Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Higgs Mania!

CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory based in Geneva, Switzerland, today announced the discovery of a new fundamental particle, which appears to be the long sought after Higgs boson. They are been very cautious about actually declaring that it is the Higgs particle as described by various theories, as they need many more experiments and data to fully understand all the properties of this new particle.

So what's all the fuss about? Well, even for somebody like me with a formal education in physics, it's really not easy to fully grasp the underlying concepts. In simple terms, the discovery of a Higgs particle allows particle physicists to confirm that their star theory, The Standard Model, is a very good description of how the Universe works. This particular part of the puzzle allows them to better understand why some fundamental particles have no mass (i.e. no "weight", such as the photons that make up light) while others do (like the quarks that make up the protons and neutrons that make up you and me). During the press conference, which I was able to follow live this morning, the CERN Director General, Rolf Heuer, gave a brilliant and insightful analogy into how the whole thing works:

Speaking to the room full of journalists, he said to imagine themselves (the journalists) as representing what's known as the Higgs field. This is a field (a bit of a mysterious field, but let's leave that for another day) that permeates the entire universe. Now, imagine that some regular Joe walks into the room. This person will be able to make his way through room without been bothered. This is analogous to particles with no mass, such as photons, that do not interact with the Higgs field and can therefore reach the ultimate speed: the speed of light. Now imagine that a well-known person (e.g. Peter Higgs, the "father" of the theory) walks into the room and wants to make his way to his seat. Well, the journalists begin to crowd around him and poor Peter finds it difficult to walk very fast. This is analogous to particles with mass (e.g. quarks and electrons) that end up interacting with the Higgs field. It is this interaction that slows them down and it is this "slowing down" that we call mass. Simple, eh? But where does the Higgs boson fit into all this? Well, in physics, all fields are capable of producing their own particles and the Higgs field should be no different. Staying with the analogy of a room full of journalists, imagine that somebody whispers a rumour in to the room (like, "I heard there's free coffee and biscuits after the press conference!"). This rumour will cause many of the journalists to clump together to get more information on this important piece of news. Similarly, the Higgs field can be made to clump together if enough energy is available, and this clump of Higgs field is what we call a particle. By proving the existence of this Higgs particle, physicists at CERN have proved the existence of the Higgs field and the Standard Model theory that predicted its existence!

Right, here's a selection of news and blog articles on the event that I found useful:
A Quantum Leap, ( by well-known physicist Lawrence Krauss
Higgs! by the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait
Happy Birthday, Higgs Boson! by ZapperZ on his blog "Physics and Physicists"
Physicists find new particle, but is it the Higgs? by Matthew Chalmers at
Stop calling it "The God Particle"!, by Dave Goldberg over at

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dilemmas of a climate denier

The scientists over at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN may announce the discovery (or likely discovery) of the Higgs Boson tomorrow. I've been quite amused reading the comments beneath an article on the subject over at WUWT. Some of the folks there are having trouble reconciling their disbelief and distrust in climate science and climate scientists, with the possibility of accepting the scientific discovery of another group of scientists. They're trying to have their cake and eat it too, but it's not that easy. After all, many of those CERN scientists will have colleagues and friends that work on the issue of AGW.

Most of the attacks on the blogosphere and on conservative media against climate change predictions are not actually attacking the science, but instead focus a lot on portraying the various well known scientists and the climate science community as being dishonest and even fraudulent. I do think that one of the better arguments to use against such nonsense is to point out that the same reasoning used to criticize the climate scientists could also be used to criticize all other disciplines in science, from particle physics, to medical science and even my own field of plasma physics. Yet, for some (not so) mysterious reason, the climate deniers don't harass the folks in those other fields. The comments over on WUWT about the LHC seem to expose that dilemma in all its ugly glory.

Anyhoo, I decided to add my own tongue-in-cheek comment. I'm not sure everybody over there will get the joke. Here's what I said:

Obviously there’s no Higgs boson. It’s a hoax. It’s existence is derived from “models” and the experimental “evidence” is not directly linked to the Higgs. Instead, they use theoretical “simulations” to infer the particle’s existence from the data. If we start believing in this sort of science, then we’re on a slippery slope to believing that other models and simulations (such as those in AGW) could infer scientific “facts” from data. We can’t have that now, can we?
They’ll probably also want to build a bigger “laser” and ask tax payers for a million … sorry, strike that … a billion dollars!!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Taking a dip in the Climate Wars

I'm over halfway through reading Michael Mann's recent book "The Hockey Stick and The Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines". It's a fascinating read and I hope to write up a full review once I'm finished. I'm just writing this post to get the ball rolling and to set the stage.

It turns out that I ended up getting a bit more involved in those climate wars sooner than I thought I would. It started after I had a knee-jerk reaction to reading an article over on WUWT. That reaction was to send a tweet to Mann expressing how amazed I was that the people commenting below the WUWT article could actually bring themselves to defend the question posed to Mann by a certain Roger Sowell (who I know nothing about, at least for now). To my delight, Mann replied and we struck up a short Twitter conversation (below; read from the bottom up; click on image to embiggen).

As you can see from the end of that conversation, our initial tweets sparked a reply by Anthony Watts over on his website. I've been writing several follow up comments over on that article to point out the laziness and sloppiness of the question put forward by Sowell to Mann. One person in particular (some guy called Bill Tuttle) has attempted to knock down my arguments but he keeps digging himself into a bigger hole. Every reply seems to expose the fact that he hasn't even bothered to look at the articles by Mann (known as MBH98 and MBH99) that Sowell was trying to refer to. He's even gone as far as using McIntyre and McKitrick's work as "proof" of errors in the work by Mann et al., even though the various analyses by M&M have all been shown to be flawed or without incidence on the final hockey stick curve.

This small dip into the morass of the Climate Wars has been an interesting experience for me. The back and forth comments over on WUWT forced me to research more into the debate over the hockey stick (am slowly building up a bibliography of relevant scientific articles). It has also, however, been very informative of just how powerful the Internet can be in getting one's own armchair opinions out into the world. Although I'm somewhat flattered that my conversation with Mann made a small ripple on WUWT, it's also a lesson to me to be wary of what I post online in the future.

If you want more info related to Mann's book, I see that he is beginning to use a new hashtag dedicated to it on Twitter: #HSCW

Links to the HSCW on: