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Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space

de Lisa Randall

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1066198,436 (3.18)12
Randall, the Frank J. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science at Harvard University and the author of New York Times Notable Books Knocking on Heaven's Door and Warped Passages, explains the science behind the monumental Higgs boson discovery, its exhilarating implications, and the power of empty space. "On July 4, 2012, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva made history when they discovered an entirely new type of subatomic particle that many scientists believe is the Higgs boson. For forty years, physicists searched for this capstone to the Standard Model of particle physics--the theory that describes both the most elementary components that are known in matter and the forces through which they interact. This particle points to the Higgs field, which provides the key to understanding why elementary particles have mass."--Page 4 of cover.… (mais)
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I’m going to do a review a la Randall.

Many further searches for the Higgs Boson have been performed and the evidence has gotten stronger and stronger since 2012. At one of the ICHEP conferences I read about at that time, analyses "rediscovering" the Higgs Boson in the new dataset were presented. The accumulated evidence for the 125 GeV Higgs was very strong, and there was no real chance that it would fade away (the chance would be extremely small). In contrast, the accumulated evidence for this hypothetical particle was much lighter than the evidence for the Higgs now is. (Though, in hindsight it appears that the early Higgs announcement might have jumped the gun a little bit, because it seems like the signal from the real Higgs boson was boosted by a statistical fluctuation in the initial data which is not exactly the same Randall states in this 2012 book).

I would like to see an end to the misleading idea that the Higgs field (or its boson) "gives" mass to particles. The Higgs field is not sticky and it does not slow particles down, and it loans energy more so than giving it. I think a better analogy might be two teachers walking through a daycare center--one popular and one unpopular. The popular teacher walks at the same velocity as the unpopular teacher but toddlers hopping on and off the popular teacher putting such teacher into a higher energy state AND increasing that teacher's inertia (resistance to acceleration) compared to the unpopular teacher who walks through unaffected. Since energy is equivalent to mass, the "mass" of the popular teacher has increased. Assume the daycare is so full of indistinguishable toddlers in indefinite energy states that the total background energy of the daycare does not change in a measurable way as one toddler or another jumps on or off the popular teacher. They come from and disappear back into the "daycare condensate". I'm sure one could do a better job in describing the toddlers in a weird choreographed single state as a better analogy for a condensate, but I'm not sure that aids the visualization.

Probably, in relation to the reported disappointment, the broad label of "physicists" should be replaced either by "particle physicists" or "physicists with a vested interest". In particular, those who have worked hard on the beautiful idea of supersymmetry, and haven't given up in the light of many years of negative results (including no proton decay), are seeing their field reduced from physics to mathematics - at least until the next breakthrough in observational particle physics comes along. Funding and the field will decline, at least for now.

At least they were fighting a good fight, with potential physical relevance, so there is no disgrace in their disappointment (and it must be remembered that the LHC data is certainly not disappointing per se - the LHC team should be rightly ecstatic about having nailed the Higgs!). In contrast, string theorists have only been doing mathematics for a couple of decades now, sitting well outside the physics spectrum. There is still plenty of good particle physics data coming in via astronomy, and hopefully from cosmic rays in the future, so the broader field is not yet moribund :-) (But particle physics probably is as this books amply demonstrates).

The physical properties of a telescope or particle accelerator determine a priori all physical realities observable through them. So when an instrument of observation does not offer anything new, it means that he has reached the limits of his own powers of penetration into the mysteries of nature. Physics is not an encyclopaedic science, which only observe and classify objects in nature, but is a hermeneutics of nature, i.e., an art to interrogate and interpret the responses of nature. Physical objects do not exist in and of itself, but they are created by our own faculty of imagination. Kant said that, two hundred years ago. So if we want to see something new, we must first imagine a different kind of existence and then another way of looking at things.

I'd say the excitement has, and the media emphasis should, begin to shift to astrophysics where things actually have been and actually are being discovered: dark matter, LIGO's gravitational waves and the possibility of primordial black hole dark matter, an estimated 6,000 fast radio bursts per day from unknown sources, and plenty of discoveries in the gamma ray part of the spectrum. Why are we so obsessed with particles? Maybe strict reductionism has been leading us down a dead-end rabbit hole. Maybe it is time to come up for air and see the light.

2 stars for the particle physics math in the book. 0 stars for the rest. ( )
  antao | Jun 26, 2019 |
I read the Kindle version which basically combined three chapters from her different books that covered the Higgs boson. There was minimal attempt to hide this and it felt like reading the same passage or analogy over and over again. Get the physical copy if possible! ( )
  pbirch01 | Aug 17, 2015 |
A bit shorter and lighter than I had expected. So short and light it could easily have been published in Scientific American. ( )
  dpevers | Jul 10, 2015 |
A reasonable review of the Higgs work at the LHC along with some good background on the Higgs field and the nature of empty space.

However it feels like a collection of journalism and short articles with lots of references to the author's other books. A compilation of material that feels too hasty and without a coherent flow. ( )
  rrees | Oct 11, 2013 |
Surely the smallest (48 little pages) of the opportunistic books put out just after the LHC's finding of the Higgs boson, but written by a well-qualified author. Serves nicely as an easy-reading addendum to her _Knocking on Heaven's Door_ (2011).
  fpagan | May 29, 2013 |
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On July 4, 2012, along with many other people around the globe who were glued to their computers, I learned that a new particle had been discovered at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva.
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Randall, the Frank J. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science at Harvard University and the author of New York Times Notable Books Knocking on Heaven's Door and Warped Passages, explains the science behind the monumental Higgs boson discovery, its exhilarating implications, and the power of empty space. "On July 4, 2012, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva made history when they discovered an entirely new type of subatomic particle that many scientists believe is the Higgs boson. For forty years, physicists searched for this capstone to the Standard Model of particle physics--the theory that describes both the most elementary components that are known in matter and the forces through which they interact. This particle points to the Higgs field, which provides the key to understanding why elementary particles have mass."--Page 4 of cover.

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