In physics, it is common to observe science popularization writers dumbing things down way too much in order to explain some of its most arcane, unintuitive concepts (texts explaining quantum mechanics usually offer glaring examples of this). The fact is, you sometimes cannot explain in words what you naturally express with mathematical formulas, but formulas are out of the question - insert them in the text and people surf away or turn the page. Formulas are also banned from books who have an ambition to sell copies - somebody once said that every formula in a book reduces the number of sold copies by a factor of two, an estimate which might well be not very far off.
Something can be done to avoid the excessive trivialization of complex ideas. Internet offers communication avenues through which false claims and myths diffuse, but it equally offers means to fight back the annoying appearance of false or misleading information. All it takes is good will (and, of course, the access to correct data)!
In this post I wish to offer a few examples of false ideas that have managed to spread out, by restricting to my field of expertise - particle physics. This is a topic too far from the general public to be the ground of real hoaxes and engineered falsities, as they will never go viral anyways. Yet I observe the following, e.g.:
1) The "God particle"
Please, the Higgs boson has nothing to do with God or creation.
You certainly are familiar with the term "God particle", with which the media have started to address the Brout-Englers-Higgs boson, discovered at CERN in 2012. In Italy, thanks to the poor level of English, this has even become "la particella DI Dio", the equivalent of "God's particle", which in some way is an even more stupid characterization.
For starters, you should know that the term comes from Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, who used the term as the title of a book. He explained later that he wanted to call the book "The goddamn particle", to hint at how hard (and unsuccessful until then) the search for that elusive particle had been, but his publisher insisted on avoiding the bad word (plus, of course summoning God in his title was a choice also dictated by wanting to maximize sales).
But then, what does the idea of a "God particle" have to do with the Higgs boson? Very, very little. The Higgs boson is in fact the result of an almost magical mechanism, called in its non-trivialized version "electroweak symmetry breaking" (EWSB). The universe "chooses" one among an infinity of possible minimum-energy states to be its vacuum, and in so doing hides in an asymmetric world the symmetrical nature of the equations that describe its physics: the equations remain symmetrical, but the ground state of the theory is not. In this process, terms that describe a scalar massive particle, the Higgs, pop up in the physics equations.
If you have bothered to read the above description, you certainly do not fail to notice that the Higgs boson is not the mastermind of any tricks, but it is in fact the result of one. Calling it "the God particle" is thus plain silly.
Yet note that a different argument is sometimes used to justify the term. It so happens that some of the terms which arise due to symmetry breaking in the equation describing the physics, which I will henceforth call with its own true nane, the Lagrangian density of the Standard Model, allow for matter particles as well as W and Z bosons to carry a mass, something they would not be allowed to do in a meaningful theory with no EWSB. So one might argue that the Higgs boson gives matter its mass by its "Godly touch", in a creation-like fashion.
Again, I do not see how this can hold water: it is the symmetry breaking mechanism that does that, and not the Higgs particle itself. It is true that mass is connected with the process of virtual interaction of a particle with the Higgs boson; but there is no creation involved. So please: do not use the term "God particle" (and for God's sake, entirely avoid "la particella di Dio"! Besides, I fail to understand how a religious person can be happy about God owning one particle and not the others.)
2) "The LHC has not discovered any other particle except the Higgs"
The LHC experiments have in fact discovered dozens of new particles, including the Higgs boson.
While it is true that the discovery of the Higgs boson is by far the most visible, hyped, well-known and also the most important single product of the research enabled by LHC collisions, it is entirely, genuinely false that the Higgs boson is the only new particle we found. In fact we found a score of them - let me show you just one example which does not even come from ATLAS or CMS (but ATLAS and CMS did discover many too!), but from the "minor" LHCB
experiment. I love this graph!
If you, like did Carlo Rubbia when I showed him this graph two years ago, shrug your shoulders and say "so what?", I will not argue with you - maybe low-energy QCD, rare exotic hadrons, and the possible existence of bound states of gluons is not to your liking. But please think twice before you say "only the Higgs".
Now, as you see I did not even bother putting together a complete list of newly observed particles; nor did I care to include groundbreaking measurements of very rare decays of particles we already knew about, nor a large number of other important finds, which in some way have revolutionized our understanding of specific sub-fields. But if you argue that you are unimpressed and that what you meant to say is that the LHC has not discovered new physics beyond the Standard Model, well, you have a bad conscience.
