Category Archives: Public Outreach

A Short Break

Personal and professional activities require me to take a short break from posting.  But I hope, whether you’re a novice with no knowledge of physics, or you’re a current, former, or soon-to-be scientist or engineer, or you’re somewhere between, that you can find plenty of articles of interest to you on this site.  A couple of reminders and pointers:

* If you haven’t yet seen my one-hour talk for a general audience, “The Quest for the Higgs Boson”, intended to explain accurately what the Higgs field and particle are all about, while avoiding the most common misleading short-cuts, it’s available now, along with a 20-minute question and answer session.

* If you want a slightly more technical and written discussion of the Higgs field and particle, complete with animated images, and suitable for people who may once have had a semester or two of university physics and math, try this series of articles first, and then go to this series.

* If you’d like to better understand the language of “matter”, “mass”, and “energy” that is everywhere in popular explanations of science, but eternally confusing because of how different authors choose to talk about these subjects, you might find some useful tips in these articles: #1, #2, #3, #4.

* If you need a reminder about what “ordinary matter” (i.e. things like pickles, people and planets) is made of, try this series, which goes all the way from molecules down to quarks.

* If you’re curious about what “particle/anti-particle annihilation” does and doesn’t mean, try this article.

* And here are the types of particles and forces of nature that we know about, and (for the moderately advanced reader) here’s how they’d be rearranged if the Higgs field were turned off.

Hopefully there’s something on that list that interests you, and many links within those articles to other things that may even interest you more.  Have fun exploring!  And stay tuned; I’ll be writing more in the near future…

My Public Talk on the Higgs, Now Online

One year ago today, I arrived, bleary-eyed from my overnight flight, at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, host of the Large Hadron Collider.  Everyone at the lab was very excited, anticipating what promised to be the biggest event during my career in particle physics — the announcement of the discovery, or at least strong evidence, of something resembling a type of Higgs particle.  The following day did not disappoint, nor did the ensuing weeks of thinking and discussion and hard work.  A year later, we no longer wonder whether this is a type of Higgs particle; instead we have moved on to ask which type it is, and whether it has cousins — other types of Higgs particles still waiting to be found.

Since that time, I’ve been working to find new methods of explaining particle physics, and specifically the Higgs field and particle, to a variety of audiences, with a diversity of backgrounds and with different amounts of time to spare.

  • For the average person who wants a short story, I wrote a brief article about “Why the Higgs Particle Matters”, my most popular piece ever.
  • Then I wrote a long sequence of articles — actually two sequences, one about fields and particles, and one specifically about how the Higgs field works — intended for people who have had the equivalent of first-year university physics.
  • I recently gave a set of four 90-minute classes intended for highly interested non-experts, assuming little or no background in math or science.
  • And I developed a new one-hour public talk (see below), entitled “The Quest for the Higgs Boson”, for a general audience, in which I tried to explain, as accurately as possible but with no math at all, what fields and particles are, how a Higgs field can give mass to the known elementary particles, and what finding and studying Higgs particles is all about.

That one-hour talk was first delivered a few months back, as part of the Nick and Maggie DeWolf Public Lecture Series, at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado.  It was filmed by a local TV station, GrassRoots Community Television.  And they have made this film available online. Click here to reach the GrassRoots TV page, then click “Watch Now” on the right-hand side. [It’s a .wmv file that should, after a little delay, begin streaming; if it doesn’t, it will laboriously download, which may take quite a while.  In any case you’ll want a good internet connection. And if it is super-slow, try again another day; their server could easily get overloaded, I suspect.]

By the way, the talk is preceded by about 5 minutes of introductory remarks by Professor Howard Haber (a Higgs-particle expert who has been mentioned before on this blog), and concludes with about 20 minutes of questions from the audience, so altogether the film is almost 90 minutes long.

Who Learns the Most in a Science Class?

I’m back, after two weeks of teaching non-experts in a short course covering particle physics, the Higgs field, and the discovery of the Higgs particle.  (The last third of the course, on the politics and funding of particle physics and science more broadly, is wisely being taught by a more disinterested party, an economist with some undergraduate physics background.)  And I’ve been reminded: One of the great joys (and great secrets) of teaching is that the teacher always learns more than the students do.

At least, this is generally true for a new class that the teacher hasn’t taught before. In many university physics departments, and elsewhere, there is an informal requirement that professors teach a class no more than three years in a row. [Let us ignore for the moment that all of this will be overturned in the coming years by the on-line revolution; we can discuss the possible consequences later.] After the third year, they are expected to switch and teach something else. Now you might think that the benefits of the division of labor would suggest a different approach; after all, shouldn’t each professor perfect a course, become the expert, and teach it year in, year out? This usually doesn’t work (though there are exceptions) because each professor’s interaction with a new course has a natural life cycle. Continue reading

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

Science and the Common Good: A College Visit

Yesterday I gave a public talk at Ursinus College, a liberal arts college in aptly named Collegeville, Pennsylvania. [For those outside the U.S.; a `college’ in the U.S. is a university whose students are all undergraduates, mainly 18-22 years old; and a “liberal arts college”  aims to give students a broad education in the arts and sciences, along with more focused training in their chosen discipline.] My visit was sponsored by the college’s Center for Science and the Common Good, an impressive little program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (kudos to them!).  Its goal is to assure that the Center’s `fellows’ — the students in the program — are not only trained in their scientific fields but also become versed in thinking broadly about the role of science in our culture and society, and about how science is communicated to the public.

