the LHC to be built while head of the CERN Council and then as Director General of CERN in the 1990s.   If time permits, I’ll may describe later a few of the fascinating historical twists that he described — though I’m afraid that most of them would be of interest mainly to experts in the field.  For the moment, those interested may want to read his article that appeared in the journal Nature in 2007, entitled “How the LHC came to be“, which covers some related issues.

Following this we have so far had talks by Joe Incandela (spokesman of the CMS experiment) and Eilam Gross (co-convener of the Higgs search group at ATLAS) summarizing the experimental situation.  As expected, there wasn’t anything new announced here; the talks involved an overview (for the audience of mostly theorists, including quite a few students) of how the measurements are done, and a review of previously announced results.  I’ll describe a few interesting details of their talks later today or tomorrow.