For one thing, regardless of the hype that some newspapers decided to produce in the pre-LHC-startup months, the physicists who designed the machine were as oblivious of what they would manage to discover once the accelerator produced enough data, as we are today about what a new accelerator (the future circular collider, FCC, or any other machine) could. Incidentally (and maybe worth an individual entry in this list) whoever tells you that the LHC was constructed with the certainty that it would discover new physics is lying to you. The machine was funded because we had the moral obligation of exploring higher-energy collisions: because we could.
Also, another sub-entry needs to be mentioned: nobody ever said that the discoveries that the LHC would produce would be drivers of immediate use for improving the life of human beings: pure science does not do that; we amass knowledge because we know this is what constitutes progress of our species.
3) There is nothing else to discover with higher energy collisions than those of the LHC
This is not a lie, just as much as it is not true. It thus is a statement nobody can make and pretend to be right.
We simply do not know what awaits us. Theorists are just as clueless about what awaits us if we explore 50-100 TeV proton-proton collisions as they were in the nineties about what we would find if we explored 14 TeV collisions. The only difference with then is that 30 years ago they believed more strongly in their theories of new physics (Supersymmetry being the prime,
but not the only, example) than they do now. The lack of new physics at the LHC energy has somehow managed to lower the level of faith of theorists, but this has no bearing on the reasons to experimentally investigate the world.
In truth, I am sympathetic with whomever supports the above false claim (I do allow myself to call it false here for shorts, as it is not true!), as like others I am also sceptical. Elsewhere I in fact explained that I would be ready to bet that we will *not* find new physics beyond the standard model with a new collider, exactly as I did in 2006 (I bet $1000 with Jacques Distler and Gordon Watts, and won). But being sceptical is a personal feeling, and we should be objective in deciding how to do science. What should lead us are moral imperatives (of trying to learn as much as we can about the world around us), not the speculation of any one individual, or even the consensus of theoretical physicists (hint: there is no such thing anyway).
Some critics of "big science" like to look at the spectrum of elementary particle masses to try to infer that we are facing a desert: there are many particles in the MeV-GeV range, but there are none above 173 GeV and up to a TeV or so (the range the LHC confidently investigated, but note that the rarity of the interactions responsible for the creation of new particles might play tricks and mislead us here). But the correct way to look at a spectrum like this is to have a semi-logarithmic scale, for we are spanning orders of magnitude from the electron to the top quark. So, let us put in a histogram the mass of discovered elementary particles and see what happens. I cooked up the graph below for you.
The graph only includes elementary particles which have a mass (so the photon and the gluon do not fit in), as being semi-logarithmic, the plot cannot include them (or it would have to be infinitely long). Similarly, neutrinos, which are of unknown but very light mass, do not need to fit in; besides, we are interested in the high end of the spectrum, not the low end.
I took care to evidence a few colliders and their investigated range and time span with orange arrows in the graph. They indeed were the instruments with which we discovered most of the elementary particles we know today - with the exception of those we could discover without the need of human-made collisions (the electron, the muon, the pion and the kaon; note that although we found in 1947 the pion and the kaon, the quarks were understood to be inside those bodies only in 1964; a final confirmation came in the seventies, but that's beside the point).
As you see, we discovered charged leptons (in red) and quarks (in blue) in the time span of 98 years: 9 bodies in total, and there were no further such things discovered in the past 20 years. We also discovered massive bosons (in green) in the eighties and in 2012. Are we done yet? Is there a desert facing us? I claim there is no evidence of a desert. If you were enthusiastic about the LHC exploring new ground in 2008, you should be just as enthusiastic now, and by no means turned off by the fact that the LHC has pushed the boundary a bit further.
Critics of big science will point out that the graph "only" shows up to 1000 TeV of energy, while indeed "new particles could hide up to 12 orders of magnitude higher, where we will never be able to go with a human-made collider". Sure, there is a lamppost there, it's the Planck mass, but there is no reason to believe that there be a desert until then. We simply do not know. What we do know - and 99% of the respected theorists will agree - is that new physics is expected to exist somewhere out there, as the Standard Model is only an effective theory, much like Newtonian mechanics, which works to describe the motion of bodies at small speeds but has to leave the floor to special relativity at high speeds.
So there, I put together three things I don't like to read around, as they are a mischaracterization and propagate false ideas. Be sure to add to this list by commenting below!
(Hat tip: Jon Butterworth)
Tommaso Dorigo is an experimental particle physicist who works for the INFN at the University of Padova, and collaborates with the CMS experiment at the CERN LHC. He coordinates the European network AMVA4NewPhysics as well as research in accelerator-based physics for INFN-Padova, and is an editor of the journal Reviews in Physics. In 2016 Dorigo published the book “Anomaly! Collider physics and the quest for new phenomena at Fermilab”. You can get a copy of the book on Amazon.