Credit due

Every once in a while, I come across an example of science writing (meaning, explaining scientific concepts in layperson terms) that is a credit to the genre. Here is one from New York Times reporter Dennis Overbye, explaining the Higgs boson particle:

According to the Standard Model, the Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.

Beautiful!

In related (and also humorous) news, I learned that the physicists at CERN do not call it the God particle. They call it the “goddamned hard to find particle.” Sounds like typical science humor to me. In reality, though, this particle (or the newly discovered particle that the CERN folks are thinking/hoping is the Higgs boson) showed up relatively quickly once the LHD was up and running:

Wednesday’s announcement was also an impressive opening act for the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest physics machine, which cost $10 billion to build and began operating only two years ago. It is still running at only half-power.

Wonder what’s waiting around the corner when that sucker gets fired up to full power?

This much-anticipated announcement from CERN has impacted a handful of people in a particularly profound way. As Overbye notes:

Up until last weekend, physicists at the agency were saying that they themselves did not know what the outcome would be. Expectations soared when it was learned that the five surviving originators of the Higgs boson theory had been invited to the CERN news conference.

One of those was Dr. Higgs.

Asked to comment after the announcements, Dr. Higgs seemed overwhelmed. “For me, it’s really an incredible thing that’s happened in my lifetime,” he said.

He and the other five theorized the existence of the Higgs boson in 1964 — 48 years ago. Now that is some delayed gratification…and one hell of a good day at work.

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About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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27 Responses to Credit due

  1. Lilaine says:

    I knew it! There had to be at least one good thing that happened in 1964! 😛
    Must be a fantastic feeling to have their theory proved, even 48 years after. 😮 🙂

    Wonder what’s waiting around the corner when that sucker gets fired up to full power?

    Not a fully expanding black hole, hopefully…? 😮

    It’s a Godsend that some scientists and science writers are truly gifted with an acute sense of popular imagery, and this particular sense of humor. 😉
    Thanks to them all! 😀

  2. Joao Brandao says:

    I think this discovery calls for some “science” booty shaking music:

    And yeah… can hardly wait to find out what happens when the LHC goes full power.

  3. Emily says:

    This is awesome.
    http://vimeo.com/41038445 had a pretty good explanation for me too.

  4. kepler20f says:

    Great post, thanks. I really liked the NYT article.

    The “God particle” moniker, which solemnly irritates me (but then again everything does, these days) comes from a 1993 book by Leon Lederman, who worked with Higgs. The book title was “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?”

    Lederman said a few times, and it’s not clear whether it was a joke or not, that it was the publisher’s idea to call it that. He said that he often referred to it as “the goddamned particle”.

    The expression became, naturally, ubiquitous in the media and, naturally, it’s constantly petted by the likes of Deepak Chopra and other woo-woo peddlers.

    On a less whining note, today Stephen Hawkins revealed that he had made a $100 bet with another scientist (he didn’t say whom) against the discovery of the boson. He added “I guess I lost a bet”.

    That’s not something you hear every day – not the fact that Hawkins admits he was wrong, but the fact that he was wrong on this one.

    • kepler20f says:

      I meant Hawking, of course. I keep calling him Hawkins or Hawkings, and yet I always get Dawkins right.

      • oregon expat says:

        Just to irritate you more, have you seen the tweets coming out of the Religious Ignorant camp, crowing that this discovery proves the existence of God? Because it’s the God particle, of course. (I think that’s called “not reading past the headlines.”)

        • archivistwolf says:

          Of course it’s not reading past the headlines. What, if any, purpose would be served by that? (Alright, sarcasm off.) I’m still embroiled in the debate between Spirituality and Religion over (or down) here…..

          Finally having some modicum of proof of the Higgs boson particle after so many years is truly amazing. I remember when I first heard of the concept in 72 from my brother thinking, “we’re catching up….we’re gonna make this”. It is truly gratifying to know that my belief wasn’t off; no, not at all.

