The Higgs Boson is a Liberal Conspiracy To Get The Government More Involved In Mass*

We await news of the Higgs boson, with a major announcement in the offing** (perhaps as early as July 4).  Some rumors have already started to percolate, suggesting that the hints of a Standard Model Higgs appearing at a particular energy level compatible with established theory may be approaching confirmation.

If the rumors are true, and the near-confirmation does get announced next month, and if that result then holds to the point where everyone competent to have a view concurs that the Higgs has actually been identified, then that’s a very big deal, though in some ways a disappointing one.  It’s a big deal because it will mean the attempt to understand one of the fundamental phenomena of the universe, the existence of the Higgs field, will be able to proceed with actual data.

It would also confirm (again) that the basic theoretical ideas that have governed particle physics for some time are still on the job.

That, in a way, is the bad news.  Divergence from the standard model would require new physics, and suggest that there are new intellectual continents to discover.  One more chip on the stack of winnings the SM has already racked up?  Impressive, but not as much fun as the kind of intellectual adventure that would result if the field had to accommodate something other than the simplest answer to the question of how the cosmos manages to confer mass on its stuff like quarks and electrons (the “job” of the Higgs field.)

Still — for those of you interested in the leading edge of the now c. 8 decades of high energy physics inquiry into basic properties of nature, we’ll know something exciting, one way or the other, in a few weeks.

In the above, I’ve linked a couple of times to blog posts by my friend, Matt Strassler.  He’s a very good guide on these kind of things, writing from a theoretician’s point of view.  But while I agree with Matt on lots of stuff, and have learned much more than that from him, there’s one aspect of this latest story on which he and I disagree.  Or perhaps more accurately, on which our perspectives differ

That would be the view he takes that early speculation on the results of the two experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider amounts to subversion of the scientific process.  Jon Butterworth, a researcher on one of those experiments, strongly agrees.

In the comment thread Matt tangles with Peter Woit, proprietor of the blog Not Even Wrong, who in this post noted that  “reliable rumors”  suggest “the experiments are seeing much the same thing as last year in this year’s new data: strong hints of a Higgs around 125 GeV. ” –i.e. the step toward confirmation described above.

Matt’s and Butterworth’s argument is simple:  it is crucial for Higgs data analysis that those assessing the data from each experiment not know what the folks doing the same on the other experiment are seeing — or might be glimpsing, or think they might be getting to see.  Each group needs to be blind to the other to avoid the risk of contaminating the validation process with any expectation of what they “ought” to find, given what they know (or think they do) about the other folks’ results.  Publishing rumors — even reliable ones, from folks who shouldn’t be discussing preliminary data, but do anyway — damages the ability of those on the front line to do their work in a pristine intellectual environment, and that’s bad.

That’s an entirely valid view.  But the question is whether or not people who are not engaged in that work should publish what they learn.  And here, as a science writer and not a scientist, this is the thing:  science is an enterprise to be covered; it is not simply a cultural value to be defended and advanced (though science writers do so, in a number of implicit and explicit ways).

The Higgs is news.  It is so for several reasons, both intellectual and instrumental.  The intellectual — perhaps the aesthetic — ones are those hinted at above:  whatever form the understanding of Higgs processes may take, it will form an essential part of the picture we have of the nature of reality.  The instrumental ones are the same as those which led to the heinous labeling of the Higgs boson as “the God Particle.”  Cultivation of excitement around the Higgs is part of the case for supporting large and expensive social commitments to all the apparatus needed to do high-energy physics.  As Chad Orzel points out,

Dude, this means you’ve won.”

I mean, it’s not an accident that there’s a lot of excitement about the maybe-sorta-kinda discovery of the Higgs. This is the product of years of relentless hype from the particle physics community. They’ve been talking about this goddamn particle for longer than I’ve been running this blog, and it’s finally percolated out into the general public consciousness enough that buzz about it can trend on Twitter. Complaining that your persistent effort to get people to care about particle physics esoterica has led to people being excited about particle physics esoterica seems more than a little churlish.

More than churlish, in fact:  self defeating.  Either science is enough of a vital part of being a citizen and a thoughtful person that what happens as it unfolds is part of our common culture; or it is an esoteric pursuit, and hence more on the fringe than any scientist I know (and me!) would accept.  If science does take that central  a role, then properly reported stories from within experiments are fair game.  It’s not the writer’s fault if the scientists involved are troubled by (accurate, contextually-rich, honest…) coverage.  The fault, if any, is not with Peter Woit; it is with whoever leaked rumors.

