SCIENCE WATCH: How well do you understand the Higgs field!


The New York Times gives it a try: If you want to punish yourself, watch Robert Wright conduct this discussion of the ballyhooed Higgs boson.

Within the dramatic production described as the press corps, Wright is cast in the role of one of the bright guys. We’ll only suggest that you watch.

The person Wright keeps interrupting is physicist Lawrence Krauss. Krauss knows the physics—but can he explain it?

The New York Times let him try.

We’re going to guess that this isn’t Krauss’ fault. If our puzzlement is well founded, we’re going to blame this on editing.

That said, do you think this passage makes sense? We’ve inserted the bracketed numbers:
KRAUSS (7/10/12): The prediction of the Higgs particle accompanied a remarkable revolution that completely changed our understanding of particle physics in the latter part of the 20th century.

Just 50 years ago, in spite of the great advances of physics in the previous half century, we understood only one of the four fundamental forces of nature—electromagnetism—as a fully consistent quantum theory. In just one subsequent decade, however, not only had three of the four known forces succumbed to our investigations, but a new elegant unity of nature had been uncovered.

It was found that all of the known forces could be described using a single mathematical framework—and that two of the forces, electromagnetism and the weak force (which governs the nuclear reactions that power the sun), were actually different manifestations of a single underlying theory.

How could two such different forces be related? After all, [1] the photon, the particle that conveys electromagnetism, has no mass, while the particles that convey the weak force are very massive—almost 100 times as heavy as the particles that make up atomic nuclei, a fact that explains why the weak force is weak.

What the British physicist Peter Higgs and several others showed is that if there exists an otherwise invisible background field permeating all of space, [2] then the particles that convey some force like electromagnetism can interact with this field and effectively encounter resistance to their motion and slow down, like a swimmer moving through molasses.

As a result, these particles can behave as if they are heavy, as if they have a mass.
The physicist Steven Weinberg later applied this idea to a model of the weak and electromagnetic forces previously proposed by Sheldon L. Glashow, and everything fit together.

This idea can be extended to the rest of particles in nature, including the protons and neutrons and electrons that make up the atoms in our bodies. If some particle interacts more strongly with this background field, it ends up acting heavier. If it interacts more weakly, it acts lighter. [3] If it doesn't interact at all, like the photon, it remains massless.
Maybe we’re missing something here. But go ahead—give it a try:

In passage [1], we’re told that the photon is the particle that conveys electromagnetism. We’re told it has no mass.

In passage [2], we’re told that particles that convey some force like electromagnetism (presumably, this would include photons) can interact with that otherwise invisible background field. As a result, these particles behave as if they have mass.

But in passage [3], we are told that the photon doesn’t interact with the background field at all. For that reason, it remains massless.

No attempt is made to explain the difference between having mass and acting as if there is mass. But do photons interact with that background field? The story seems to change, almost like a particle blinking in and out of existence.

This appeared in the weekly Science Times section. We’ve puzzled over it for a week.

Do you think that passage makes sense? If not, we’re going to say that the Times, not Krauss, is at fault.


  1. I'm going to guess this:
    (presumably, this would include photons)
    is incorrect.

  2. So, vote Republican? They hate science.

    1. The Higgs is sometimes referred to as "the god particle," so it would be only natural for most Republicans to oppose finding it. God is a bearded old white guy in sky, not some subatomic particle you can't even see. It'd be like saying the ability to sense and manipulate The Force was due to some kind of symbiotic bacteria instead of just having better genetics...

  3. This explanation seemed to flow easier:

    Or gave me all I wanted/needed.

  4. Invisible background field? What the hell? So we are basically back to the luminiferous ether? Note to modern physicists - the 19th century called, they want their theory back.

    I would say that a photon has mass, because it has energy and there is said to be some relationship between energy and mass. Although the exact formulation escapes me now. Something like E equals MC Hammer.