          • kepler20f says:

            Where is this debate? I want. 🙂

            Sam Harris recently bought another fight. He’s an expert on that and sometimes he loses, like the recent one regarding ‘profiling’ on airports. This time it’s in fact a certain defense of “Spirituality”, of course not in the terms the religious would want it. He kicked the ball this week with this post:

            http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/a-plea-for-spirituality/

          • archivistwolf says:

            I’m sorry, kepler. These debates aren’t online; they’re face-to-face, so I don’t believe I will be able to let you in on them, though I’ll admit just the amount of passion you’ve expressed in your post would make me exceedingly glad to have you on my side, if we agreed on the same principles. I’ll give you a clue: there was a man who once said that religion was for those who believed in hell and spirituality was for those who have been through it. I am a spiritual person, not a religious one……

            It took me almost two years to begrudgingly change the opinion of a fanatic that I occasionally worked with that I wasn’t less than human because I was part native and a lesbian. His circular logic was a trial. I still get headaches when I think about it.

          • kepler20f says:

            @archivistwolf: you are correct in placing me on neither side of that debate.
            I don’t disagree a priori with Harris’ attempt to recapture the sense of the “spiritual” while maintaining some of the trappings that many skeptics would like to do away with.
            But I am much closer to the way Hitchens’ “repeatedly plucked it from the mire of supernaturalism”, to use Harris’ great expression. I am also partial to the use of “numinous”, itself many years ago a favorite of Carl Sagan and also successfully plucked from the selfish grasp of the religious.

            I likes the reference to “those who have been through hell” and I can relate or, at least, understand what that means.

            Thank you also for sharing your frustration with your Mormon acquaintance, and of course my assumption may be wrong. 🙂

        • kepler20f says:

          I stay away from those…
          However, I have recently become fascinated with Deepak Chopra’s tweets, especially the ones tagged #CosmicConsciousness, in which His Vacuousness has been opining on the Higgs in the past few days – of course.

          To give you two recent examples of the pearls that come out of that con artist’s keyboard (or some ghostwriter’s):

          “Perceptual objects are species specific perceptual experiences in consciousness”

          “The universe, all perceptual experiences of it & all explanations of it (Higgs included) exist in consciousness alone”

          Someone had the obvious idea of creating a Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator, which works almost as well as the real thing:
          http://www.wisdomofchopra.com/

          P.S.: I would like to apologize in advance to anyone who may be offended by my words regarding this wealthy guru, and I will refrain from saying anything about Paulo Coelho.

  5. M. says:

    Among articles about the thing that exploded, I liked one where scientist talked about his 20 years of work for CERN. He said that their projects for some parts of LHD were made in theory, because the amout of data LHD needed to gather was much much bigger than anything existing then. So they pressed on computer guys to invent something much better and faster. Also WWW was invented to reach their needs. It looks like today internet is a side product of Higgs boson particle search 😉

  6. Lilaine says:

    I’ve got two questions. 🙂
    – What’s the difference between LHC and LHD (don’t answer “the next letter in the alphabet”, please. 😉 )
    – How is it that a blog post relative to constituting elements of the matter ends up in a discussion about such immaterial subjects as spirituality, religion or consciousness? Or are the ideas and thoughts constituents of the matter, too?

    • kepler20f says:

      As for your second question, I would say that sub-thread came out of two facts:
      – The unfortunate mix of the word “God” in the scientific endeavor to prove the existence of the Higgs boson;
      – The opportunistic spin of scientific reports and events by those who seek to hold on to their cherished beliefs, and by those who do nothing but recite platitudes and twist scientific findings to serve their narrative;

      Both facts, and the legitimate reactions to it, are directly related to the news coming from CERN this week. I normally refrain from repeating the obvious and try to add something to any conversation.

      Now, the last part of your last question is also interesting, but I will have to reformulate it to try and answer it:
      – Do ideas and thoughts originate from material elements (brains) and may be considered as totally dependent on, and therefore not independent of, matter?
      Yes.

