Galileo’s Winter

While the eastern half of the United States is having a cold winter so far, the same has not been true in Italy. The days I spent teaching in Florence (Firenze), at the Galileo Galilei Institute (GGI), were somewhat warmer than is apparently the usual, with even low temperatures far above freezing almost every night. … Read more

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 … Read more

Freeman Dyson, 90, Still Disturbing the Universe

I spent the last two days at an extraordinary conference, “Dreams of Earth and Sky”, celebrating the life and career of an extraordinary man, one of the many fascinating scientists whom I have had the good fortune to meet. I am referring to Freeman Dyson, professor at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), whose career … Read more

Quantum Field Theory, String Theory, and Predictions (Part 2)

[This post is a continuation of this one from Monday] Coming to Terms Before we continue, a little terminology — trivial, yet crucial and slightly subtle. Think about the distinction between the words “humanity” and “a human” and “humans”; or “higher education”, “university” and “universities”; or “royalty”, “king” and “kings”. In each case, the three … Read more

Light-Hearted Higgs Questions From a High School Teacher

So I got the following questions from a high school English teacher this morning, and I thought, for fun, I’d put the answers here for you to enjoy. Here (slightly abridged) is what the teacher wrote, and my answers:

I’ve turned my classroom into a video game to increase student engagement. In my gamified classroom, the villain is experimenting with/on the Higgs field. Your article on what would happen if the Higgs field was turned off answered a lot of my questions, but … I was hoping you could answer a couple of questions for me. I am sure these questions probably don’t have “real” answers, and are completely ridiculous, but I’d love to hear from you.

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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.

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Electrons and Their Properties

I’ve been quite busy with some physics research this week, but I have nevertheless managed to finish a new article on electrons, part of my Structure of Matter series, which aims (among other things) to introduce a non-expert to particle physics, step-by-step.  The completion of this article feels like a significant step for this website.  … Read more

Higgs Symposium: A More Careful Summary

My rather hasty, breathless and inconsistent summaries (#1, #2 and #3) of last week’s talks at the excellent Higgs Symposium (held at the University of Edinburgh, as part of the new Higgs Center for Theoretical Physics) clearly had their limitations.  So I thought it might be useful to give a more organized overview, with more … Read more

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