Put this another way:  imagine the story is one of an investigation of fraud at a major experiment.  Would it seem right to enjoin a science writer from writing about that fraud investigation before it was complete?  Even if it impeded the investigation?  It seems to me that the answer is, mostly, “no.”  (I say mostly, because I can imagine being told that publication right now might kill some specific vital step in the inquiry. But even there, the constraint would have to be, from where I see it, narrowly constructed and limited:  I wouldn’t hold off publishing what I know for long.)

That is:  science journalists deal in accounts of what they have found out that are of interest to them and to their readers.  They have real obligations: their stories must be accurate, must hold validity within the larger context of work in which particular incidents take place, must not violate any agreements the writer may have entered into with her or his sources, and so on.  But in my view, the writer does not have the duty of policing the process of science itself.  She or he is rather engaged in a conversation with the audience — whose interests, like those of the writer, overlap with but are not necessarily identical to those of the scientists themselves.

And thus this sermon endeth.  May your day be highly energetic.

*Tweet by old friend @drskyskull (who blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

**Link to TPM, ‘coz that’s where first I saw what has become widely discussed.  But could we please lay off the “God Particle” nonsense?  Leon Lederman has long since done whatever penance he ought for that bit of nonsense.

Images:  Alfred Bierstadt, Buffalo Head,c. 1879.

Alfred Bierstadt, Trapped, before 1902.

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54 replies
  1. 1
    Older_Wiser says:

    “Divergence from the standard model would require new physics, and suggest that there are new intellectual continents to discover.”

    Nothing wrong with that. Many preconceptions due to old beliefs being smashed have opened up the universe since we walked upright.

    “New intellectual continents to discover” can only be a good thing in the long run.

  2. 2
    Linda Featheringill says:

    I do like your title. Government conspiracy indeed. :-)

    But that doesn’t mean that this announcement gives me a hadron.

  3. 3
    JGabriel says:

    Tom Levinson @ Top:

    The fault, if any, is not with Peter Woit; it is with whoever leaked rumors.

    Not even with them.

    If the experimenters want to preserve a pristine mindset, free from contamination by the results of other experimenters, then it’s the experimenters duty to avoid and ignore such rumors. Not the rest of the world’s duty to remain in ignorance until the experiments are finished — because in point of fact, the experiments are never finished.

    And who would want them to be?

    .

  4. 4
    JGabriel says:

    __
    __
    Linda Featheringill:

    But that doesn’t mean that this announcement gives me a hadron.

    Okay, I LOL’d.

    Yes, I am a geek. And there is no shame because if you’re reading this, it means you’re the kind of person who reads comments in political and science blogs on computer networks, which makes you a geek too. Nyah-nyah.

    .

  5. 5
    Leeds man says:

    OK, “God particle” is silly, but “deus ex machina particle” describes its history fairly well, no?

  6. 6
    Ash Can says:

    @Older_Wiser: Exactly. I re-read that paragraph trying to figure out what the “bad news” was. A shit-ton more work, perhaps, but I have a hard time seeing that as bad news when it’s what these people have willingly and freely devoted their entire lives to in the first place.

  7. 7
    freelancer says:

    Still hasn’t provided a work of art which makes the human brain reach the conclusion that the Higgs particle gives mass to protons or neutrons. I remain skeptical in the face of facts and/or more artwork.

    Bless you, Tom. May your day be as energetic as it is uneventful from a kinetic standpoint.

  8. 8
    Cermet says:

    The Neutrino having mass violates the standard model in a big way, so it is really dead regardless of the Higg’s particle discovery. Yes, the model predicts a particle that might have been found but false models do that all the time. It takes just one exception and the model is invalid – neutrino with mass I speak your name.

    For me, the Higgs particle is interesting because by showing that the theory of a field creating the effect of mass for some types of particles gives a small glimpse of how gravity and particles interact (or not relative to non-Higg field interacting particles.)

    Also, and even in a deeper manner, if gravity ‘leaks’ into other universes, this is a field that “connects” our universe to all other universes not unlike the Bell Theorem does with quantum mechanics relative to particles MUST interact with related particles faster than the speed of light with no matter were in this universe they happen to be.

  9. 9
    WereBear says:

    @Leeds man: OK, “God particle” is silly, but “deus ex machina particle” describes its history fairly well, no?

    I thought that was the original point?

  10. 10
    dmsilev says:

    Speaking of the artwork, Fermilab has recently experienced a bison baby boom.

  11. 11
    jeffreyw says:

    @Linda Featheringill:

    But that doesn’t mean that this announcement gives me a hadron.

