Not only is today "Independence Day" here in the US, celebrating 236 years since a group of American rabble-rousers declared independence from Britain, it is also now the day that the Higgs Boson discovery was announced at the LHC in Switzerland. (Read about it in the Washington Post and the NYTimes as well.) In one of my previous lives I was an experimental particle physicist. For about 13 years I labored with wrenches and computers at Fermilab trying to pry information from the gigantic pile of data we amassed from colliding proton and anti-protons inside the Dzero detector. I was there in 1995 when we announced (with our older-sister experiment, CDF) the discovery of the top-quark.
If you follow any of this sort of thing, you'll know that the hunt has been on for a long time. (CERN's publicity machine has also done a good job of keeping it all in the news as well.) If you're wondering "what the heck is a Higgs Boson?" there are lots of nice explanations of the basic ideas of it lying around the web -- Dennis Overbye at the NYTimes put together a nice compilation in his post to the Lede today. In many ways, it's so much like getting to the moon. You see it there, in this case in your mind and, importantly, in your mathematics, and you go looking for it, wanting to visiting it, to, in some sense, hold it in you hands and confirm that it's there, that it happened. It's the essence of exploration and experiment -- the seat of confirmation. The difference with the moon is that it was a live option that the Higgs was a mathematical mirage. Indeed, for an experimentalist it might have been much more satisfying to have it be excluded, in which case we'd find ourselves lost and need to find our way again. Few people, certainly none of the scientists and engineers developing the technology to travel to the moon, entertained the notion that the moon might be a cosmic figment and not a big rock. No, here it's hard to deny what Brian Greene said in one of his interviews, that it's a great day to be a theorist -- mathematics really does tell you something about reality. (And again, the experimentalist in me stands up and says "but it wasn't reality until we found it, damn you!")
The discovery is also wonderful because, though the Higgs is a particle, the discussion of it has, properly, been emphasizing that it really is the sign of a universe-permeating field which imbues objects with mass. Quantum field theory has been around for a very long time -- nearly as long as quantum mechanics. Electromagnetic theory even longer. Yet, we often don't grapple in the public media so much with the notion that these fundamental particles, these photons and quarks and electrons, are manifestations of fields. We toe up to that a bit with the discussions of the Higgs. Indeed, there's much to chew on philosophically here. The particles that we observe in QFT are manifestations of the fields and do not compose them. So, you can't interact with the field without colliding with a particle, but, you cannot have the particle doesn't exist apart from the field -- they come together. The Higgs brings along things near and dear to our hearts -- mass. Mass is a manifestation of the interaction of other particles with the Higgs field. Photons have no mass because they don't interact with the Higgs field and it also why they travel at the maximum speed of anything in the universe. A heavy particle is simply one that is dragging more in the Higgs-field soup. So now we have objects imbued with this characteristic, mass, that isn't a property of them like charge, but a consequence of their interaction with their surroundings. Furthermore, the objects of the universe interact with one another in proportion to that mass (it's gravity) and that interaction is unique enough to firmly distinguish one thing from another, be it elementary particles or blocks of iron at the gym.
I think I feel a philosophy of science episode looming...
looking forward to it.
I don’t understand all the uproar, isn’t this just another empirical discovery like any other completely banal and mundane successful experiment as are performed thousands of times every day? What is it that signifies its apparent relative importance? Last I had heard scientists lives have become completely divorced from all of their discoveries about the world, this being even more true for fringe physicists acting as bourgeois wage-laborers. The only potential change this could possibly bring us are even more hysterically entertaining commodities allowing for us to legally parallel the kind of brain states one might occur while abusing heroin.
Have you beaten your particles lately?
So is anybody who finds my comment critical enough to warrant response even going to attempt to form a coherent thought? That’s okay if I left your world shattered and you’re still picking up the pieces.
Gabe McNewell says
Ryan makes a really good point here – and I share his concerns:
1. I hate people who are fans of science.
2. The television is telling me to be a fan of science this week.
How do I respond? Buy in, and hate myself? Ignore television?? Hate the people in the media???
Philosophy, please help me. What good are you if you don’t help me figure out who to hate?
Ben is right man. And why be concerned this week about science when every other day we’re watching ‘hunting big foot’ on tv?
C’mon you silly physicists stop wasting my time and solve this big foot mystery. Get a reality show on the subject. We don’t have enough on them as you may have noticed.. Oh, and I still don’t buy the theory that silly brown people made the pyramids. So solve that mystery while you’re at it.. TV better start reflecting my well-informed opinions on this matter.. Wait a minute… this has all the elements of a media conspiracy!!
uhm… new idea for a reality tv show..
I am trying to wrap my head around it. Can you answer this, and pardon me if it is a really dumb question: Can one predict or estimate the number of these particles which, at any given moment, probably exist in a particular place in the universe or in a particular object? For example, how many Higgs Bosons are in my body right now, approximately?