      • Lilaine says:

        Oh, yes! Thank you very much. 🙂
        It’s a good thing you’re refraining from repeating the obvious, and that I already knew the answer to my second question… I could have got confused there.. :p I’m teasing, please don’t mind. 🙂

        As for the last question, I took a particular care to formulate it that way because I didn’t consider it could be a question of dependence. But actually, it might be.
        After all, it’s an electrochemistry kinda LHC, up there 🙂

          • Lilaine says:

            Bowing to your fair-play. 🙂 You did make it easy for me 😉
            Any contribution to answering my existential questions is most welcome, though. Please don’t refrain. 🙂

          • kepler20f says:

            I haven’t even finished posing my own existential questions myself, so I’m afraid I will not be of much help there.
            We can always use of my favorite comed… I mean philosophers, Steven Wright:

            “I bought an existential map. It has ‘You are here’ written all over it”

            “Anywhere is walking distance if you have the time”

            “For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism.”

            “My friend has a baby. I’m writing down all the noises he makes so later I can ask him what he meant.”

            And finally

            “Someone sent me a postcard picture of the Earth.
            On the back it said, ‘Wish you were here.’ ”

            Have a great weekend!

          • Lilaine says:

            lol 😀
            Got me 😉

          • Lilaine says:

            And a great weekend to you, too!

    • Lilaine says:

      As for my first question, I went in physics-search mode on the CERN-invented WWW, and this is what I understood.
      You might want to keep a skeptic eye(and mind) on what I’m about to say(oh, hell, skeptic ear, too), though…I’m no physician. :p
      – The LHC (Large Hadron Collider) is the whole system (the giant ring and all the other devices that are connected to it) that allows the scientists to create, observe and record data about an extremely great number of experiments on particles collisions.
      -The LHD (Large Helical Device) is one of the devices connected to the LHC, logically situated in the places where the collisions are supposed to happen (don’t ask me where, okay? ) and acts as a particles trap in confining the particles resulting from the collisions (don’t ask me how that works, okay?). Before the LHD, a great number of particles escaped observation and/or data collection (probably because of their very short lifetime, and their ‘crazy’ uncontrollable trajectories). With the LHD, they are canalized in some kind of magnetic field long enough to collect data about them. The LHD allows fine tuning of the force fields around the collision and doing so the trapping of a lot of previously ‘furtive’ particles.

      Voila! See?
      Easy, right? 🙂

  7. archivistwolf says:

    Ah, intelligent discourse…..it is so refreshing.

  8. kepler20f says:

    Bringing it home to the “Credit due” theme, I must say that as far as I’m concerned my existential tone ended up being provided courtesy of Steven Wright. Bonus tracks:

    “Ever so often, I like to stick my head out the window, look up, and smile for a satellite picture.”

    “I saw a bank that said ’24 Hour Banking’, but I don’t have that much time.”

    “I went to a restaurant that serves ‘breakfast at any time.’ So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.”

    “I went into a clothes store the other day and a salesman walked up to me and said, ‘Can I help you?’ And I said ‘Yeah, do you got anything I like?’ He said, ‘What do you mean do we have anything you like?’ I said, ‘You started this.'”

    “When I die, I’m leaving my body to science fiction.”

    “I have the world’s largest collection of seashells. I keep it on all the beaches of the world… Perhaps you’ve seen it.”

    (counting on your Friday night generosity to not flag me for spam)

  9. Ana_ñ says:

    I don’t feel like getting existential today (I’m feel feeling lazy, I think) 🙂
    Coming back to the subject of simple explanations for science, and speaking of Higgs, nobody mentioned the classic explanation by physicist David Miller. The story is:

    “Scientists had such difficulty explaining the Higgs field to the British government that in 1993, UK Science Minister William Waldegrave challenged them to send him their best one-page descriptions. Waldegrave handed out champagne to the winners, who included physicist David Miller of University College, London. Miller compared the Higgs field to a crowd of political party workers spread evenly through a room. An anonymous person could move through the crowd unhindered. However, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would attract a lot of attention: Party workers would clump around her, slowing her down, giving her metaphorical ‘mass’. Creative types have since swapped the characters in the metaphor for Albert Einstein mobbed by fellow scientists or pop stars swarmed by paparazzi. “

    Here is the original explanation by David Miller: http://www.hep.ucl.ac.uk/~djm/higgsa.html

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