    And we have a winnre!

  12. 12
    MattF says:

    I have mixed feelings about the “big news in quantum field theory” argument, but from a different angle. An old friend of mine was a very high ranking staffer in the House (now retired), and one day we chatted about the sad fate of the Super Conducting Supercollider. She had no truck with the ‘wonders of nature’ argument and wanted to know why the SSC just wasn’t a huge boondoggle promoted by ivory tower intellectuals, etc., etc.

    In reply, I made the argument that large-scale high-energy physics experiments attract, train and employ a significant number of very smart people, most of whom will never become professional high-energy physicists, in no-compromise, one of a kind, state-of-the-art engineering, and the end of the SSC project just killed off that benefit. My friend said, to my astonishment, that no one had made that argument.

    So, yeah, wonders of nature, and so forth– but not apart from the rest of the world. I suppose one should note that in the real world, all those ex-physicists went to Wall Street and wrecked the world’s financial system, so there’s that.

  13. 13
    Leeds man says:

    @WereBear: Perhaps “kludge particle” would be more fitting, and suitably humble.

  14. 14
    Maude says:

    Earlier this week, on Bloomberg Surveillance, Tom Keene mentioned the book Newton by Thomas Levenson.
    The show is heard in Europe as well as US.
    I posted this that day, but I figured Tom didn’t see it.
    From now on, it is Mr. Douche.

  15. 15
    Mudge says:

    The Higgs work is all done at CERN..in Yurp..much in France. It is a socialist enterprise and a socialist scam. The US is officially an observer to the organization, as could be Yemen if it chose. I am glad our government has chosen to keep an eye on things over there.

    Rumor is that the particle was originally going to be called the Marx Boson, but cooler heads prevailed. A compromise on Higgs was reached after the suggestion of calling it the Bo Boson was made, in a sponsorship offer by Nike. They wanted to have the first sponsored fundamental particle and introduce it at the London Olympics. Bo Knows.

  16. 16
    casswriter says:

    So that’s the Higgs Bison, then?

  17. 17
    gnomedad says:

    But could we please lay off the “God Particle” nonsense? Leon Lederman has long since done whatever penance he ought for that bit of nonsense.

    Too late. That cat’s out of the bag. Rushbo already knows these heathens are looking for a replacement for God.

  18. 18
    Tom Return of Pretentious Art Douche Levenson says:

    @Maude: Didn’t see that. How delightful. Thanks for letting me no.

  19. 19
    Jewish Steel says:

    @JGabriel:

    then it’s the experimenters duty to avoid and ignore such rumors

    This is what I thought.

    Far easier proposition anyway to keep oneself and a few confederates in the dark rather than, say, the entirety of the scientific community and its fans.

  20. 20
    WereBear says:

    @Leeds man: I love that :)

    I guess I have the rogue gene that loves knowledge for its own sake. I wonder why it’s not more abundant?

    The older I get, the more I see a small group of people responsible for human advancement; and how they must cajole, chivvy, and club an anchor-mass of the frightened and reluctant into joining them.

    Over and over.

  21. 21
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @dmsilev:
    SQUEEEEE

  22. 22
    serge says:

    I feel awful…it was as though I was back in First Form, struggling with basic science. Languages were my gig. Mr Levenson lost me at “We await…” So ignorant I am.

  23. 23
    jnfr says:

    I love Bierstadt greatly, so thanks for the pics, Tom. We have a big framed print of his Storm in the Rocky Mountains in our family room.

  24. 24
    Name (required) says:

    Don’t be too disappointed if the Higgs is the first thing we find. The LHC is running at low energies and luminosities right now. CERN isn’t going to crank the collision energy up to 11 for a number of years;.they’re basically doing a test run. When we get to higher energy scales, we’ll see more exotic things. And for now, we have an interesting puzzle: Why is the Higgs mass so low? Without some sort of miraculous cancellations, it should be much larger than 125 GeV, more like 1 TeV.

  25. 25
    Marcellus Shale, Public Dick says:

    interesting sub-point about the responsibilities of the science journalist. it sounds as though it could be transposed into a justification for journalists taking press conference notes, and writing what pol-x is saying, but not writting about the why of what pol-x is saying.

    are you saying science journalism is different that covering other things?

  26. 26
  27. 27
    Kaleb says:

    Tom, my friends in the Milwaukee band IfIHadAHiFi recently released your blog post in EP format. “Songs From Sexy Results: Cedar Block’s Dig for the Higgs and How the Quest Was Won”

  28. 28
    El Cid says:

    I bet that scientists were able to hear about how other experiments elsewhere were going even before Twitter.

