Monday, December 19, 2011

Higgs Boson, 'God Particle,' and Getting a Grip

"LHC: Higgs boson 'may have been glimpsed' "
Paul Rincon, Science & Environment, BBC News (December 13, 2011)

"The most coveted prize in particle physics - the Higgs boson - may have been glimpsed, say researchers reporting at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva.

"The particle is purported to be the means by which everything in the Universe obtains its mass.

"Scientists say that two experiments at the LHC see hints of the Higgs at the same mass, fuelling huge excitement.

"But the LHC does not yet have enough data to claim a discovery.

"Finding the Higgs would be one of the biggest scientific advances of the last 60 years. It is crucial for allowing us to make sense of the Universe, but has never been observed by experiments.

"This basic building block of the Universe is a significant missing component of the Standard Model - the 'instruction booklet' that describes how particles and forces interact...."

What? No Doomsday Scenario?

After last year's silly news about CERN's Large Hadron Collider, this BBC article was a welcome relief: for the Lemming, at least. No claims of divine sabotage, or warnings about Earth getting swallowed by CERN's technological terror.

The BBC even let readers know what a "five-sigma level of certainty" means. It has nothing to do with Doctor Who, by the way: "Statistics of a 'discovery'"
  • "Particle physics has an accepted definition for a 'discovery': a five-sigma level of certainty
  • "The number of standard deviations, or sigmas, is a measure of how unlikely it is that an experimental result is simply down to chance rather than a real effect
  • "Similarly, tossing a coin and getting a number of heads in a row may just be chance, rather than a sign of a 'loaded' coin
  • "The 'three sigma' level represents about the same likelihood of tossing more than eight heads in a row
  • "Five sigma, on the other hand, would correspond to tossing more than 20 in a row
  • "Unlikely results can occur if several experiments are being carried out at once - equivalent to several people flipping coins at the same time
  • "With independent confirmation by other experiments, five-sigma findings become accepted discoveries"
Kudos, BBC.

Happily, a few news outlets on this side of the Atlantic got around to finding out what scientists said about a 'science story.' Real scientists: some of whom had actually worked on the project, or at least knew about that sort of research.

Physics on Talk Radio

"Physicists Find 'Hints' of Elusive Higgs Boson"
NPR (December 16, 2011)

"Two teams of scientists at CERN say they may have glimpsed the long-sought Higgs boson while studying particle collisions. Physicist Joe Incandela discusses how the teams are closing in on data that may prove the theoretical particle, considered a building block for the universe, exists.

"This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Scientists have been searching for decades for a subatomic particle called the Higgs Boson. You've heard about it. It's been in the news, and you know, in theory, it explains why and how objects have mass.

"But for more than 40 years, after it was first posited, the Higgs Boson remains elusive. This week, two teams of researchers studying trillions of proton-proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider say they've made progress in the hunt for the Higgs. In fact, CERN's director general, Rolf Heuer, said that while the evidence was not definitive, two teams of scientists have narrowed down the Higgs' hiding spot...."

The NPR transcript isn't as exciting as a UFO attack on an American missile base, secret earthquake weapons, or Princess Di and the lizard people. The Lemming thought it was worth reading.

But then, the Lemming thinks articles with " really comes down to statistics,..." "...that whole 500 GEV range,..." and "...statistically significant..." are interesting. Your experience may vary.

It's the Lemming's considered opinion, though, that you may find the NPR transcript more interesting than watching paint dry. Or, not.

Physics, Higgs Boson, 'God Particle,' and Getting a Grip

"What Should 'God Particle' Be Renamed? Physicists Weigh In"
Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience, via (December 15, 2011)

"Physicists love the Higgs boson, but they hate the God particle.

"The elusive Higgs particle, which scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator announced Tuesday, Dec. 13, that they are closing in on, is popularly known as the 'God particle.'

"The moniker, beloved by the press, is almost universally despised by experts who study particle physics.

" 'I detest the name "God particle," ' Vivek Sharma, a physicist at the University of California, San Diego, and the leader of the Higgs search at LHC's CMS experiment, wrote in an email. 'I am not particularly religious, but I find the term an "in your face" affront to those who [are]. I do experimental physics not GOD.'..."

"...'It's an awful name,' Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist at the City College of New York, told LiveScience. 'It does not convey the particle's true role, that it is the last missing piece of the Standard Model, and that it gives mass to the other particles.'..."

It's nice to read, now and then, about scientists who realize that they're studying science: in an article written by someone who realizes that science isn't religion. It's also nice to read about folks who realize that science isn't Satanic, and apparently are willing to live on the same planet with religious people.

It's also refreshing to read 'science' news, written by a reporter who understands a little about science. And who has an editor willing to let science reporting hit the press, without something extra to spice it up.

Like Michio Kaku said: "God particle" "...does not convey the particle's true role, that it is the last missing piece of the Standard Model...." That, in the Lemming's opinion, is science. And decidedly interesting science, to boot. We've come quite a long way in the last century, toward learning about new levels of complexity in the universe's machinery.

Slightly-related posts:
More posts about the Large Hadron Collider:
Posts about the silly side:
Science and the Lemming, in another blog:


Brigid said...

Shouldn't there be a space, or maybe a line break, after the colon? "by the way:"Statistics of a 'discovery'""

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


Space, I think. Thanks!

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