Friday, 6 July 2012

Bozons and Bozos- A particle article



It was like one of those physics lessons near the end of term when the teacher lets the students stray from their textbooks. Such was the atmosphere when journalists gathered for the momentous announcement from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) that they had found the famous Higgs Boson 'god particle'. Well they hadn't actually found it. They were very sure they had found a new particle consistent with their expectations of the Higgs Boson. That sentence probably helps to explain why scientists never seem to give journalists the soundbites they want. I blame us journalists for being too much like the eager kids in that end of term class. Too impatient for simple answers and too ready to jump to conclusions. If only we could all be particle physicists.
After a short preamble, this is how the erudite head of CERN, Rolf Heuer put it, toungue in cheek-

"Today is also a special day because we hear two presentations from the two experiments ATLAS and CMS on their update on a search for a certain particle (laughter from the audience), I forgot the name (more laughter)."

The search for the Higgs Boson has been, as the scientists' presentation said, the work of thousands of people over many years, and lots of hours without sleep as they were probably justified in pointing out. They have been searching not just for the mysterious Higgs Boson particle, but specifically for the 'Standard Model Higgs'. This is important, as the scientists repeatedly pointed out. There is not just the particle, but also the theoretical model about its properties that the British scientist Peter Higgs has become so famous for. As they put it-

"We have a discovery. We have discovered a new particle, a Boson. Most probably a Higgs Boson but we have to find out which kind of Higgs Boson this is. Does it have the properties which we expect from the Standard model?"


Next came the questions from journalists. And the first, wonderfullly straightforward, ended, "so what would you have us write, have you found the Higgs or what?"

What the team are more than 99% (but not quite 100%) sure of is that after hundreds of painstaking measurements they have indeed found a new particle never discovered before. This alone is a great discovery for science. It also seems likely that is is the famed Higgs Boson which could tell us so much about how our universe works and about why particles have mass. But scientists weren't going to give the journalists the easy headline they wanted. It was 'too early to say' they cautioned, to discern if it was really the particle they expected it to be. That would require years more work examining its properties.

Ok, so more work is needed to work out what exactly the scientists have found. So what, even roughly, is this particle and what does it tell us?

In response to such a question the panel turned the press' curiosity back on itself. Imagine-

"You take a large room with journalists (laughter of course), and they are all equally distributed in the room. This is the field which would give mass to elementary particles through the interaction of these particles with the field. Somebody, who is completely unknown to the journalists can go through this field, through the journalists, with the speed of light, that means that person would have zero mass. The more known you are, the more journalists are clustering around you. That means you get slower, you don't reach the velocity of light, you acquire mass. The better known you are to the journalists, the more massive you are! You saw this when you were coming in here, Peter Higgs was pretty heavy!"

But, he went on....

"Now that doesn't tell you anything about this Boson yet, but this field of journalists obviously has an interaction in between itself and this self interaction can produce this Higgs Boson. How can I imagine that? Imagine I (Rolf Heuer) open the door and I whisper a rumour into the room. Then the journalists are curious. They cluster, 'what did he say?' This cluster of journalists is the Higgs Boson.

That's easy! That's particle physics for laymen without a single equation." (as you can imagine, more laughter!)

Well, I must admit I myself was only partly enlightened by that, amusing as it was. The metaphor wasn't succinct enough even for the now chuckling assembled journalists. The questions kept coming and the requests for simplification and metaphors. But I suppose us mere mortals must accept that some things on earth are just are immensely complicated and there simply isn't enough time in the physics lesson for us to get to the bottom of it. When the panel was asked for their favourite and least favourite metaphors about the Higgs Boson, they apologised but said they had no metaphors for what they had found. 

Rather like at the end of that (metaphorical) physics lesson, the questions could only go so far. Us laymen at the end had to be content with accepting that 'it', whatever it was, had been found. Thanks to the scientists (and perhaps the journalists a bit too) we probably understand a bit more about what the Higgs Boson was, is and could be. But until next time, this physics lesson has ended on a triumphant (if a little confusing) high 
note.




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