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Some reflections on particle physics (and why it’s hard to write about the Higgs)

July 17, 2012

When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a particle physicist. My fifth grade class took a field trip to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and I was fascinated by the fact that it took such giant machines to investigate phenomena occurring on such tiny scales.

Fast forward 15 years. Somewhere along the way, I got sidetracked by chemistry, but there’s still a part of me that is inexorably drawn to these beautiful experiments digging down into the fundamental science underlying our world.

So with that in mind, perhaps you’ll understand why I was excited – and a bit apprehensive – to be asked to write about the Higgs boson and the role played by UW-Madison researchers for yesterday’s issue of the Daily Cardinal.

I was excited, because it was a perfect excuse to email a particle physicist, ask for an interview, and go pick his brain. I spent about 40 minutes talking to UW physics professor Wesley Smith last Wednesday, and he gave me some useful (and interesting) insights into the parts of the Higgs story that I’ve found confusing.

But I was also apprehensive, because particle physics, and especially the Higgs boson, is an incredibly complicated topic – how can you possibly do it justice in just 600 or 700 words?

As it turns out, it’s pretty tricky, and after trying to write a piece on the Higgs myself, I have a lot more sympathy for the other journalists out there who’ve had to to decide what to keep and what to cut and how much detail to give.

I think there are a couple of problems that come into play here. First, there’s a lot of jargon involved in discussions of the Higgs boson. Even just in the name – what’s a boson??? And the further you dig in, the worse it gets. Leptons? Spin? Quantum fields? I’ve taken a reasonable amount of college-level physics, and I still find most of these terms tricky. How can we expect non-scientist readers to parse them in all-too-brief news articles, where we might only be able to spare half a sentence to explain them?

And second, the idea of the Higgs boson is pretty abstract. Most of us are pretty comfortable thinking about subatomic particles like protons, neutrons, and electrons, if only because we’ve seen so many cartoons of atoms in physics textbooks & on the web. From there, it’s not too much of a stretch to think about breaking down protons and neutrons into smaller pieces, like quarks.

Even if they exist on scales much, much smaller than we can see, these types of subatomic particles have some connection to our everyday physical reality, and I think that makes them easier to think about.

But when we get to the Higgs boson, we lose this intuitive grounding. The Higgs isn’t part of an atom. Even though everything has mass and it seems like the Higgs should be everywhere, it takes a multi-billion-dollar particle collider to find it (counterintuitive, no?). And it’s even harder to think about the Higgs field, which isn’t even a physical particle at all.

All of this makes the Higgs very, very difficult to think about – and, consequently, to write about.

Anyway, my article for the Daily Cardinal is here, if you missed it when I posted the link yesterday. I ended up focusing my article on the contributions from UW-Madison researchers, but did spend a reasonable amount of time trying to give a useful (and not too misleading) description of the Higgs mechanism. It’s certainly not perfect, but it got a thumbs up from one of the professors I interviewed, so I’m relatively happy with the balance I finally struck.

If you’re looking for some more insight into the fundamental physics, though, there have been some great explanations wandering around online, particularly in video form. My favorites are the following two, one from Scientific American’s Instant Egghead series, and one from Minute Physics:

If you’re more of a text fiend, I liked this explainer  by Garance Franke-Ruta in The Atlantic.  Feel free to leave a comment if you’ve got other favorites!

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