    1. Modern physics is a wild and wooly place, where things spontaneously appear out of nothingness and disappear back into it. I have a hard time accepting it, not because it isn't true or is bad science, but because it doesn't seem to lead anywhere. All the explanations seem to be boiling down to "reality exists because shut up, that's why," and I just can't accept that. I'm a naturally depressed and nihilistic person, but so far all science is doing is making everything seem more and more pointless.

  5. Still no mention of Rachel Maddow's book. Unbelievable.


  6. Photons have mass, but they have no rest mass. Please see here:

  7. For my humble conclusion I'm indebted to Bohr: If you think you understand it, you don't. If anything about it seems clear, it isn't.

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson had a For Dummies analogy on Fareed's show Sunday, but it didn't take in any of these problematic angles, which frankly sound like a brilliant mathematician's groping efforts at reducing impossibly complex subtleties to gross verbalizations. Carl Sagan he ain't.

    If everything's energy at bottom, is there a meaningful difference between having mass and appearing to have mass? I thought mass was the ultimate illusion anyway.

  8. The force that is "like electromagnetism" he is describing is the weak force, which is similar to electromagnetism except for the fact that the force carriers have mass.

    The vague phrase "behave as if it has mass" indicates that the mass is actually an energy in the Higgs field. This isn't the "irreducable" mass of classical mechanics, but the E=mc^2 mass of modern physics. In the same way, a charged particle in an electrical field can "gain mass" by having a greater potential energy.

    I sympathize with this physicist. No one is going to actually understand the Higgs Boson or the Standard model from a short essay like this. The only thing people can acheive is a reasonable illusion of comprehension. I am a physics masters student and I have no clue what the Higgs Boson is, and about %95 of the Ph.D. physicists I know don't know what it is either.

  9. I think the resolution of this problem is in the meaning of the following,

    "...then the particles that convey some force like electromagnetism can interact with this field..."

    I think the point is not that these particles -- other than the photon -- actually convey electromagnetism per se. Rather, both these particles AND photons convey SOME OTHER MORE BASIC FORCE. In photons, because they don't interact with this field, the resultant force that governs their behavior, and which they convey, is electromagnetism. In other particles, the resultant forces are such things as the weak force.

    Because electrons don't interact with the field, they don't have mass. Because others do, they do have mass.

    The underlying "unity" that is achieved is in the explanation of the various forces and masses via one underlying basic force and the interaction with the field.

    Finally, I think the assertion that these particles that interact with the field act "as if" they have mass really is just a way of communicating that, under this theory, that is just what having mass amounts to.

    1. This response is very misleading. First, electrons do have mass. I'm not sure whether they get this from the Higgs field, but it's also possible they have their small mass through "self interaction".

      Photons, and only photons, convey the electromagnetic force. An electromagnetic interaction can be viewed as the "exchange" of a photon: that is, one particle emits a photon, losing energy, and the other particle absorbs the photon, gaining energy.

    2. Sorry, I meant "photons" in the one occasion in which I wrote "electrons" (as should have been suggested by the overall context, in which electrons don't even come up.)

  10. If someone wants to really understand anything written about in a newspaper, the next step is to find a better source and look for more explanation. I think that is true no matter what is being discussed.

    1. Yeah, too bad newspapers can't explain the Higgs boson to us in language we can all understand and a story we can read in 10 minutes while sitting on the john.

      Gee, you'd think we'd need an advanced degree in physics or something.

  11. The weak force is like the electromagnetic force but not identical to it. The carriers of the weak force are the W-plus, W-minus, and Z-zero particles, which interact with the Higgs boson and are therefore massive. The carrier of the electromagnetic force is the photon, which does not interact with the Higgs boson and is massless.

    I'm sorry you don't understand this. I don't understand it either. There are so many things to blame the NY Times for, but the incomprehensibility of particle physics isn't one of them. In the twentieth century, scientists carried their investigations beyond what our brains are built to do.

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