Monday, February 28, 2011

Defining & Finding the Higgs Boson Particle

I know that I love on the BBC quite a bit, I make no bones about it being my preferred source for daily science news coverage. However, the article "LHC has two years to find Higgs" is an unfortunate departure from the BBC's typically stellar science coverage.

The article caught my attention because I'm already familiar with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) a particle collider operating underground along the France/Switzerland border. A particle collider takes protons (a small part of an atom), runs them around at speeds close to the speed of light, and crashes the particles into each other. Hence the name, particle (the protons) collider (the smashing them together part.)

The other part of the BBC article's title that caught my eye was "Higgs" which refers to the Higgs Boson Particle. The Higgs is a theoretical particle - meaning that it is a particle that physicists THINK exists, but they don't actually know for sure, it might not exist at all. In trying to understand the universe and what gives all matter mass, physicists have come up with several theories.

One of these theories is the Standard Model - which is based on the existence of the Higgs. If it exists the Higgs would explain how particles get mass. The LHC is looking for the Higgs by analyzing the teraelectronvolts (TeV - a measurement of energy) that would be emitted by the process through which particles get mass. The LHC should be able to detect the TeV of the Higgs - if it exists.

Part of one LHC tunnel. Source: Wikimedia Commons
I realize that the BBC's article is clearly an update piece about ongoing research, but it just glosses over some very important explanations about the LHC and the Higgs. If I didn't know that LHC was a particle collider or that the Higgs is a theoretical particle I would have no idea what this article is about from the title. Even as you go through the body of the article, there is no background information. To say that particle physics is complicated is an understatement. All the more reason why this article needs background information to make it understandable. As it is, this article is not appropriate for lay audiences.

The timely component of this article, or the reason why an update on the LHC is needed, is that researchers have announced that if the Higgs isn't detected by the end of 2012 they will conclude that the particle does not exist. If the Higgs doesn't exist then the Standard Model is not the way by which the universe is organized, meaning researchers would have to re-define their understanding of sub-atomic physics.

This is a news worthy update, however I feel like the reporter didn't do the story justice. Even the quotes do nothing to explain what LHC is, what the Higgs is, or what the significance of its existence or non-existence would be. I have a particular problem with the paragraph:
"According to Professor Tom LeCompte of the Argonne National Laboratory, US, who works at the LHC: "The most likely place for the Higgs to be is in a very good place for us to discover it in the next two years."

I have no idea what this quote means. "The most likely place for the Higgs to be is in a very good place..." What? My best guess is that the scientist is trying to say that research at LHC has progressed to the point that if the Higgs isn't detected in two more years, it doesn't exist. But obviously, that is NOT what he actually said.

This is a prime example of a quote that shouldn't have been used. Rather than just using the confusing quote the reporter could have asked the source to clarify or say what they meant in a different way. The reporter could also have paraphrased what the researcher was trying to say. Just because an intelligent and successful scientist makes a statement, doesn't mean that statement is gold. As a writer you have to decide what quotes add to the story, and what quotes are just confusing. You shouldn't put in quotes just to have quotes.

I realize that this is just a short article and it isn't trying to do an in depth analysis of the LHC, the Higgs, or particle physics, but that doesn't mean that background information and good quotes should go out the window. This topic is particularly complex and nuanced, and I've struggled to provide a decent explanation here - but just because something is hard doesn't mean you don't have to even TRY to explain it clearly.

I think the BBC article could have been a lot better if more effort was put into trying to at least define the LHC and the Higgs for the reader. After all, the reader isn't going to care that some particle might not exist if you don't explain what that particle is and why it matters.

If you want to learn more about the LHC, I can't help but recommend the following video. I still get a kick out of watching physicists try to rap and dance. You will find the explanation of the Higgs in the video far more complex than mine. Physics is out of my realm of comfortable understanding - but I gave it a shot and tried to keep it as basic as possible.


  1. Alright then, nice to see a physics post. I too have a great deal of interest invested into the LHC. I got all starry-eyed during one of their talks at AAAS.

    I agree, that article needs to remember not everyone gets what they're doing. Especially something like the LHC should be reiterated.

