Monday, December 12, 2011

STOP THE PRESSES ! The Latest Non-Story from the Physics Pornfront

The Freaking Higgs Boson.  Does this squeezed lemon retain yet one drop of juice ?

Anyhow -- everyone’s favorite Photogenic Female Physicist (this is an endowed chair; the Photogenic Male Physicist chair is held by dreamboat Brian Greene), Lisa Randall, appears fetchingly before a blackboard (blonde, though not, for some reason, topless) in the latest  breaking  dispatch  from the New York Times.  It reports that  -- well, nothing has actually happened, but:  it might happen, don’t you know, as early as tomorrow morning, when someone-or-other might issue a report, like, kind of thing.  But anyway.  In the meantime we get the equivalent of pre-game chatter -- half an hour or more of sportscasters with essentially nothing to say, before the helmeted warriors finally lumber into the field.

And we are treated to this:

Q:  What is the Higgs and why is it important?
A:  … As particles pass through [the Higgs] field, they interact with the “charges”, and this interaction makes them act as if they had mass.  Heavier particles do so more, and lighter particles do so less.

Sounds innocent enough, if you do not dwell on it (and this sort of middlebrown publication does not invite you to dwell).  Yet even this much is an affront: First, to philosophy;  and second, to common sense.
For, first :  What does it mean to say, as if they had mass?  You mean -- They don’t really?  And -- the only way you could coherently mean that, is if some particles, antecedently to the Higgs mechanism, truly had “mass” (in some familiar sense), whereas these Higgs-spritzed passersby  acquired some simulacrum.  That, of course, if not what is meant; which means, so far, it means nothing.
Second:  OK, mass is initially undefined, but it is bestowed by (we might as well say) the Wizard of Oz, as the courtiers pass by on parade:  and He showers his bounty more bountifully upon the particles that were already, um, heavier ….  * Tilt *.

[A note for our younger and European readers.  "Tilt" is an expression borrowed from the old-time American pastime of pinball.  It here denotes that we have detected a petitio principii.]

Nevertheless, our professor hastens to forstall a vulgar misconception:

Contrary to popular understanding, the Higgs field gives mass — not the Higgs boson.

Ain’it da trut’ !  Wy, just dis mawnin’, Gladys ‘n’ Alice ‘r inna cawwphy shop, an’ Alice so fat, an’en Gladys she say:  Y’know what makes you so fat, Alice ?  -- No says Alice What Surely not these chawwklits  I  gottim on sale.  -- Alice says Gladys it’s-a Higgs Boson, Alice, y’gotta steer clear a-them Higgs Bosons, Alice. -- Will do, says Alice, walking out the door -- smack into a massive Higgs field.

Lest we be misunderstood:
The feeling that mass itself is something to be explained, is philosophically brilliant -- a continuation of Newton’s insights that (1) falling  apples and wheeling planets  so move  because of the influence of a single force, and (2) that this force can be treated via a quantiative rule.  Cf. also the realization that, in principle, there might be a difference between gravitational mass and inertial mass.   Even the ancients who vaguely explained the falling of apples by “ponderosity”, or “seeking reunion with the Earth,” though they had as yet achieved little scientifically, were already philosophers, simply for having noticed that there is something to explain :  for the common man, there is nothing to notice, hence nothing to explain.   So, we wish the physicists well on their difficult quest.   What we decry is simply the journalistic attempts to gussy up vacuity into a substitute for real science, and to create an artificial anticipation along “Black Friday” lines, destined to be disappointed.  And indeed, the announcement so breathlessly anticipated above  did  appear this morning, speaking of, um, well, “tantalizing hints”.   Meaning, nev-vah mi-ind; check back in a year, maybe we’ll have something.

For anyone interested in further philosophical observations upon particle physics, click here.

[Update 12 Oct 2014]  Reliably-informed Young Persons  of my acquaintance  assure me that, for any essay to have legs, it needs to have an Image -- otherwise you can't Pin it to Pinterest.   So, here is an image of the Higgs boson (it even has legs):

Higgs boson (artist's conception)


[update, 13 Dec 2011, 6:56 p.m.]
Hmm … Awful lot of hits on this quite insignificant post, merely because, for the first time, I put up a link in the Comments section of WaPo.
Better stuff is to be had on this site.
Poetry, philosophy, mathematics -- you name it.
But to stick just with physics, here are some posts about

* Shing-Tung Yau

Enjoy !

[Update, later on 12 Oct 2014]  Golly, that little orange guy is easy on the eyes.  Here's another one:  the Higgs proton.  Notice how the cross-section at the top illustrates the structure of the Eightfold Way.

The Higgs Proton


[Update 14 December 2011]
It must have been a slow news day at the Washington Post.   No stories lay readily to hand that could be headlined “Hair today, gone tomorrow” or “It’s a dog’s life”, so instead they front-paged another day-late-and-a-dollar-short article  rehashing the previous day’s news concerning inconclusive experimental results about a certain boson which shall go nameless.   Only, to rope in the readers, they headlined it

Scientists say ‘God particle’ discovery is nearly at hand

Actually, scientists didn’t say anything about any “God particle”, since most of them have become thoroughly sick of that overweening misnomer.  Nor does the perfectly intelligent and informative article claim that they did; and it says straight out, “that finding could prove to be a statistical fluke”.  The article ends, “See you next year…”
The reporters here are competent;  the headline-writers are whores.

[Update 15 December 2011]  This Just In !
Near-sighting of elusive particle !  Exxxclusive details here !


[Update 17 December 2011]  Somewhat making up for it all, Michael Gerson’s op-ed in this morning’s WaPo offers a meditative overview, very much along the lines of our Theologia Mathematica series of essays:

That modest headline -- echoing a well-known work of Stephen Jay Gould -- is from the print edition.  As usual, the tawdry website tarts things up:

[Update, later still on 12 Oct 14]  Okay, one last one.  This one's smaller, so we reckon it's a Higgs neutrino (same as a baby neutron).

"Higgsie", the friendly neutrino

And for you string-theory enthusiasts -- Here is an actual Higgs-boson-microscope image of an "M-brane".

M-brane (not shown actual size)

~ The World of Dr Justice ~
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    1. Definitely hot. And no doubt very smart.
      It is as hard to inject deep thought into such middlebrow media as the NYT, as for the proverbial camel to proverbially pass through that well-known Eye of the Needle (which itself has passed into proverb).
      So probably I shouldn't have made fun of her. So sorry now. Let's invite her over for drinks, at some philosophical motel, and work this all out.
      (For the dialectic here, see also our essay "Physics and Physicality", re another brainy temptress.)