It's incoherence, all the way down!

SATURDAY, MARCH 9, 2013

The New York Times skis the Higgs field: Can we humanoids tell when an explanation doesn't make any sense?

Or are we doomed to accept imitations of explanation—jumbles of words which may appeal to us on some basis, but which don’t really make sense? (At least not to people like us.)

If we can’t tell the difference, we can’t really reason. Our world becomes that of the Music Man—and it’s trombones all the way down!

Can we human beings tell when an explanation doesn't make sense? For us, the question arose this Tuesday morning, when the New York Times devoted its weekly Science Times section to an “explanation” of the ballyhooed Higgs boson and the widely-cited Higgs field.

Do you understand what the New York Times wrote? How many Times readers could tell if the work in this special section actually made any sense?

For ourselves, we would regard Tuesday's work as a classic non-explanation explanation—an imitation of intellectual life. In the past several decades, such non-explanations have been quite common (and quite profitable) as popularizers pretend to explain the world of modern physics.

We constantly find that their work breaks down—that we simply don’t understand what it means. So it was when Dennis Overbye (no relation) started explaining “the Higgs,” a shorthand term for the Higgs field, a field composed of Higgs bosons.

As Overbye begins, some physicists are closing in on a great white whale. We assume those physicists know their stuff, that they are doing actual science. That said, do you understand the following passage, which a journalist wrote?
OVERBYE (3/5/13): Dr. Sharma and his colleagues had every reason to believe that they were closing in on the Great White Whale of modern science: the Higgs boson, a particle whose existence would explain all the others then known and how they fit together into the jigsaw puzzle of reality.

For almost half a century, physicists had chased its quantum ghost through labyrinths of mathematics and logic, and through tons of electronics at powerful particle colliders, all to no avail.

Now it had come down to the Large Hadron Collider, where two armies of physicists, each 3,000 strong, struggled against each other and against nature, in a friendly but deadly serious competition.

[...]

The stakes were more than just Nobel Prizes, bragging rights or just another quirkily named addition to the zoo of elementary particles that make up nature at its core. The Higgs boson would be the only visible manifestation of the Harry Potterish notion put forward back in 1964 (most notably by Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh) that there is a secret, invisible force field running the universe...

Elementary particles—the electrons and other subatomic riffraff running around in our DNA and our iPhones—would get their masses from interacting with this field, the way politicians draw succor from cheers and handshakes at the rope line.

Without this mystery field, everything in the universe would be pretty much the same, a bland fizz of particles running around at the speed of light. With it, there could be atoms and stars, and us.
Let’s list the statements which are clear or perhaps semi-clear:

According to that passage, the Higgs boson is “a particle.” According to Overbye, its existence “would explain all the other [particles] then known and how they fit together into the jigsaw puzzle of reality.”

For ourselves, we don’t understand what Overbye means when he says the Higgs boson would “explain all the other particles.” Later, though, he says there’s “a force field” which is “running the universe.” Do you have any idea what that means?

And by the way: Is this “secret, invisible force field” the Higgs field? At this point, Overbye doesn’t exactly say.

Overbye says that elementary particles “get their masses from interacting with this field.” Did you know that some elementary particles don’t have any mass? Do you understand how a particle can be a particle without having mass? (Do you understand what "mass" is?) And by the way:

Since the Higgs boson is a particle, does it have mass? A bit later on, Overbye seems to suggest that it does. Or does he?
OVERBYE: Dr. Incandela had wandered into science from the art world. Growing up in Chicago, he studied at its Art Institute, intending to be a sculptor. He got interested in science while studying the chemistry of ceramics, went on to get a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and then worked at CERN and Fermilab, where in 1995 he helped discover the top quark, the last missing matter particle in the Standard Model.

He brought with him a deeply philosophical and historical viewpoint on the quest to understand nature. The Higgs boson reminded him of the ancient Stoic notion of “pneuma,” a sort of force or tension that permeated space and gave substance to things. It was the first example in history of people wondering about the origin of mass.

“The Higgs is sort of like the mother of everything,” he said. “It tells you something very fundamental about the entire universe. So measuring its mass, for instance, could tell us whether the universe is stable or not. This is really unbelievable if you think about it.”
When Incandela discusses “the Higgs” in that passage, is he referring to the Higgs field? Or does he mean the Higgs boson? He seems to say that “the Higgs” has mass. For us, that creates some confusion:

Every other particle gets its mass from interacting with the Higgs field. So where does “the Higgs” get its mass? As a general reader, do you have the slightest idea at this point? At any later point?

