Telling the public why the Higgs particle matters

UnknownThere’s been some controversy in the past two days regarding public comments made about the importance of the Higgs. Professor Matt Strassler, on his blog, “Of Particular Significance,” expresses a bit of outrage:

“Why, Professor Kaku? Why?”

Posted on March 19, 2013 | 70 Comments

Professor Michio Kaku, of City College (part of the City University of New York), is well-known for his work on string theory in the 1960s and 1970s, and best known today for his outreach efforts through his books and his appearances on radio and television.  His most recent appearance was a couple of days ago, in an interview on CBS television, which made its way into this CBS news article about the importance of the Higgs particle.

Unfortunately, what that CBS news article says about “why the Higgs particle matters” is completely wrong.  Why?  Because it’s based on what Professor Kaku said about the Higgs particle, and what he said is wrong.  Worse, he presumably knew that it was wrong.  (If he didn’t, that’s also pretty bad.) It seems that Professor Kaku feels it necessary, in order to engage the imagination of the public, to make spectacular distortions of the physics behind the Higgs field and the Higgs particle, even to the point of suggesting the Higgs particle triggered the Big Bang.

Read the rest of the post here.

In his own proposal, the following day, for “Why the Higgs Matters,” Strassler makes the following points, among others:

“Why the Higgs Matters, In A Few Sentences”

Posted on March 20, 2013 | 45 Comments

One of the big challenges facing journalists writing about science is to summarize a scientific subject accurately, clearly and succinctly. Sometimes one of the three requirements is sacrificed, and sadly, it is often the first one.

So here is my latest (but surely not last) attempt at an accurate, succinct, and maybe even clear summary of why the Higgs business matters so much.

`True’ Statements about the Higgs

True means “as true as anything compressed into four sentences can possibly be” — i.e., very close to true.  For those who want to know where I’m cutting important corners, a list of caveats will follow at the end of the article.

▪   Our very existence depends upon the Higgs field, which pervades the universe and gives elementary particles, including electrons, their masses.  Without mass, electrons could not form atoms, the building blocks of our bodies and of all ordinary matter.

▪   Last July’s discovery of the Higgs particle is exciting because it confirms that the Higgs field really exists.  Scientists hope to learn much more about this still-mysterious field through further study of the Higgs particle.

Is that so bad? These lines are almost 100% accurate… I’m sure an experienced journalist can cut and adjust and amend them to make them sound better and more exciting, but are they really too long and unclear to be useable?

Some False Statements about the Higgs

Meanwhile I would like to suggest we avoid the following statements, or anything like them.

▪   The Higgs field and/or the Higgs particle were crucial to the Big Bang. [On the contrary, there’s no evidence that the Big Bang would have been stymied in the absence of the Higgs field and particle, or of anything directly related to them… despite what Professor Michio Kaku said earlier in the week on CBS news, to the embarrassment and annoyance of the physics community.]

▪   All mass in the universe comes from the Higgs field and/or Higgs particle. [There are many things in the universe which don’t get their mass from the Higgs field, including atomic nuclei, the black holes at the centers of galaxies, and (probably) dark matter.  Meanwhile, the Higgs particle cannot give mass to anything.]

▪   The Higgs field and/or Higgs particle gives ordinary matter its mass.  [Nope; although the Higgs field, by giving the electron its mass, makes ordinary matter possible, it doesn’t provide most of ordinary matter’s mass.  Most of an atom’s mass is in its nucleus, and thus in protons and in neutrons, particles which are not elementary and do not get most of their mass from the Higgs field.  Protons and neutrons get their masses from effects involving the strong nuclear force; they’d still have mass if there were no Higgs field.  And again, nothing gets its mass from the Higgs particle.]

▪   The existence of the Higgs particle confirms Einstein’s theories. [Einstein had nothing to do with these ideas, which were developed after his death.]

Oh, and please let’s stop using “God Particle”.  Aside from the fact that it is the field, not the particle, that’s so important, the term makes it sound as though important religious questions can be answered by science, using experiments. Science is a powerful tool, but it has its limitations, and it cannot address questions of this sort.  No one benefits when scientists and/or the media confuse non-scientists into thinking that it can.

Read the rest of the post here.

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