Tag Archives: Higgs

Mass Is Just Energy You Haven’t Met Yet

How can colliding two protons give rise to more massive particles? Why do vibrations of a string have mass? And how does the Higgs work anyway?

There is one central misunderstanding that makes each of these topics confusing. It’s something I’ve brought up before, but it really deserves its own post. It’s people not realizing that mass is just energy you haven’t met yet.

It’s quite intuitive to think of mass as some sort of “stuff” that things can be made out of. In our everyday experience, that’s how it works: combine this mass of flour and this mass of sugar, and get this mass of cake. Historically, it was the dominant view in physics for quite some time. However, once you get to particle physics it starts to break down.

It’s probably most obvious for protons. A proton has a mass of 938 MeV/c², or 1.6×10⁻²⁷ kg in less physicist-specific units. Protons are each made of three quarks, two up quarks and a down quark. Naively, you’d think that the quarks would have to be around 300 MeV/c². They’re not, though: up and down quarks both have masses less than 10 MeV/c². Those three quarks account for less than a fiftieth of a proton’s mass.

The “extra” mass is because a proton is not just three quarks. It’s three quarks interacting. The forces between those quarks, the strong nuclear force that binds them together, involves a heck of a lot of energy. And from a distance, that energy ends up looking like mass.

This isn’t unique to protons. In some sense, it’s just what mass is.

The quarks themselves get their mass from the Higgs field. Far enough away, this looks like the quarks having a mass. However, zoom in and it’s energy again, the energy of interaction between quarks and the Higgs. In string theory, mass comes from the energy of vibrating strings. And so on. Every time we run into something that looks like a fundamental mass, it ends up being just another energy of interaction.

If mass is just energy, what about gravity?

When you’re taught about gravity, the story is all about mass. Mass attracts mass. Mass bends space-time. What gets left out, until you actually learn the details of General Relativity, is that energy gravitates too.

Normally you don’t notice this, because mass contributes so much more to energy than anything else. That’s really what E=m is really about: it’s a unit conversion formula. It tells you that if you want to know how much energy a given mass “really is”, you multiply it by the speed of light squared. And that’s a large enough number that most of the time, when you notice energy gravitating, it’s because that energy looks like a big chunk of mass. (It’s also why physicists like silly units like MeV/c² for mass: we can just multiply by c² and get an energy!)

It’s really tempting to think about mass as a substance, of mass as always conserved, of mass as fundamental. But in physics we often have to toss aside our everyday intuitions, and this is no exception. Mass really is just energy. It’s just energy that we’ve “zoomed out” enough not to notice.

A Collider’s Eye View

When it detected the Higgs, what did the LHC see, exactly?


What do you see with your detector-eyes, CMS?

The first problem is that the Higgs, like most particles produced in particle colliders, is unstable. In a very short amount of time the Higgs transforms into two or more lighter particles. Often, these particles will decay in turn, possibly many more times.  So when the LHC sees a Higgs boson, it doesn’t really “see the Higgs”.

The second problem is that you can’t “see” the lighter particles either. They’re much too small for that. Instead, the LHC has to measure their properties.

Does the particle have a charge? Then its path will curve in a magnetic field, and it will send electrical signals in silicon. So the LHC can “see” charge.

Can the particle be stopped, absorbed by some material? Getting absorbed releases energy, lighting up a detector. So the LHC can “see” energy, and what it takes for a particle to be absorbed.


Diagram of a collider’s “eye”

And that’s…pretty much it. When the LHC “sees” the Higgs, what it sees is a set of tracks in a magnetic field, indicating charge, and energy in its detectors, caused by absorption at different points. Everything else has to be inferred: what exactly the particles were, where they decayed, and from what. Some of it can be figured out in real-time, some is only understood later once we can add up everything and do statistics.

On the face of it, this sounds about as impossible as astrophysics. Like astrophysics, it works in part because what the colliders see is not the whole story. The strong force has to both be consistent with our observations of hadrons, and with nuclear physics. Neutrinos aren’t just mysterious missing energy that we can’t track, they’re an important part of cosmology. And so on.

So in the sense of that massive, interconnected web of ideas, the LHC sees the Higgs. It sees patterns of charges and energies, binned into histograms and analyzed with statistics and cross-checked, implicitly or explicitly, against all of the rest of physics at every scale we know. All of that, together, is the collider’s eye view of the universe.