We’ll volunteer that we don’t.

Go ahead—take the Higgs boson challenge! See if you can follow Overbye as he attempts to ski the Higgs field! We use that metaphor because so does the Times, in a bit of graphic art which is meant to elucidate these deeply puzzling notions.

In Tuesday’s hard-copy Times, this first chunk of graphic art took up the bottom half of page D3 in the Science Times section. It compares the Higgs field to a field of snow; it compares different types of elementary particles to different types of beings who navigate fields of snow. (Skiers, snowshoers and people in boots. Also birds, who fly over the snow field.)

In this case, graphic art serves to create the impression that a difficult subject has been made more clear. For ourselves, we think that graphic art explains nothing whatever, although the presence of this Higgs-devoted special section gives us readers the (mistaken) idea that we are being treated to some very smart explanatory journalism.

So too for many other explanations and arguments in the Times. Because they appeal to us in various ways, we may not notice how much is missing from these presentations.

Go ahead, read the full presentation! Question: Did Overbye and the New York Times really help you ski the Higgs field? For ourselves, we’d have to say that they did not. We’d have to say that this special section was basically incoherent.

How many Times readers thought they understood what Overbye wrote this week? How many felt free to imagine a possibility—the possibility that the New York Times' work was basically incoherent?

29 comments:

  1. Excellent analysis. With a doctorate, I could make no sense of the supplement and just toosed it aside.

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  2. I might have a better chance at grasping this with a Higgs-field advantage.

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  3. I was unable to get my Bos-on. Maybe some booze would help.

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  4. It is very difficult for a writer to explain something they do not understand to an audience presumed to have even less information about it. Even physicists who have the mathematical training find it difficult to produce an intuitively accessible model of the process in their own mind, let alone effectively convey one to someone with little or no background. Nevertheless efforts will be made, because the newspaper business depends on content, and many of them will fail.

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  6. One of my favorite types of Somerby column, where he blames the New York Times because he doesn't understand the reporting about a scientific discovery. Bob asks us to consider "the possibility that the New York Times' work [on the Higgs boson] was basically incoherent." How ignorant is Bob Somerby about physics? So ignorant that he doesn't understand the inadvertent physics word play in his question; so ignorant that he doesn't understand that the mathematics of particle physics is far beyond most Times' readers (including me); so ignorant that he doesn't understand that metaphorical descriptions are all that's available; so ignorant that he doesn't understand even the basic things readily available in a high-school physics text or from a few minutes spent on the intertubes with the goggle.

    Let's talk about this last group of things. "Do you understand what 'mass' is?" Sure, at a basic level. Newton tells us that mass measures something's resistance to acceleration. Or the strength of that something's attraction to other things. These give identical measurements of something's mass. Einstein would say that mass is that which determines the curvature of spacetime, a definition from which can be derived the Newtonian definitions.

    "Did you know that some elementary particles don't have any mass?" Sure. Photons (light, the carrier of the electromagnetic force), gluons (the carrier of the strong force that keeps atomic nuclei together) and (maybe) some neutrinos (participants in the process of radioactive decay) don't have mass.

    "Do you understand how a particle can be a particle without having mass?" Sort of. A particle without mass is a particle that cannot be accelerated (per the Newtonian definition), and thus must already be going as fast as possible, i.e., at the speed of light.

    Does the Higgs boson have mass? Sure. That's what the news story is about, the discovery of a particle with mass between 125 and 127 GeV. (That's a measure of energy, but we can get the equivalent mass via Einstein's famous equation E=mc^2.)

    "[W]here does 'the Higgs' get _its_ mass?" From the Higgs field. Understanding the Higgs field is beyond those without the requisite math, but let's consider a magnetic field as an analogy. We can visualize this field via the grade-school experiment of sprinkling iron filings around a magnet to find the shape, strength, and extent of its magnetic field. The electron is the basic carrier of electric charge, and the amount of that charge arises from interaction with its own electric field in the manner described by quantum mechanics. So particles interacting with their own fields is a well-know effect.

    Do you have any idea what it means to say that the Higgs boson would "explain all the other [particles]"? At a non-technical level. The so-called standard model of particle physics describes three of the four forces in the universe and the particles responsible for those forces. This theory describes which forces affect which particles and the strengths of the interactions, but it doesn't tell us what the masses of the particles are. Those are currently determined by experiment and cannot be derived from the theory. The Higgs field provides the necessary calculations to specify the masses.

    Do you have any idea what it means to say that there is "a force field" which is "running the universe"? Again, only in a non-technical sense. Without a Higgs field, all the known particles would be massless, (thus) moving at light speed, and we'd have none of the interactions that make our universe contain familiar matter.