  29. 29
    JCJ says:

    In case anyone needs a musical interlude…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j50ZssEojtM

  30. 30
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @gnomedad:

    Rushbo already knows these heathens are looking for a replacement for God.

    You can’t replace that which does not exist in the first place, except in the imagination of man.

  31. 31
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @gnomedad:

    Rushbo already knows these heathens are looking for a replacement for God.

    You can’t replace that which does not exist in the first place, except in the imagination of man.

  32. 32
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    FYFP over that double post.

  33. 33
    MikeJ says:

    I hate those people who going around screaming “no spoilers!” like it;’s my responsibility to make sure they don’t hear the footy scores. OK, I wouldn’t walk into that person’s office and tell them on purpose, but if they decide to hang out in a sports/physicist bar they should expect to hear things.

  34. 34
    The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge says:

    When did Peter Higgs propose the Higgs Mechanism? 1964? It’s been baked into the Standard Model for 40 years. The Standard Model has withstood every experimental challenge. Now we find the Higgs boson right where it’s supposed to be, according to the Standard Model? Yawn. The emphasis on this has always puzzled me. OK, we’ve found it, one loose end tidied up—now let’s see something new! A superpartner, losing energy off our brane…Hell, a mini-black hole!

    And no, neutrinos with mass don’t violate the Standard Model. They were always an anomaly as the only massless fermions, the discovery that they have mass is a relief.

  35. 35
    GxB says:

    @JGabriel:

    Not the rest of the world’s duty to remain in ignorance until the experiments are finished — because in point of fact, the experiments are never finished. And who would want them to be?

    Certainly a solid 27% of the country – plus a large contingent of half-wits that fortunately don’t give it much thought. I’ll go on a limb here and say the sum is real close to the number of Rmoney voters.

    Secondly am I alone in wishing that painting was done by someone fortuitously named Higg? – Then we’d have “Higg’s Bison”

    [ducks from the barrage of rotten fruit]

    also, word-you-fuck-press for block quote fail, too…

  36. 36
    GxB says:

    @casswriter:
    Damn it Cass! Here I thought I had a truly original gag and somehow didn’t see your post…

  37. 37
    genghisjon says:

    For a funny read on Higgs boson.Herman Wouk,A hole in Texas.

  38. 38
    Tom Levenson says:

    @casswriter: @GxB: I like to think of it as a Standard Model Bison. Then the next painting confirms its detection.

  39. 39
    Anoniminous says:

    Tom Return of Pretentious Art Douche Levenson:

    Publishing rumors—even reliable ones, from folks who shouldn’t be discussing preliminary data, but do anyway—damages the ability of those on the front line to do their work in a pristine intellectual environment …

    Ain’t no such thing. The experimental apparatus forces the experimenter into a restricted intellectual environment and the data derived from and through the apparatus can only be interpreted within that intellectual environment. Experiments are proof of a theory or hypothesis or, to be more precise, experiments warrant the theory or hypothesis’ argument(s.)

    Which is a long way to say: You can only find what you’re looking for and you only know you found it if you have a pretty good idea what it is.

  40. 40
    Anoniminous says:

    @Leeds man:

    If they’d been really cool they’d have called it “The Duct Tape Particle.”

    EVERYbody knows duct tapes holds the Universe together.

  41. 41

    @MattF:

    I made the argument that large-scale high-energy physics experiments attract, train and employ a significant number of very smart people, most of whom will never become professional high-energy physicists

    This is true. Physicists do physics, you need engineers and techs and construction teams to actually build anything substantial. And SSC was a truly enourmous project, even by today’s standards.

    I myself had a very teeny-tiny role in SSC early in my career. I spent most of a summer writing C programs to pull Excel spreadsheets (the physicists’ tool of choice for placing the magnets) into this very quirky CAD system over at Harvard (to generate the actual blueprints to be sent down to construction teams in TX). Eventually I ended up being co-sysadmin for the lab there, largely because none of the physics types were interested. This was the beginning of a lifetime of unixy goodness.

    IMO, SSC doesn’t get enough credit for just how much it helped the internet go mainstream. There were centers spread out across the world. Computers in Cambridge would routinely mount disks in Houston, Israel, Switzerland and even Russia using NFS. We routinely used tools like gopher and veronica (essentially proto-web browsers) to share information across continents.

    This was in 1992.

