KSJ Tracker October 10, 2013

Several Good Stories on Physics Nobel Hook us with Joy, Heartbreak

Sometimes the difference between a Nobel laureate and a non-winner doesn’t come down to IQ, talent, grit, courage or the number of hours of practice recommended in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Sometimes it comes down to timing.

In the case of the theory underpinning the Higgs Boson search, six people in three different groups came across the same idea, and five of them are still alive. No more than three can get the prize and the Nobel committee chose two.

And so even if you think you’re jaded with stories on the Higgs, you don’t want to miss the treatment Joel Achenbach gave it in the Washington Post. His story seamlessly wove together the human drama and the science. It starts with one of the guys who didn’t win, waiting, hopefully for that early morning call from Sweden. This story also dealt with the science accurately and gracefully.

Dennis Overbye’s New York Times story also admirably wove together a lot of difficult science with the human implications of the 2013 physics prize going to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, and not to Richard Hagen, Gerald Guralnik, and Thomas Kibble, though they came up with the same idea at roughly the same time.

Sadly, his lede fell back on that unimaginative, cheap, and now cliche God particle business:  

The “God particle” became the prize particle on Tuesday.

The story was much more sophisticated than you’d guess from that opening. There’s a wealth of detail about the science, especially the puzzle that motivated the six scientists in question to conceive of what’s now known as the Higgs field and its associated boson.

When the physicist Sheldon Glashow, now of Boston University, wrote down a theory in 1961 that explained the weak force and electromagnetism as manifestations of a single “electroweak” force, the math indicated that the particles that transmitted the nuclear part of that force should be massless, like the photons that transmit light and can spread across the universe. But the nuclear forces barely reach across an atomic nucleus, suggesting that their carriers should be among the most massive of elementary particles. How did the carriers of the weak force become so massive while their brothers the photons remained free and easy?

The Times story did employ a distracting number of less-than-helpful metaphors on the nature of the Higgs field - cosmic molasses in one graph and bills trying to get through Congress in another.

One can use too many metaphors in a story and in this case they are more distracting than clarifying.

The reason the physicists hate that molasses metaphor is that the Higgs field isn’t actually like molasses. The problem is that ever since Einstein, we’ve known there’s no frame of absolute rest in the universe. The molasses Higgs sounds like the old notion of ether, which was supposed to define an absolute rest frame, and therefore you could have absolute speeds relative to that ether.

Now we know there’s no ether and no absolute state of rest, or rest frame in which to put this molasses. Things move only relative to other things.

Here’s how the Post’s Joel Achenbach deals with the science:

Higgs is associated with an invisible field that is part of the infrastructure of the cosmos. The mass of particles is determined by how they interact with this field.

Brilliant! No molasses, no God particles, no B.S.

Other news outlets covered the story, but I didn’t see any memorable treatments – only memorably confusing metaphors. Here’s CNN.com

The universe is filled with Higgs bosons. As atoms and parts of atoms zoom around, they interact with and attract Higgs bosons, which cluster around them in varying numbers.Certain particles will attract larger clusters of Higgs bosons, and the more of them a particle attracts, the greater its mass will be.

This raises a couple of questions, such as why they had to build that big, expensive accelerator if Higgs Bosons are everywhere. There's definitely something missing here. And weirder still, there’s no attribution. Where could it have come from?

The one other interesting piece was a compelling op-ed in New York Times by physicist/writer Sean Carroll, author of The Particle at the End of the Universe. (He was also one of several physicists I called on to make sure I didn’t goof up the science in this post.) In the piece, called No Physicist is an Island, Carroll suggested that the leaving out of Hagan, Guralnik and Kibble calls for a long-overdue change in the rules. He started by quoting Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman complaining that Alfred Nobel’s two big mistakes were dynamite and the Nobel Prize. Carroll made a good case that those left out deserved the prize as much as those who won. I was convinced.

Why not change the rules to reflect the way science is done in the 21st century?


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