Dylan Casey says
I’ve been thinking about your question and I don’t have an answer to “how many Higgs Bosons are in my body right now”. I like it, but as with many perceptive questions it opens the box to more complicated explanations. The problem is that particles like the Higgs or the photon, heck all particles in particle physics, aren’t particles like marbles or rocks. They’re resonances in a universe permeating quantum field. (The Higgs Field isn’t unique in this respect in quantum field theory — all the fields are like that.) So, the electromagnetic field isn’t made of photons the way, say, water is made of H2O molecules. The photons manifest the field, but aren’t constitutive of it. Same thing with the Higgs Field. I know I’m not coming close to answering your question, but merely deflecting it. It’s a longer discussion than a comment box on a web site. I’ll try to post some reasonable references. (Maybe I’ll figure out good way to whittle the answer down as well.)
As far as I understand it, the number of Higgs bosons in your body is 0. Particles which have mass are not explicitly attached to a number of Higgs bosons (the actual particulate manifestation of the Higgs field, the boson, has a mass about 125 times that of a proton; if each of your massed particles (electrons, protons, neutrons) got its mass specifically from a Higgs boson, your mass would be enormously greater). The theory suggests that the mass in your atoms derives from those atoms’ interactions with the Higgs field, interactions which have definite effects, but which do not result in the actual “solidification” of the field into a Higgs boson (which requires the unimaginably huge energy magnitudes produced in the LHC to occur).
The understanding of gravitation put forward by Einstein’s relativity theories still stands, and it offers a much more useful and intuitive version of the origin of mass and inertia; the Higgs theory in the context of the standard model is much more esoteric, and explains a different side of the story, that of the quantum theory.
Dylan Casey says
You’re right, of course, that if your body was filled with “actual” Higgs bosons your mass would be greater. Interacting with the Higgs field (or any field for that matter) is always via the quanta of that field, be it on-shell or not. Depends a bit on how we understand “virtual particles”.
The relation with relativity is murky, it seems to me. The mass interaction with the Higgs “generates” mass by breaking the symmetry of all the particles in the Standard Model so that they’re not zero. The question of why this leads to gravitational style attraction (be it Newtonian or Einsteinian) seems unaddressed by the Higgs mechanism.
“it’s a great day to be a theorist — mathematics really does tell you something about reality. (And again, the experimentalist in me stands up and says “but it wasn’t reality until we found it, damn you!”)”
If reality only exists after we first find/understand it, is it different for everyone? Does science give us the current whole picture? What does your take on reality say about theism/atheism/agnosticism?
Ernest Prabhakar says
Can’t wait to hear your philosophy of science episode, Dylan! Let me know if you want another former experimental physicist along to help kibbitz. 🙂
I really am asking if reality is everything that is, or merely everything that we know for certain. They are two very different outlooks, and questions about the unknown are treated quite differently depending on which outlook you have.
Dylan Casey says
I think most people, experimental physicists included, would say that “reality is everything that is,” though we may need a longer discussion about what is is. 🙂
The reason for my dig at theorists in my parenthetical comment about Greene’s statement is that just because you think of something doesn’t make it real in any normal everyday sense of real. This applies to fiction and to mathematics. Dragons and Tribbles aren’t real. Not every solvable mathematical equation has a physical analog.
Accounting for the “real-world” (again, in an everyday sense of the word) is a primary goal of most inquiry, be it scientific or not. No theorist in particle physics genuinely wants to develop an account of non-reality. To the extent that they do (e.g., 2D gravity) it is for the goal of addressing more mathematically difficult problems (e.g., 4D gravity). In the end, saying that we’ve made that account successfully means that we’ve “verified it experimentally,” which is part of “knowing it for certain.” The theorists like Greene buy into this. They want the Higgs observed in order to confirm their ideas.
Part of my dig is really simple jealousy. The fact of the matter is that fundamental experimental particle physics like that done at Fermilab and the LHC is really hard and really expensive. It takes a really long time to do an experiment to answer even a straightforward question. The result is that experiment is way behind theory in poking around and following things that just look interesting. Short of finding something completely unexpected lying around in the data from the LHC (and even looking for something like that requires quite a bit of forethought to structure what you’re looking for), experimental particle physics relies on developments in theory to guide what it’s looking for. We’re a long time away from the days of Faraday or Hertz or Rutherford where you could combine the activities of trying to confirm your own ideas about how the world works with just poking around and seeing what happens and having something utterly new to human thought come out.
Dyami Hayes says
—–“would say that “reality is everything that is,” though we may need a longer discussion about what is is.”
That sounds about right to me. To exemplify, as I understand it, I would say things like “the number 7”, or “nothingness” (as tautology, conceptual – not Krauss’ empirical nothing), or String Theory would fall under “is not”, non-being, or “not reality”, in purely negative terms.