These wider issues are ones I think about a lot — I myself was educated at a liberal arts college — and are what motivated me to start this website and blog.  So I was honored that the Center invited me to visit. And they kept me (pleasantly) busy! In addition to the public talk, I spoke at length with the fellows of the Center about the role of science and scientists in society, as well as about the Center’s program and their career plans, and I also gave the undergraduate physics majors a slightly more technical tour of modern particle physics.

Since the Center was my host, my public talk was somewhat different from ones I’ve given previously.  Rather than focus entirely on the science behind the Higgs particle and field, I included some comments concerning the role of scientists in communicating science to the public. Among the meta-scientific questions I touched on were these:

  • What role should and can be played by blogs and websites run by scientists?
  • Can (or should) anything be done about the wildly inaccurate science reporting that one so often sees in the media?
  • Is it really that important that the public be informed about scientific research — given that public knowledge of the details of law, medicine, construction, accounting, plumbing, and other technical fields is also very limited?

I’ve got my own (tentative) answers to these questions, but if you’d like to weigh in, I’d be interested in your opinions. (If you do decide to make a comment, please feel free to include a parenthetic remark describing how much science you yourself know, and whether you learned it, say, in college, from magazines or popular books, etc.  This will give us all some perspective on what might shape your views.)

Thanks again to Ursinus College for the invitation and a very interesting visit!

Cosmic Conflation: The Higgs, The Inflaton, and Spin

Over the past week or so, there has been unnecessary confusion created about whether or not there’s some relationship between (a) the Higgs particle, recently discovered at the Large Hadron Collider, and (b) the Big Bang, perhaps specifically having to do with the period of “Cosmic Inflation” which is believed by many scientists to explain why the universe is so uniform, relatively speaking. This blurring of the lines between logically separate subjects — let’s call it “Cosmic Conflation” — makes it harder for the public to understand the science, and I don’t think it serves society well.

For the current round of confusion, we may thank professor Michio Kaku, and before him professor Leon Lederman (who may or may not have invented the term “God Particle” but blames it on his publisher), helpfully carried into the wider world by various reporters, as Sean Carroll observed here.

[Aside: in this post I’ll be writing about the Higgs field and the Higgs particle. To learn about the relationship between the field and the particle, you can click here, here, here, or here (listed from shortest to most detailed).]

Let’s start with the bottom line. At the present time, there is no established connection, direct or indirect, between (a) the Higgs field and its particle, on the one hand, and (b) cosmic inflation and the Big Bang on the other hand. Period. Any such connection is highly speculative — not crazy to think about, but without current support from data. Yes, the Higgs field, responsible for the mass of many elementary particles, and without which you and I wouldn’t be here, is a spin-zero field (which means the Higgs particle has zero spin). And yes, the “inflaton field” (the name given to the hypothetical field that, by giving the universe a lot of extra “dark energy” in the early universe, is supposed to have caused the universe to expand at a spectacular rate) is also probably a spin-zero field (in which case the inflaton particle also has zero spin). Well, fish and whales both have tails, and both swim in the sea; yet that doesn’t make them closely related. Continue reading

Why the Higgs Matters, In A Few Sentences

One of the big challenges facing journalists writing about science is to summarize a scientific subject accurately, clearly and succinctly. Sometimes one of the three requirements is sacrificed, and sadly, it is often the first one.

So here is my latest (but surely not last) attempt at an accurate, succinct, and maybe even clear summary of why the Higgs business matters so much.

`True’ Statements about the Higgs

True means “as true as anything compressed into four sentences can possibly be” — i.e., very close to true.  For those who want to know where I’m cutting important corners, a list of caveats will follow at the end of the article.

  • Our very existence depends upon the Higgs field, which pervades the universe and gives elementary particles, including electrons, their masses.  Without mass, electrons could not form atoms, the building blocks of our bodies and of all ordinary matter.
  • Last July’s discovery of the Higgs particle is exciting because it confirms that the Higgs field really exists.  Scientists hope to learn much more about this still-mysterious field through further study of the Higgs particle.

Is that so bad? These lines are almost 100% accurate… I’m sure an experienced journalist can cut and adjust and amend them to make them sound better and more exciting, but are they really too long and unclear to be useable?

Some False Statements about the Higgs Continue reading

European Weather Model Does It Again?

We’re gearing up for another big-time storm predicted for the northeastern United States — we’ve had more than we need over recent months — so before we perhaps lose power (or you do)…

…I want to remind you that Sean Carroll and I were interviewed last night by science writer Alan Boyle.  My impression is that the conversation (which touched on issues involving the Higgs particle, dark matter, and the nature of science as a process) went well, and I hope that you enjoy it.  Just click on this link http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtually-speaking-science/2013/02/07/sean-carroll-matt-strassler-alan-boyle , endure the commercial, and you should get the radio broadcast (just about 60 minutes).

As for that big blizzard threatening Boston with over two feet (0.6 meters) of snow, and winds over 60 miles (100 km) per hour, along with some coastal flooding, it is interesting that the European Weather Model, which did the better job on forecasting Hurricane Sandy, appears to be doing better on this one too.  The US-based Global Forecasting System may again have been a bit late to the party.  The difference in the scientific approach of the two forecasting models was described in a previous post, after Sandy, thanks to one of my readers; if you missed it then, you may find it worth a read now.

Well, it will be interesting to see how the reality plays out; but given how well the European model forecast Sandy, it would seem prudent not to underestimate this storm.  Be careful out there!

[Note Added: Julianne Dalcanton, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, pointed me to her university colleague Cliff Mass’s article about various problems at the US National Weather Forcasting agency.  See also this article.  This is seriously disturbing stuff, if you live in the U.S.]