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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Higgs: What was left unsaid

Science and techno world topic: Future, Physics.

Everybody was wowed by the recent discovery of a Higgs-like particle, but how many people really understand what was discovered.

So that’s it, search over, Higgs boson found. Almost 50 years after physicist Peter Higgs first theorised it was out there, public elementary number one has finally been captured in the data from two detectors at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern. Case closed. Champagne popped. Boson nova danced.

If only. That handily simplified and heavily fictionalised telling of the tale has helped transform a spectacular scientific success story into one that is also global front page news. Without it the 4 July announcement might not have generated such a frenzy of coverage and so many claims about it being a historic milestone for our species. One particle physicist only half jokingly told me that in future the date may come to be celebrated as Higgs Day, rather than anything to do with American independence.       

Don’t get me wrong. What has happened at Cern represents a magnificent accomplishment; big science at its biggest and boldest. And it’s fantastic that it has been perceived and received as being of such importance. It’s just that there is more to the story from the very beginning right through to the, probably false, ending. 

For starters, as Peter Higgs himself acknowledges, he was just one of several scientists who came up with the mechanism which predicted the particle which bears his name, but the others rarely get a mention*. As to the finish – well, as small children are fond of saying, are we there yet? There is very strong evidence that the LHC teams have found a new elementary particle, but while this is exciting it is far less clear that what they’ve detected is the fabled Higgs.   If it is, it seems curiously lighter than expected and more work is needed to explain away the discrepancy. If it’s not, then the experimentalists and theorists are going to be even busier trying to see if it can be shoehorned into the current Standard Model of particle physics. Either way, it’s not exactly conclusive.

‘The real prize’

This might seem to be nit-picking – except on an infinitesimally smaller scale.   “Higgs, Schmiggs”, some will say: the news isn’t that they’ve discovered a particular particle, but that it is (very probably) an elementary boson, one of fewer than 20 building blocks all matter as we know it is thought to be made from. That, they will argue, is why the find is hugely significant and the reason for all the headlines.

Nice try. But wrong. Do you remember all the media excitement the last time an elementary boson was found?  No? That’s because there wasn’t any. The same happened – or, rather, didn’t happen – the time before.  

The vast majority of people remain at best only dimly aware of the W and Z bosons – not the most inspired names, admittedly – but they are arguably every bit as crucial to the Standard Model as the Higgs, and their discovery again at Cern in the 1980s was almost as much of a scientific triumph. The difference is that both finds barely registered in the media beyond dedicated science pages, publications and programmes. So it’s not that major breakthroughs in particle physics are of themselves automatically newsworthy, the intense immense coverage we’ve seen is something specific to the Higgs. Why?

Partly it’s a matter of increased media savviness – in recent years large research centres like Cern have become considerably cleverer at turning the often incremental nature of scientific progress into attention-grabbing events. Partly it’s a matter of time – the particle was postulated almost half a century ago, and waiting decades to design and build powerful-enough particle-accelerators to stand a chance of finding it adds to the anticipation. Partly it’s a matter of expense – having spent billions of public money on a 17 mile (28km) underground proton smashing circuit, we all have a greater (in)vested interest in what happens there. And partly it’s a matter of divine intervention – the random rebranding of the Higgs as the “God particle” by some sections of the media may have irritated Peter Higgs and many other scientists, but it has only further fuelled the coverage.

But on top of all these, what amplifies our attraction to the Higgs boson is its elusiveness. Not just elusive as in hard to find, elusive as in hard to get our heads round what it does. That’s not down to all the myriad articles and analogies of recent days being poor or the boson being beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. It’s because the Higgs and its associated field convey mass....and mass is something we are most pretty comfortable with on a day to day basis, but which suddenly gets very complicated when you try to couch it in terms of particles and fields. So the net result is that instead of gaining illumination, we can end up feeling dimmer.

For a conventional story, even a science news story, not easily being able to get a handle on what it’s all about would be a problem.  But not the Higgs. Instead the slippery business of its involvement with mass is downplayed, or often simply not mentioned. And the fact that it is the Higgs associated field which is the “true prize”, as Nature journal put it, is simply overlooked in most publications.  Instead, the focus is on various permutations of how momentous it is.

If more of us were clear about why rather than the wow, the results from Cern would have had less impact as we’d have our own views on the significance of what they had found. Instead we are expected to just accept that if enough Higgs bigwigs say it’s monumentally important, then it must be.

Or as Lewis Carroll put it, “what I tell you three times is true”.  The reality is that science is often complex, collaborative and continuous. But with stories we like beginnings and ends and strong lead characters, so when we take research down the rabbit hole and into the media things tend to shrink and grow. It’s fitting then, that Cern made their announcement 150 years to the day after Carroll first came up with the story that became Alice in Wonderland. And that, with five sigma certainty, is far more fantastical than even the one about the Higgs being found.  

* Francois Englert, Robert Brout, Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Hagen. Only a footnote, but better than the usual nothing. If you want get information about Higgs-boson you can study the following books.

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