The Higgs Boson particle, by moving from tautological(?)/analytic/mathematical model to experimental is now a factual hypothesis about reality. But from what I gather, it is far from being a fact of reality. We can give a high probability to the reality of the measurement, but how well the measurement ‘fits’ with the Higgs Boson particle as in its pre-factual derivation remains to be seen.
If reality is everything that exists, and there are different ways for various things to exist (mentioned in comments above were theoretical, factual, fictional…) and if we admit that we currently (maybe always will) have a less than 100% knowledge of all that exists, how can a person claim anything but agnosticism w/r God?
Not fizzikz, I know, but perhaps basic logic?
Dyami Hayes says
I think there is a decent response to this, namely that the criterion for disbelief (ie. atheism) – beyond mere suspension of belief – doesn’t require Absolute certainty. So, just as it is acceptable to be an atheist towards Unicorns, it is acceptable to be an atheist towards a given account of God. Alternatively, some will argue that a given account of God lacks internal validity and thus reject it a priori.
“it is acceptable to be an atheist towards a given account of God”
makes sense, but what about a generic-no-details account like ‘does any God exist?’
Does that demand an agnostic response when asserting that we do not yet know all that is real?
Dyami Hayes says
By convention, I’d respond as an atheist by deducing that God in such open terms has a higher probability of referring to an irrational entity/concept, and so can say with high probability that I don’t believe in such an open concept.
However, if the situation permits it, I’ll qualify – or set a domain – to what my atheism is meant to extend to and leave discussion open for further inquiry.
‘Y’ represent account for god I believe in
‘x’ represents accounts of god which I have deemed irrational.
‘0’ represents accounts of god which I am aware of but either don’t have enough information to affirm/deny or the even with relevant information am unable/refuse to affirm/deny.
‘?…’ represent accounts which could potentially still classify as ‘God’, but I am unaware of entirely (which really doesn’t hold much weight in the debate)
[x,x,x,x,x,x,x,x,x,x,x,x ?…] or [x] or [x,?..]
>Strict Atheist, perhaps reaching ‘scientific certainty’
>Weak atheist, as stated above, “by convention” towards unrestricted, vague concept
[0,?…] or [x,0,0,0, ?…]
[Y] or [,x,x,x,Y] or [x,x,Y,Y,Y]
>Theist / Polytheist
*I’ve used terms (like “rational/irrational”} somewhat liberally, which could be a problem for accounts of God as being Paradoxical, or Irrational. A possible response would be that such accounts usually result in a God who is featureless (doesn’t “exist” and is a mere “idea/concept”). GOD reduces to something similar to a concept of “Nothing” which by definition can be said to be outside the domain of phenomenon, knowledge, and what we call “existence”.
There is some prior thought guiding this explanation, but I’m teasing out/winging at least partially. Hope it still makes sense 😀
Do you know if your systematic approach has ever been put in a matrix format such that its logical structure gives an arranged look at belief?
Or, has anyone done a study of Myers Briggs 16 personality types and their relation to atheism?
Dyami Hayes says
From what I recall, anytime Myers-Briggs came up in my psych classes / studies it was typically in a negative context. There may be some modern interpretations which make them relevant and study-worthy, but I’m aware of them.
As for a systemic approach similar to what I’ve laid out, I’m not able to think of any studies at the moment, but perhaps a little Googl- scratch that, DuckDuckGo.com searching (not a Google fan) could help.
Wayne Schroeder says
I am quite certain that I do not know everything that is, nor even the “thing in itself”: that is my position between the naive realism that scientists fall into and the skepticism of knowing nothing (or idealism of knowing everything) which ‘philosophers’ can fall into. And this is the basis for a good podcast on the philosophy of science to outline this paradox.
Where do you get the idea or concept of the thing in itself from if it is not a form of knowing grounded in our suspect human experience of the world, as would necessarily not have any (even negational) access to the thing in itself that you speak of? I agree the vast majority of scientists and philosophers fall victim to naive realism, but unfortunately metaphysics didn’t end with the critique of pure reason as was planned and as you seem to allude to, and there is 250 years of progress in that field absent from your little explanation.
In any case there is certainly a difference between the empirical and the transcendental that science is presently missing out on, I would even call it infantile how they have failed entirely to move beyond the folk psychological, manifest image of the world as philosophy has at least been practicing for multiple centuries now. Of course it doesn’t really help the bourgeois experimentalists that only receive funding on the basis of perceived short term profitability to overturn our understanding of the world in a way that would actually affect life as we know it, science for them has become the object of an unending banal hobby. If you want to meet a true nihilist, ask somebody who works at a particle accelerator how they reconcile their understanding of the world with their family life.
Wayne Schroeder says
HP Lovecraft and Higgs, life is stranger than fiction?