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.Let’s list the statements which are clear or perhaps semi-clear:
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.
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.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:
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.”
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?