December 2, 2010

The 'ABEGHHK'tH' Mechanism

Peter Higgs is known to be overly humble about his contributions to the field of quantum phsyics: despite the fact that the elusive scalar boson (that may hold the answer to why things around us have mass) bears his name, Higgs defers acclaim to the physicists who took his revolutionary theory and applied more complex ideas to it (for example, Steven Weinburg, Abdus Salam, and Sheldon Glashow won the Nobel Prize for their work on the electroweak force, and twenty years later, Tini Veltman and Gerard 't Hooft won the prize for proving that the electroweak force was renormalizable and thus not plagued by infinities). Also, the so-called 'Higgs mechanism' was in fact discovered by no fewer than three groups of physicists over a period of several years in the early 1960s, all independent of each other: Robert Brout and Francois Englert at the Free University of Brussels were the first to print, in 1964; then Higgs; then just weeks later Gerry Guralnik, Dick Hagen, and Tom Kibble published their paper on the mechanism and its corresponsing boson.

Scientific naming is a tricky business: any of the above six physicists could have become the namesake. It's commonly agreed that theories are referred to according to the shortest last name of those involved; in this case, Brout, apparently disgruntled, publicly pointed out that his name (like Higgs') has five letters. I think we can be thankful for that near-miss, despite Brout's hurt feelings: "the Brout boson" seems much less regal. Higgs himself, perhaps with his tongue firmly in cheek, suggested re-naming the mechanism the 'ABEGHHK'tH' Mechanism after all of the scientists involved (those above plus Philip Anderson, whose work in condensed matter physics led to the Higgs mechanism).

Also tricky is the Nobel process. The work done relating to the Higgs particle is pretty well regarded as prizeworthy, but there's a caveat: only three people can be awarded a Nobel at once. With six physicists having their hands in the pot, it seems inevitable that three will be left out, perhaps even our beloved Higgs. He himself has admitted that, despite the innovation of his early work, the applications his peers ascribed to it--and the further theoretical development of the theory itself--was beyond his mathematical grasp. One wonders how much it matters if he's given the award; in any given decade, a dozen or more physicists are awarded the Nobel, and hardly anyone outside of the field takes note. Higgs, though, has become a global catchphrase for the missing link, The God Particle. Especially if the LHC bears fruit, it seems inescapable that he'll become the biggest name in science since Einstein, even if someone else like Susskind or Wilczek prove why the boson is so fundamental to our existence (and not just that it exists).

Ian Sample's fantastic book Massive delves into all of this, and details much more about the history of the theory's discovery and development, the history of particle colliders, and how these three groups of physicists forged rivalries and friendships as they raced to publish and prove that the mechanism exists. Sample is one of few writers who has access to Higgs himself, who has grown reclusive in recent years, which adds intrigue to his narrative and allows a truer sense of character emerge than what the media might lead us to believe.

And speaking of massive, ATLAS revealed an enormous mural of its CERN detector, painted by Josef Kristofoletti. Specifically, the mural depicts what a Higgs event would look like in ATLAS; hopefully, we're just months away from their computers generating the image for real...

And finally, I have to share part of an email I received from CERN, inviting journalists to Paris for a press briefing:

"Whales sing at the same wavelength as the neutrinos emitted by stars. This happy coincidence gave physicists the idea to share their undersea telescopes with marine biologists. By helping the development of a bioaccoustics network to monitor the deep sea environment, they have already enabled the discovery of the unexpected presence of sperm whales in the Mediterranean Sea. It is even possible to listen to the song of whales live from home with a personal computer connected to the web, thanks to the LIDO platform (Listen to the Deep Ocean):

European astroparticle physicists are developing together KM3NeT, a large undersea neutrino telescope in the Mediterranean, dedicated to tracking neutrinos from astronomical sources. The deployment of deep sea neutrino detection lines for current experiments such as Antarès in France, Nemo in Italy and Nestor in Greece has opened up the possibility of also installing monitoring devices for the permanent study of the deep sea environment: studies of ocean currents, of bioluminescence, of fauna and of seismic activity. Astroparticle physics is a new field mixing both particle physics and astrophysics and offering many new opportunities for environmental disciplines such as oceanography, climate science and studies of the atmosphere, geology…"

Whale song at neutrino wavelength, and astroparticle physics in Paris: romance, indeed.

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