    Most people also know that Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first HTTP web browser using SSC funds, though I myself didn’t see any of that. And Marc Andressen, arguably the first of the dot-commers, was working for NCSA (yet another SSC site) when he wrote Mosaic (the first successful graphical browser) in 1993.

    When the project was cancelled, a lot of people lost their jobs. Though IMO we did get the modern internet 4-8 years earlier than we otherwise would have. And we got was more open and adaptable than it would have been had, say, Microsoft or Sun or DEC come up with it by themselves.

  42. 42
    Haydnseek says:

    @Mudge: Higgs Boson sounds like a newly elected teabagger house member from South Carolina. Reputable scientific research confirms that his brain is composed of a massless particle.

  43. 43
    GxB says:

    @Tom Levenson: Ahh, a visual metaphor and pun. Also has a “I finally got you cornered after all the time spent chasing” thing going on – As Don King might say “Pretenso-licious and Douche-tastic!”

  44. 44
    Anoniminous says:

    @Judas Escargot, Acerbic Prophet of the Mighty Potato God:

    MicroSoft, Sun, or DEC would have never spent the money developing the Internet because there was no market, thus no money, for a global computer network capable of ad-hoc connections. BBS had been around for 20 years and nobody made money off that – right? – so there wasn’t any money in a global computer network & etc. The Big Bucks, at the time, was in dedicated networks for massive banking, finance, & etc. Data Processing, Data Transfers, and Data Mining … still true today, btw.

  45. 45
    jayackroyd says:

    I had a nice convo with Lee Smolin on the Higgs, and the nature of reality.

    http://www.blogtalkradio.com/v.....ay-ackroyd

    That was the day of the speed of light has been exceeded experiment, which I learned about from Lee, on the air

  46. 46

    @MattF:
    Not all of them went to Wall Street; one of them co-created the Xbox.

  47. 47

    @Anoniminous:
    1992 was also about the time I started running into modern glibertarians and Objectivists in RL and on USENET.

    I already knew, first-hand, how the public sector could (and would, when funded) develop things that the for-profit sector could not, among them the very internet they were using to spread their ideology… but as you know, actual facts, history and evidence don’t prove much of anything in PoMo America.

    I didn’t mean “first dot-commer” as a complement, btw. Andressen wrote Mosaic on taxpayer dime, then took his code and his patents off into the private sector to make himself rich.

    Most of the fortunes from that first boom came from people coming up with creative ways to collect rents on what had been, up until then, public infrastructure.

  48. 48
    Tom Levenson says:

    @jayackroyd: Must listen to that one; been meaning to for a while. Smolin is one of the very good ones.

  49. 49
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Marcellus Shale, Public Dick: Yes I am, and I am planning to write something more directly on that point quite soon.

  50. 50
  51. 51
    Craig says:

    “Divergence from the standard model would require new physics, and suggest that there are new intellectual continents to discover.”

    Then fear not, for behold: I bring good tidings of great joy. Pick up any small object near you: a pen, a notepad, whatever you’ve got. Lift it approximately twelve inches into the air and let it go. See that? You’ve just produced experimental results that are utterly at odds with the Standard Model. SM is so good at what it does that we are liable to forget about all the things it does not do. Gravity is one of those things–the Standard Model simply can not cope with that most ordinary and everyday force. It’s not just that is does not explain gravity–it does not _work_ with our best understanding of gravity. Either SM, or General Relativity, or both, will one day have to go. This universe ain’t big enough for the both of them.

    And the astrophysicists–those dogs!–have been lining up evidence for decades that we don’t even know what the universe is _made of_. Protons, electrons, photons? Those are all like rounding errors in a universe that is overwhelmingly made of “dark matter” and “dark energy,” whatever the heck those things are. And the Standard Model is silent on these topics–or, I should say, the only answer you can coax out of it regarding Dark Energy is so profoundly out of line with what the astro guys say that it it may be the biggest scandal in science today.

    Continents? Hell, there are whole planets left to be charted.

  52. 52
    BrianM says:

    @MattF: In Representing and Intervening, Ian Hacking makes the argument that science’s tendency to always push the limits of our control of matter is vital to how it works. An interesting take.

  53. 53
    BrianM says:

    @Judas Escargot, Acerbic Prophet of the Mighty Potato God:

    Marc Andressen […] wrote Mosaic (the first successful graphical browser) in 1993.

    It was co-written by Eric Bina. Some would say “mostly written”. Eric doesn’t get nearly enough credit, because he’s the sort of person who has (to me) attributed his success both to being a good programmer *and* being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Not something you hear a lot from dot-com millionaires.

  54. 54

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