The Higgs Solution

My grandfather is a molecular biologist. Over the holidays I had many opportunities to chat with him, and our conversations often revolved around explaining some aspect of our respective fields. While talking to him, I came up with a chemistry-themed description of the Higgs field, and how it leads to electro-weak symmetry breaking. Very few of you are likely to be chemists, but I think you still might find the metaphor worthwhile.

Picture the Higgs as a mixture of ions, dissolved in water.

In this metaphor, the Higgs field is a sort of “Higgs solution”. Overall, this solution should be uniform: if you have more ions of a certain type in one place than another, over time they will dissolve until they reach a uniform mixture again. In this metaphor, the Higgs particle detected by the LHC is like a brief disturbance in the fluid: by stirring the solution at high energy, we’ve managed to briefly get more of one type of ion in one place than the average concentration.

What determines the average concentration, though?

Essentially, it’s arbitrary. If this were really a chemistry experiment, it would depend on the initial conditions: which ions we put in to the mixture in the first place. In physics, quantum mechanics plays a role, randomly selecting one option out of the many possibilities.



Choose wisely

(Note that this metaphor doesn’t explain why there has to be a solution, why the water can’t just be “pure”. A setup that required this would probably be chemically complicated enough to confuse nearly everybody, so I’m leaving that feature out. Just trust that “no ions” isn’t one of our options.)

Up till now, the choice of mixture didn’t matter very much. But different ions interact with other chemicals in different ways, and this has some interesting implications.

Suppose we have a tube filled with our Higgs solution. We want to shoot some substance through the tube, and collect it on the other side. This other substance is going to represent a force.

If our force substance doesn’t react with the ions in our Higgs solution, it will just go through to the other side. If it does react, though, then it will be slowed down, and only some of it will get to the other side, possibly none at all.

You can think of the electro-weak force as a mixture of these sorts of substances. Normally, there is no way to tell the different substances apart. Just like the different Higgs solutions, different parts of the electro-weak force are arbitrary.

However, once we’ve chosen a Higgs solution, things change. Now, different parts of our electro-weak substance will behave differently. The parts that react with the ions in our Higgs solution will slow down, and won’t make it through the tube, while the parts that don’t interact will just flow on through.

We call the part that gets through the tube electromagnetism, and the part that doesn’t the weak nuclear force. Electromagnetism is long-range, its waves (light) can travel great distances. The weak nuclear force is short-range, and doesn’t have an effect outside of the scale of atoms.

The important thing to take away from this is that the division between electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force is totally arbitrary. Taken by themselves, they’re equivalent parts of the same, electro-weak force. It’s only because some of them interact with the Higgs, while others don’t, that we distinguish those parts from each other. If the Higgs solution were a different mixture (if the Higgs field had different charges) then a different part of the electroweak force would be long-range, and a different part would be short-range.

We wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, though. We’d see a long-range force, and a short-range force, and a Higgs field. In the end, our world would be completely the same, just based on a different, arbitrary choice.

Hooray for Neutrinos!

Congratulations to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald, winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, as well as to the Super-Kamiokande and SNOLAB teams that made their work possible.


Unlike last year’s Nobel, this is one I’ve been anticipating for quite some time. Kajita and McDonald discovered that neutrinos have mass, and that discovery remains our best hint that there is something out there beyond the Standard Model.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

Neutrinos are the lightest of the fundamental particles, and for a long time they were thought to be completely massless. Their name means “little neutral one”, and it’s probably the last time physicists used “-ino” to mean “little”. Neutrinos are “neutral” because they have no electrical charge. They also don’t interact with the strong nuclear force. Only the weak nuclear force has any effect on them. (Well, gravity does too, but very weakly.)

This makes it very difficult to detect neutrinos: you have to catch them interacting via the weak force, which is, well, weak. Originally, that meant they had to be inferred by their absence: missing energy in nuclear reactions carried away by “something”. Now, they can be detected, but it requires massive tanks of fluid, carefully watched for the telltale light of the rare interactions between neutrinos and ordinary matter. You wouldn’t notice if billions of neutrinos passed through you every second, like an unstoppable army of ghosts. And in fact, that’s exactly what happens!

Visualization of neutrinos from a popular documentary

In the 60’s, scientists began to use these giant tanks of fluid to detect neutrinos coming from the sun. An enormous amount of effort goes in to understanding the sun, and these days our models of it are pretty accurate, so it came as quite a shock when researchers observed only half the neutrinos they expected. It wasn’t until the work of Super-Kamiokande in 1998, and SNOLAB in 2001, that we knew the reason why.

As it turns out, neutrinos oscillate. Neutrinos are produced in what are called flavor states, which match up with the different types of leptons. There are electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos, and tau-neutrinos.

Radioactive processes usually produce electron-neutrinos, so those are the type that the sun produces. But on their way from the sun to the earth, these neutrinos “oscillate”: they switch between electron neutrinos and the other types! The older detectors, focused only on electron-neutrinos, couldn’t see this. SNOLAB’s big advantage was that it could detect the other types of neutrinos as well, and tell the difference between them, which allowed it to see that the “missing” neutrinos were really just turning into other flavors! Meanwhile, Super-Kamiokande measured neutrinos coming not from the sun, but from cosmic rays reacting with the upper atmosphere. Some of these neutrinos came from the sky above the detector, while others traveled all the way through the earth below it, from the atmosphere on the other side. By observing “missing” neutrinos coming from below but not from above, Super-Kamiokande confirmed that it wasn’t the sun’s fault that we were missing solar neutrinos, neutrinos just oscillate!

What does this oscillation have to do with neutrinos having mass, though?

Here things get a bit trickier. I’ve laid some of the groundwork in older posts. I’ve told you to think about mass as “energy we haven’t met yet”, as the energy something has when we leave it alone to itself. I’ve also mentioned that conservation laws come from symmetries of nature, that energy conservation is a result of symmetry in time.

This should make it a little more plausible when I say that when something has a specific mass, it doesn’t change. It can decay into other particles, or interact with other forces, but left alone, by itself, it won’t turn into something else. To be more specific, it doesn’t oscillate. A state with a fixed mass is symmetric in time.

The only way neutrinos can oscillate between flavor states, then, is if one flavor state is actually a combination (in quantum terms, a superposition) of different masses. The components with different masses move at different speeds, so at any point along their path you can be more or less likely to see certain masses of neutrinos. As the mix of masses changes, the flavor state changes, so neutrinos end up oscillating from electron-neutrino, to muon-neutrino, to tau-neutrino.

So because of neutrino oscillation, neutrinos have to have mass. But this presented a problem. Most fundamental particles get their mass from interacting with the Higgs field. But, as it turns out, neutrinos can’t interact with the Higgs field. This has to do with the fact that neutrinos are “chiral”, and only come in a “left-handed” orientation. Only if they had both types of “handedness” could they get their mass from the Higgs.

As-is, they have to get their mass another way, and that way has yet to be definitively shown. Whatever it ends up being, it will be beyond the current Standard Model. Maybe there actually are right-handed neutrinos, but they’re too massive, or interact too weakly, for them to have been discovered. Maybe neutrinos are Majorana particles, getting mass in a novel way that hasn’t been seen yet in the Standard Model.

Whatever we discover, neutrinos are currently our best evidence that something lies beyond the Standard Model. Naturalness may have philosophical problems, dark matter may be explained away by modified gravity…but if neutrinos have mass, there’s something we still have yet to discover. And that definitely seems worthy of a Nobel to me!

Want to Make Something New? Just Turn on the Lights.

Isn’t it weird that you can collide two protons, and get something else?

It wouldn’t be so weird if you collided two protons, and out popped a quark. After all, protons are made of quarks. But how, if you collide two protons together, do you get a tau, or the Higgs boson: things that not only aren’t “part of” protons, but are more massive than a proton by themselves?

It seems weird…but in a way, it’s not. When a particle releases another particle that wasn’t inside it to begin with, it’s actually not doing anything more special than an everyday light bulb.


How does a light bulb work?

You probably know the basics: when an electrical current enters the bulb, the electrons in the filament start to move. They heat the filament up, releasing light.

That probably seems perfectly ordinary. But ask yourself for a moment: where did the light come from?

Light is made up of photons, elementary particles in their own right. When you flip a light switch, where do the photons come from? Were they stored in the light bulb?

Silly question, right? You don’t need to “store” light in a light bulb: light bulbs transform one type of energy (electrical, or the movement of electrons) into another type of energy (light, or photons).

Here’s the thing, though: mass is just another type of energy.