  2. Thanks for the comment, I hope I got the explanations of the LHC and the Higgs right, it is pretty complex stuff (especially if you've never taken physics like me) but I think it is a really interesting subject.

  3. I really liked your breakdown of how this piece of science writing could have been better - a good awareness piece for those unfamiliar with science writing. That article is definitely a good example for why it's important for writers to understand how the public understands (or doesn't understand) science. Well done!

  4. Dear Erin,

    Your criticism of the BBc piece is just about right. I came across an interview with Peter Higgs himself on the subject of the Higgs Boson, and I learned a lot from it.

    The question of the existence of the Higgs boson is fascinating for me, for reasons other than an interest in Physics. My interest lies in philosophy, and in the course of my studies I have learned to recognize the difference between defining an object in terms of its existence and defining it in terms of its meaning (primarily the object's name and the way the name is used in discourse).

    when dealing with solid objects (and we assume, perhaps, foolishly, that the objects of science are solid) defining them in terms of their substance or existence can be relatively easy. But when we try an define abstracted conceptions (such as Justice, for example) the terms of substance and existence fail us. In a similar way, when we try, as do the scientists as CERN, to define the Higgs boson in terms of its substance or existence - when we try to prove that it exists - we may be barking up the wrong tree, as the Higgs - a particle that possibly affects other particles in respect of mass (substance) may, in itself, not have mass, and therefore would not be defined by the use of substantive terms.

    The insistence of scientists to reduce the wonders of human multidimensional existence (both spirit and body) to a pile of substances defined solely in terms of their substantive existence, seem to have hit a wall, with the recent efforts to prove the existence of the Higgs boson, as the particle seems to have a significant role in the physical world, but fails to register as a physical discernible entity in itself.

  5. Thanks so much for the comment Ben! I hadn't really thought about what was making me (and other writers) struggle to define the Higgs in that way before, but I think you've really hit on an important issue.

  6. Hi Erin,
    The latest Boson News seem to be:

    "The runup to Christmas looks exciting for the Large Hadron Collider at Cern near Geneva. Staff at the laboratory have arranged a special seminar on Tuesday 13 December at which the latest results in the search for the Higgs boson will be made public... John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at King's College London, who in 1976 wrote the first paper on how to find the Higgs boson, says that if the particle exists in the simple form invoked by the Standard Model (the set of equations that describe how known particles interact) it should start to show up in their data, but probably not strongly enough for them to claim a discovery. If the elusive boson is a mirage, the scientists should be able to rule it out completely. All of this is contingent on their having analysed every last bit of their data, though, and that is unlikely."

    Scientists (using primarily two methods - mathematics and physical observation - seem to have made little progress in finding an actual 'existing' particle. My confidence that the problem can be solved philosophically (and not by means of the existing scientific method) is growing by the day. But even within the field of the philosophy of science, my approach would be a minority approach, as most contemporary philosophy of science has been channeled (like a bad omen or false prophecy) through the annals of 'analytical philosophy'. In some areas of philosophy, one can find on rare occasions the descriptions of entities, mostly rational entities - not physical ones, that fit the features of the Higgs particle. Such entities of reason (abstracted conceptions included) are, in essence, defined Formally, not Essentially or Substantively - they act and function (and can perhaps be shown to exist necessarily by mathematical means) but they do not leave a Substantive footprint, which means that their 'presence' in the field does not add another substance or existent (another physical object)to the field, though their presence is felt due to their function in the field (see the case in hand). This approach has existed since before Plato, but in the world of philosophy it has little influence these days, especially since 20th century philosophical enquiry has been founded for the most part on mathematical terminology (see Predicate Logic)and little room has been left for this other method, which surprisingly allows us to define various entities that 'must' exist, but cannot be 'found' in the visual or physical field - such as the Higgs boson or the cherished abstracted conceptions on which our moral and political systems are based.

    Perhaps it is time for me to put a more detailed explanation of what has become so clear to me in book form. It could be of help to the frustrated people at CERN. Imagine their surprise when they find out that instead of the huge machine they have built in order to 'find' the Higgs boson, they could have financed the few thousand dollars it took me to study for my Ph.d in philosophy. So much to do, so little time.