    (continued following)

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    Replies
    1. Gee, sounds like you should have written the article, since I did understand what you wrote. The article, on the other hand was a muddled mess, especially when compared to what you just wrote. Somerby's criticism is valid, yours not as much so.

      Maybe the NYT should consider a science writer next time. You should volunteer.

      Delete
    2. Gee, thanks, but no thanks. It's good to hear that you understood what I wrote, but if you think you'd have understood the Times article had I written it, then you've missed the point of what I wrote. The Times is trying to explain a quantum mechanical theory to laymen. The operations laid out in a quantum theory are so strange that Richard Feynman concluded that nobody understood QM. "Nobody knows how it can be like that." he said at a lecture at MIT. These theories are phrased in mathematics so abstract that it bears no relationship to our familiar world that we can model in 3-D with the x-y-z axes of high-school geometry marked out with the same numbers we balance our checkbooks with. It is tempting to conclude that all that abstraction cannot have anything beyond an artificial and forced relationship to reality, except that such theories are capable of making remarkable predictions. In the case of QED (quantum electrodynamics), the theory of the electromagnetic force, the precision extends to 14 decimal places, and when the experimentalists improve their equipment by a order of magnitude, no theorist believes that QED won't agree with the new measurement in the 15th place. Eugene Wigner called this mystery "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics."

      No popular account about these arcane topics can reach beyond the metaphorical and needs raise more questions than it answers. Questions that can't be answered in familiar language. I'm not arguing that the Times article is the best-written popular science, but the criticism that Somerby brings are grounded in his own ignorance. If he doesn't know what "mass" is, he should find out. And it's not the job of the article's author to educate him. This is like reading a newspaper account of a Washington political scandal and complaining that it's unclear why the reporter has attached the suffix -gate to the name of the affair.

      Physicists aren't the only ones with theories. Somerby has a theory of his own -- let's call it a narrative. It goes like this: our journalists don't make sense and don't know when they're muddled. When it comes to politics, this failing arises from laziness, attraction to scandal, and a base affinity for power, money, and peer approval. It's not that this narrative is wrong. Like physicists, Somerby is blessed with plenty of confirming evidence. The problem with narrative is the temptation to make the data fit. The physicists of the Times article guard against this temptation by having two independent teams checking each other's results, but when Somerby doesn't understand an explanation, he heads directly to his narrative that the explainer is foisting muddled, fake, "imitation" explanations on us. The Higgs article isn't an isolated instance. Check out Somerby's complaint from 2008 that Walter Isaacson didn't make relativity easy enough for him to understand. But in preaching his truth, he reveals his abyssal ignorance of the subject. And like it or not, that's leads him to an imitation criticism.

      Delete
    3. Exactly, and I thought this particular Times article explained the importance of continuing study into the Higgs boson and Higgs field quite well, which is all that this

      It is also a rather cheap way to perform "imitation criticism" for Somerby to take a few passages out of all context and declare that the entire article makes no sense.

      And of course, there is this sentence from Incandela which Somerby does not highlight: "This is really unbelievable if you think about it.”

      Absolutely. Fantastic, incredible, unbelievable, mind-boggling. Whatever adjective we can find.

      Delete
  7. (continued)

    At this level of explanation, non-technical and non-mathematical, all these ideas are accessible to someone who has a rudimentary education in physics. Or anyone with a high-school education who skipped (or slept through) physics class but wishes to take the minimal effort required to do the makeup work. But apparently it's much easier to blame the failure of understanding on the reporter. After all, who wants to go back and sit through high-school physics? And it's so satisfying to bash the Times.

    Going beyond these concepts to understand how to make calculations from the theory of the Higgs field requires some serious mathematics, including some heavy lifting in field theory and group theory that are beyond all but a serious few who make their living toiling in abstract mathematics and particle physics. But that limitation explains why the only tools available to most of us are analogy and metaphor, as unsatisfying as they are and have to be. Or more accurately, explains to those who aren't wedded to the narrative that everything the Times writes is incoherent.

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  8. Spot on, Somerby, as usual.

    For fun the below with its misleading title, since reading it requires some work.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/75508320/Higgs-Bosons-Everyone

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  9. When I was in school, we were taught that there was a sort of inverse relationship between the timeliness, and the intellectual depth of a publication.

    Newspapers came out first with the least depth.
    Later, magazines with greater detail, then books.

    Is it not so, Grasshopper?

    ReplyDelete
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