I like to describe mass as “energy we haven’t met yet”. Einstein’s equation, E=mc^2, relates a particle’s mass to its “rest energy”, the energy it would have if it stopped moving around and sit still. Even when a particle seems to be sitting still from the outside, there’s still a lot going on, though. “Composite” particles like protons have powerful forces between their internal quarks, while particles like electrons interact with the Higgs field. These processes give the particle energy, even when it’s not moving, so from our perspective on the outside they’re giving the particle mass.

What does that mean for the protons at the LHC?

The protons at the LHC have a lot of kinetic energy: they’re going 99.9999991% of the speed of light! When they collide, all that energy has to go somewhere. Just like in a light bulb, the fast-moving particles will release their energy in another form. And while that some of that energy will add to the speed of the fragments, much of it will go into the mass and energy of new particles. Some of these particles will be photons, some will be tau leptons, or Higgs bosons…pretty much anything that the protons have enough energy to create.

So if you want to understand how to create new particles, you don’t need a deep understanding of the mysteries of quantum field theory. Just turn on the lights.

What Counts as a Fundamental Force?

I’m giving a presentation next Wednesday for Learning Unlimited, an organization that presents educational talks to seniors in Woodstock, Ontario. The talk introduces the fundamental forces and talks about Yang and Mills before moving on to introduce my work.

While practicing the talk today, someone from Perimeter’s outreach department pointed out a rather surprising missing element: I never mention gravity!

Most people know that there are four fundamental forces of nature. There’s Electromagnetism, there’s Gravity, there’s the Weak Nuclear Force, and there’s the Strong Nuclear Force.

Listed here by their most significant uses.

What ties these things together, though? What makes them all “fundamental forces”?

Mathematically, gravity is the odd one out here. Electromagnetism, the Weak Force, and the Strong Force all share a common description: they’re Yang-Mills forces. Gravity isn’t. While you can sort of think of it as a Yang-Mills force “squared”, it’s quite a bit more complicated than the Yang-Mills forces.

You might be objecting that the common trait of the fundamental forces is obvious: they’re forces! And indeed, you can write down a force law for gravity, and a force law for E&M, and umm…

[Mumble Mumble]

Ok, it’s not quite as bad as xkcd would have us believe. You can actually write down a force law for the weak force, if you really want to, and it’s at least sort of possible to talk about the force exerted by the strong interaction.

All that said, though, why are we thinking about this in terms of forces? Forces are a concept from classical mechanics. For a beginning physics student, they come up again and again, in free-body diagram after free-body diagram. But by the time a student learns quantum mechanics, and quantum field theory, they’ve already learned other ways of framing things where forces aren’t mentioned at all. So while forces are kind of familiar to people starting out, they don’t really match onto anything that most quantum field theorists work with, and it’s a bit weird to classify things that only really appear in quantum field theory (the Weak Nuclear Force, the Strong Nuclear Force) based on whether or not they’re forces.

Isn’t there some connection, though? After all, gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force may be different mathematically, but at least they all involve bosons.

Well, yes. And so does the Higgs.

The Higgs is usually left out of listings of the fundamental forces, because it’s not really a “force”. It doesn’t have a direction, instead it works equally at every point in space. But if you include spin 2 gravity and spin 1 Yang-Mills forces, why not also include the spin 0 Higgs?

Well, if you’re doing that, why not include fermions as well? People often think of fermions as “matter” and bosons as “energy”, but in fact both have energy, and neither is made of it. Electrons and quarks are just as fundamental as photons and gluons and gravitons, just as central a part of how the universe works.

I’m still trying to decide whether my presentation about Yang-Mills forces should also include gravity. On the one hand, it would make everything more familiar. On the other…pretty much this entire post.

How to Predict the Mass of the Higgs

Did Homer Simpson predict the mass of the Higgs boson?

No, of course not.

Apart from the usual reasons, he’s off by more than a factor of six.

If you play with the numbers, it looks like Simon Singh (the popular science writer who reported the “discovery” Homer made as a throwaway joke in a 1998 Simpsons episode) made the classic physics mistake of losing track of a factor of 2\pi. In particular, it looks like he mistakenly thought that the Planck constant, h, was equal to the reduced Planck constant, \hbar, divided by 2\pi, when actually it’s \hbar times 2\pi. So while Singh read Homer’s prediction as 123 GeV, surprisingly close to the actual Higgs mass of 125 GeV found in 2012, in fact Homer predicted the somewhat more embarrassing value of 775 GeV.


That was boring. Let’s ask a more interesting question.

Did Gordon Kane predict the mass of the Higgs boson?

I’ve talked before about how it seems impossible that string theory will ever make any testable predictions. The issue boils down to one of too many possibilities: string theory predicts different consequences for different ways that its six (or seven for M theory) extra dimensions can be curled up. Since there is an absurdly vast number of ways this can be done, anything you might want to predict (say, the mass of the electron) has an absurd number of possible values.

Gordon Kane and collaborators get around this problem by tackling a different one. Instead of trying to use string theory to predict things we already know, like the mass of the electron, they assume these things are already true. That is, they assume we live in a world with electrons that have the mass they really have, and quarks that have the mass they really have, and so on. They assume that we live in a world that obeys all of the discoveries we’ve already made, and a few we hope to make. And, they assume that this world is a consequence of string (or rather M) theory.

From that combination of assumptions, they then figure out the consequences for things that aren’t yet known. And in a 2011 paper, they predicted the Higgs mass would be between 105 and 129 GeV.

I have a lot of sympathy for this approach, because it’s essentially the same thing that non-string-theorists do. When a particle physicist wants to predict what will come out of the LHC, they don’t try to get it from first principles: they assume the world works as we have discovered, make a few mild extra assumptions, and see what new consequences come out that we haven’t observed yet. If those particle physicists can be said to make predictions from supersymmetry, or (shudder) technicolor, then Gordon Kane is certainly making predictions from string theory.

So why haven’t you heard of him? Even if you have, why, if this guy successfully predicted the mass of the Higgs boson, are people still saying that you can’t make predictions with string theory?

Trouble is, making predictions is tricky.

Part of the problem is timing. Gordon Kane’s paper went online in December of 2011. The Higgs mass was announced in July 2012, so you might think Kane got a six month head-start. But when something is announced isn’t the same as when it’s discovered. For a big experiment like the Large Hadron Collider, there’s a long road between the first time something gets noticed and the point where everyone is certain enough that they’re ready to announce it to the world. Rumors fly, and it’s not clear that Kane and his co-authors wouldn’t have heard them.

Assumptions are the other issue. Remember when I said, a couple paragraphs up, that Kane’s group assumed “that we live in a world that obeys all of the discoveries we’ve already made, and a few we hope to make“? That last part is what makes things tricky. There were a few extra assumptions Kane made, beyond those needed to reproduce the world we know. For many people, some of these extra assumptions are suspicious. They worry that the assumptions might have been chosen, not just because they made sense, but because they happened to give the right (rumored) mass of the Higgs.

If you want to predict something in physics, it’s not just a matter of getting in ahead of the announcement with the right number. For a clear prediction, you need to be early enough that the experiments haven’t yet even seen hints of what you’re looking for. Even then, you need your theory to be suitably generic, so that it’s clear that your prediction is really the result of the math and not of your choices. You can trade off aspects of this: more accuracy for a less generic theory, better timing for looser predictions. Get the formula right, and the world will laud you for your prediction. Wrong, and you’re Homer Simpson. Somewhere in between, though, and you end up in that tricky, tricky grey area.

Like Gordon Kane.

The Three Things Everyone Gets Wrong about the Big Bang

Ah, the Big Bang, our most science-y of creation myths. Everyone knows the story of how the universe and all its physical laws emerged from nothing in a massive explosion, growing from a singularity to the size of a breadbox until, over billions of years, it became the size it is today.


A hot dense state, if you know what I mean.

…actually, almost nothing in that paragraph is true. There are a lot of myths about the Big Bang, born from physicists giving sloppy explanations. Here are three things most people get wrong about the Big Bang:

1. A Massive Explosion:

When you picture the big bang, don’t you imagine that something went, well, bang?

In movies and TV shows, a time traveler visiting the big bang sees only an empty void. Suddenly, an explosion lights up the darkness, shooting out stars and galaxies until it has created the entire universe.

Astute readers might find this suspicious: if the entire universe was created by the big bang, then where does the “darkness” come from? What does the universe explode into?

The problem here is that, despite the name, the big bang was not actually an explosion.

In picturing the universe as an explosion, you’re imagining the universe as having finite size. But it’s quite likely that the universe is infinite. Even if it is finite, it’s finite like the surface of the Earth: as Columbus (and others) experienced, you can’t get to the “edge” of the Earth no matter how far you go: eventually, you’ll just end up where you started. If the universe is truly finite, the same is true of it.

Rather than an explosion in one place, the big bang was an explosion everywhere at once. Every point in space was “exploding” at the same time. Each point was moving farther apart from every other point, and the whole universe was, as the song goes, hot and dense.

So what do physicists mean when they say that the universe at some specific time was the size of a breadbox, or a grapefruit?

It’s just sloppy language. When these physicists say “the universe”, what they mean is just the part of the universe we can see today, the Hubble Volume. It is that (enormously vast) space that, once upon a time, was merely the size of a grapefruit. But it was still adjacent to infinitely many other grapefruits of space, each one also experiencing the big bang.

2. It began with a Singularity:

This one isn’t so much definitely wrong as probably wrong.

If the universe obeys Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity perfectly, then we can make an educated guess about how it began. By tracking back the expansion of the universe to its earliest stages, we can infer that the universe was once as small as it can get: a single, zero-dimensional point, or a singularity. The laws of general relativity work the same backwards and forwards in time, so just as we could see a star collapsing and know that it is destined to form a black hole, we can see the universe’s expansion and know that if we traced it back it must have come from a single point.

This is all well and good, but there’s a problem with how it begins: “If the universe obeys Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity perfectly”.

In this situation, general relativity predicts an infinitely small, infinitely dense point. As I’ve talked about before, in physics an infinite result is almost never correct. When we encounter infinity, almost always it means we’re ignoring something about the nature of the universe.

In this case, we’re ignoring Quantum Mechanics. Quantum Mechanics naturally makes physics somewhat “fuzzy”: the Uncertainty Principle means that a quantum state can never be exactly in one specific place.

Combining quantum mechanics and general relativity is famously tricky, and the difficulty boils down to getting rid of pesky infinite results. However, several approaches exist to solving this problem, the most prominent of them being String Theory.

If you ask someone to list string theory’s successes, one thing you’ll always hear mentioned is string theory’s ability to understand black holes. In general relativity, black holes are singularities: infinitely small, and infinitely dense. In string theory, black holes are made up of combinations of fundamental objects: strings and membranes, curled up tight, but crucially not infinitely small. String theory smooths out singularities and tamps down infinities, and the same story applies to the infinity of the big bang.

String theory isn’t alone in this, though. Less popular approaches to quantum gravity, like Loop Quantum Gravity, also tend to “fuzz” out singularities. Whichever approach you favor, it’s pretty clear at this point that the big bang didn’t really begin with a true singularity, just a very compressed universe.

3. It created the laws of physics:

Physicists will occasionally say that the big bang determined the laws of physics. Fans of Anthropic Reasoning in particular will talk about different big bangs in different places in a vast multi-verse, each producing different physical laws.

I’ve met several people who were very confused by this. If the big bang created the laws of physics, then what laws governed the big bang? Don’t you need physics to get a big bang in the first place?

The problem here is that “laws of physics” doesn’t have a precise definition. Physicists use it to mean different things.

In one (important) sense, each fundamental particle is its own law of physics. Each one represents something that is true across all of space and time, a fact about the universe that we can test and confirm.

However, these aren’t the most fundamental laws possible. In string theory, the particles that exist in our four dimensions (three space dimensions, and one of time) change depending on how six “extra” dimensions are curled up. Even in ordinary particle physics, the value of the Higgs field determines the mass of the particles in our universe, including things that might feel “fundamental” like the difference between electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. If the Higgs field had a different value (as it may have early in the life of the universe), these laws of physics would have been different. These sorts of laws can be truly said to have been created by the big bang.

The real fundamental laws, though, don’t change. Relativity is here to stay, no matter what particles exist in the universe. So is quantum mechanics. The big bang didn’t create those laws, it was a natural consequence of them. Rather than springing physics into existence from nothing, the big bang came out of the most fundamental laws of physics, then proceeded to fix the more contingent ones.

In fact, the big bang might not have even been the beginning of time! As I mentioned earlier in this article, most approaches to quantum gravity make singularities “fuzzy”. One thing these “fuzzy” singularities can do is “bounce”, going from a collapsing universe to an expanding universe. In Cyclic Models of the universe, the big bang was just the latest in a cycle of collapses and expansions, extending back into the distant past. Other approaches, like Eternal Inflation, instead think of the big bang as just a local event: our part of the universe happened to be dense enough to form a big bang, while other regions were expanding even more rapidly.

So if you picture the big bang, don’t just imagine an explosion. Imagine the entire universe expanding at once, changing and settling and cooling until it became the universe as we know it today, starting from a world of tangled strings or possibly an entirely different previous universe.

Sounds a bit more interesting to visit in your TARDIS, no?

Misleading Headlines and Tacky Physics, Oh My!

It’s been making the rounds on the blogosphere (despite having come out three months ago). It’s probably showed up on your Facebook feed. It’s the news that (apparently) one of the biggest discoveries of recent years may have been premature. It’s….

The Huffington Post writing a misleading headline to drum up clicks!

The article linked above is titled “Scientists Raise Doubts About Higgs Boson Discovery, Say It Could Be Another Particle”. And while that is indeed technically all true, it’s more than a little misleading.

When the various teams at the Large Hadron Collider announced their discovery of the Higgs, they didn’t say it was exactly the Higgs predicted by the Standard Model. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be: most of the options for extending the Standard Model, like supersymmetry, predict a Higgs boson with slightly different properties. Until the Higgs is measured more precisely, these slightly different versions won’t be ruled out.

Of course, “not ruled out” is not exactly newsworthy, which is the main problem with this article. The Huffington Post quotes a paper that argues, not that there is new evidence for an alternative to the Higgs, but simply that one particular alternative that the authors like hasn’t been ruled out yet.

Also, it’s probably the tackiest alternative out there.

The theory in question is called Technicolor, and if you’re imagining a certain coat then you may have an idea of how tacky we’re talking.

Any Higgs will do…

To describe technicolor, let’s take a brief aside and talk about the colors of quarks.

Rather than having one type of charge going from plus to minus like Electromagnetism, the Strong Nuclear Force has three types of charge, called red, green, and blue. Quarks are charged under the strong force, and can be red, green, or blue, while the antimatter partners of quarks have the equivalent of negative charges, anti-red, anti-green, and anti-blue. The strong force binds quarks together into protons and neutrons. The strong force is also charged under itself, which means that not only does it bind quarks together, it also binds itself together, so that it only acts at very very short range.

In combination, these two facts have one rather surprising consequence. A proton contains three quarks, but a proton’s mass is over a hundred times the total mass of three quarks. The same is true of neutrons.

The reason why is that most of the mass isn’t coming from the quarks, it’s coming from the strength of the strong force. Mass, contrary to what you might think, isn’t fundamental “stuff”. It’s just a handy way of talking about energy that isn’t due to something we can easily see. Particles have energy because they move, but they also have energy due to internal interactions, as well as interactions with other fields like the Higgs field. While a lone quark’s mass is due to its interaction with the Higgs field, the quarks inside a proton are also interacting with each other, gaining enormous amounts of energy from the strong force trapped within. That energy, largely invisible from an outside view, contributes most of what we see as the mass of the proton.

Technicolor asks the following: what if it’s not just protons and neutrons? What if the mass of everything, quarks and electrons and the W and Z bosons, was due not truly to the Higgs, but to another force, like the strong force but even stronger? The Higgs we think we saw at the LHC would not be fundamental, but merely a composite, made up of  two “techni-quarks” with “technicolor” charges. [Edited to remove confusion with Preon Theory]

It’s…an idea. But it’s never been a very popular one.

Part of the problem is that the simpler versions of technicolor have been ruled out, so theorists are having to invoke increasingly baroque models to try to make it work. But that, to some extent, is also true of supersymmetry.

A bigger problem is that technicolor is just kind of…tacky.

Technicolor doesn’t say anything deep about the way the universe works. It doesn’t propose new [types of] symmetries, and it doesn’t say anything about what happens at the very highest energies. It’s not really tied in to any of the other lines of speculation in physics, it doesn’t lead to a lot of discussion between researchers. It doesn’t require an end, a fundamental lowest level with truly fundamental particles. You could potentially keep adding new levels of technicolor, new things made up of other things made up of other things, ad infinitum.

And the fleas that bite ’em, presumably.

[Note: to clarify, technicolor theories don’t actually keep going like this, their extra particles don’t require another layer of technicolor to gain their masses. That would be an actual problem with the concept itself, not a reason it’s tacky. It’s tacky because, in a world where most physicists feel like we’ve really gotten down to the fundamental particles, adding new composite objects seems baroque and unnecessary, like adding epicycles. Fleas upon fleas as it were.]

In a word, it’s not sexy.

Does that mean it’s wrong? No, of course not. As the paper linked by Huffington Post points out, technicolor hasn’t been ruled out yet.

Does that mean I think people shouldn’t study it? Again, no. If you really find technicolor meaningful and interesting, go for it! Maybe you’ll be the kick it needs to prove itself!

But good grief, until you manage that, please don’t spread your tacky, un-sexy theory all over Facebook. A theory like technicolor should get press when it’s got a good reason, and “we haven’t been ruled out yet” is never, ever, a good reason.


[Edit: Esben on Facebook is more well-informed about technicolor than I am, and pointed out some issues with this post. Some of them are due to me conflating technicolor with another old and tacky theory, while some were places where my description was misleading. Corrections in bold.]

Why I Can’t Explain Ghosts: Or, a Review of a Popular Physics Piece

Since today is Halloween, I really wanted to write a post talking about the spookiest particles in physics, ghosts.

And their superpartners, ghost riders.

The problem is, in order to explain ghosts I’d have to explain something called gauge symmetry. And gauge symmetry is quite possibly the hardest topic in modern physics to explain to a general audience.

Deep down, gauge symmetry is the idea that irrelevant extra parts of how we represent things in physics should stay irrelevant. While that sounds obvious, it’s far from obvious how you can go from that to predicting new particles like the Higgs boson.

Explaining this is tough! Tough enough that I haven’t thought of a good way to do it yet.

Which is why I was fairly stoked when a fellow postdoc pointed out a recent popular physics article by Juan Maldacena, explaining gauge symmetry.

Juan Maldacena is a Big Deal. He’s the guy who figured out the AdS/CFT correspondence, showing that string theory (in a particular hyperbola-shaped space called AdS) and everybody’s favorite N=4 super Yang-Mills theory are secretly the same, a discovery which led to a Big Blue Dot on Paperscape. So naturally, I was excited to see what he had to say.

Big Blue Dot pictured here.

Big Blue Dot pictured here.

The core analogy he makes is with currencies in different countries. Just like gauge symmetry, currencies aren’t measuring anything “real”: they’re arbitrary conventions put in place because we don’t have a good way of just buying things based on pure “value”. However, also like gauge symmetry, then can have real-life consequences, as different currency exchange rates can lead to currency speculation, letting some people make money and others lose money. In Maldacena’s analogy the Higgs field works like a precious metal, making differences in exchange rates manifest as different prices of precious metals in different countries.

It’s a solid analogy, and one that is quite close to the real mathematics of the problem (as the paper’s Appendix goes into detail to show). However, I have some reservations, both about the paper as a whole and about the core analogy.

In general, Maldacena doesn’t do a very good job of writing something publicly accessible. There’s a lot of stilted, academic language, and a lot of use of “we” to do things other than lead the reader through a thought experiment. There’s also a sprinkling of terms that I don’t think the average person will understand; for example, I doubt the average college student knows flux as anything other than a zany card game.

Regarding the analogy itself, I think Maldacena has fallen into the common physicist trap of making an analogy that explains things really well…if you already know the math.

This is a problem I see pretty frequently. I keep picking on this article, and I apologize for doing so, but it’s got a great example of this when it describes supersymmetry as involving “a whole new class of number that can be thought of as the square roots of zero”. That’s a really great analogy…if you’re a student learning about the math behind supersymmetry. If you’re not, it doesn’t tell you anything about what supersymmetry does, or how it works, or why anyone might study it. It relates something unfamiliar to something unfamiliar.

I’m worried that Maldacena is doing that in this paper. His setup is mathematically rigorous, but doesn’t say much about the why of things: why do physicists use something like this economic model to understand these forces? How does this lead to what we observe around us in the real world? What’s actually going on, physically? What do particles have to do with dimensionless constants? (If you’re curious about that last one, I like to think I have a good explanation here.)

It’s not that Maldacena ignores these questions, he definitely puts effort into answering them. The problem is that his analogy itself doesn’t really address them. They’re the trickiest part, the part that people need help picturing and framing, the part that would benefit the most from a good analogy. Instead, the core imagery of the piece is wasted on details that don’t really do much for a non-expert.

Maybe I’m wrong about this, and I welcome comments from non-physicists. Do you feel like Maldacena’s account gives you a satisfying idea of what gauge symmetry is?