Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Particular Challenge

By Simon Grose

The biggest science story of 2012 poses a riddle about a particle locked in a field, wrapped in a mystery and out of the ordinary.

A golden rule for science journalism is never report or comment on something you don’t understand. So when CERN reported evidence of the existence of the Higgs boson it was time for research.

Dr Karl was quickly online to provide a ten-point explainer. He mentioned Lady Gaga, Hugh Jackman and the Loch Ness Monster, scoring high for entertainment but not so hot for physics education. Same for every other explanation that poured into cyber space.

Get serious: dive into Particle Physics from A to Z by John Gribbin, doyen of physics communication, who defines the Higgs as a “particle invoked to explain why the carriers of the electroweak force (the W and Z bosons) have mass”.

Mmmm. Check “electroweak force” and “boson”. The former is one of four “forces of nature” along with gravity, electromagnetism and the strong force. Sensible number that, for forces of nature. Bosons are “particles that obey Bose-Einstein statistics”, which are “statistical rules which apply to the behaviour of quantum particles which carry an integer amount of quantum spin”. More mmmm, slipping towards duh. Return to start.

Mass. The Higgs boson’s role in the emerging Theory of Everything is to imbue everything in the theory with mass.

Gribbin says mass is “the amount of stuff there is in an object”. Phew, got that. Read on: “mass and energy are interchangeable”: see E=mc2. Onya Albert E, love that equation.

“An object (such as an electron) moving at 99% of the speed of light has seven times as much mass as when it is at rest”. Electrons get to rest? Do they lose seven Higgses when they stop, or does the whole team get a rest?

Pull back for a wider view. Particle physicists reckon the Higgs is one of 17 fundamental particles, along with muons and gluons, fermions, leptons and quarks. Stupid number that, for fundamental particles.

Higgs and two other theorists proposed the existence of a mass-maker particle in 1964, making it pretty recent for something fundamental – younger than the Rolling Stones even.

Sometimes their particles are particles and sometimes they are fields; most of the time they are both. It seems these physicists have problems with semantics, like they do with finding 96% of their subject matter and deciding whether cats in boxes are dead or alive.

And there’s skeptics already, like a mob from Cornell who proposed that “a generic Higgs doublet and a triplet imposter give equally good fits to the measured event rates of the newly observed scalar resonance”. Typical skeptic tactics: cherry-picking data to spread plausible doubt in the face of mainstream certainty.

A reminder: breaking rules can be fun as long as it doesn’t cause any mass.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (