Overbye on Hunting the Higgs

Dennis Overbye has an article in today’s New York Times on the search for the Higgs boson, and naturally, I’ve got complaints about it. It’s a pretty good piece: Overbye can do solid work (he went a little overboard looking for journalistic “balance” in the Bogdanov Affair, but that was a while ago). Still, I wouldn’t be myself if I couldn’t gripe and grouse.

First, I’m definitely not alone in asking people to please stop saying “God particle.” Leon Lederman has a great deal to answer for after coining this term; I’ve never heard or seen physicists use it seriously, and it keeps inviting unwarranted metaphors. (Incidentally, there was once detected an “Oh-My-God Particle,” a cosmic-ray proton of astonishingly high energy; for recent developments in this ultra-high-energy regime, see here. Physicists joke about the term, but they don’t use it.)

Second, this part rubs me the wrong way:

Joe Lykken, a Fermilab theorist who said he first learned of the rumored bump the old-fashioned way, over lunch in the laboratory cafeteria, said: “Pre-blog, this sort of rumor would have circulated among perhaps a few dozen physicists. Now with blogs even string theorists who can’t spell Higgs became immediately aware of inside information about D Zero data.”

Does this sound like unwarranted snark to anybody else? Where are these string theorists who don’t know anything about a key notion in theoretical physics which percolated out into the pop-science media over a decade ago? Which string theorists have not read pages 1, 222 and 245–46 of Polchinski’s textbook? Or chapter 14 of Zwiebach? Or any of these eight thousand-odd articles?

Please, let’s grow up a little.

[UPDATE (25 July 2007): In the comments, Sili notes that this is an example of a linguification snowclone. An alternate version would be, “The word Higgs isn’t even in a string theorist’s vocabulary,” or in more Shakespearean idiom, “Higgs! I hate the word, as I hate Hell, all undergrads, and thee.”]

Third, as suggested above, this story is in large part about the blogodynamics of physicists, instead of the physics itself. So, why can’t the New York Times extend the same courtesy to its online readers that a typical blog post does, and link directly to the sources of its quotations? For example,

When John Conway, a professor at the University of California, Davis, found a suspicious bump in the data he was analyzing last winter, “the hair literally rose up on the back of my neck,” as he later wrote on the blog Cosmic Variance. Dr. Conway, a member of Fermilab’s C.D.F. team, had been searching for the Higgs particle for 20 years.

Is a direct pointer to Conway’s “Bump Hunting (Part 1)” too much to ask? On the same lines, consider this passage:

On May 28, an anonymous physicist wrote to the comments section of Dr. Dorigo’s blog, asking if it was true that D Zero was seeing an excess of so-called b-quarks spitting from the Tevatron. This excess, or bump, was supposedly at the level of 4-sigma or 5-sigma and thus, if it withstood scrutiny, it would have to be taken seriously as a sign that the Higgs boson was there with a mass of about 180 billion electron volts.

Dr. Dorigo is in the C.D.F. collaboration and thus had no inside knowledge, but repeated that he had also heard the rumor. The rumor was picked up by the publications Slate and Wired.

Anyone worth their blogosalt would make a hyperlink out of “wrote to the comments section of Dr. Dorigo’s blog,” not to mention the publication titles Slate and Wired. (Clifford Johnson and Gordon Watts both critiqued the Slate article. As it turns out, that piece has some pretty bad flaws; Prof. Johnson’s post and the comments thereto are particularly recommended.)

Finally, consider this:

The first and most famous bump in the Higgs race happened at CERN’s Large Electron-Positron Collider, or L.E.P., just before it was shut down in 2000 to make way for the new collider. It suggested that the Higgs might be waiting to be discovered just above 114 billion electron volts, in the energy-mass units physicists prefer to use.

Why not give a little context? How many electron volts are in a proton mass? (Answer: 938 million.) It’s nice to know that physicists use a unit called an “electron volt,” but wouldn’t it be nicer to learn that the Higgs was expected to be about 120 times heavier than a proton? I presume, of course, that New York Times readers would have some memory of protons, neutrons and electrons from high school chemistry or other pop-science articles.

Better yet, why not also say how many eV are in a gram? (It’s the previous figure multiplied by Avogadro’s number. . . .)

Tips o’ the fedora to Cosmic Variance and Richard Dawkins.

UPDATE (25 July 2007): Peter Woit doesn’t see a problem with the blogospheric rumor mill, but he does adopt the “can’t spell Higgs” linguification snowclone. I guess the authors of String Theory and M-Theory: A Modern Introduction (2007) managed to get a non-string-theorist to proofread their manuscript before using Higgs on pages 200, 273, 298, 416, 418, 702 and 732. Michael Dine’s Supersymmetry and String Theory: Beyond the Standard Model (2007) suffers the same good luck, using the word Higgs on seventy-six different pages. Elias Kiritsis’ String Theory in a Nutshell (2007) isn’t searchable online, but the first chapter is available in PDF, and Higgs bosons are all over pages 2 and 3. Jacques Distler has been using the H-word in his blog since 2003.

Really, we all know what Woit thinks about string theory. He’s put forth his case, but linguification is not going to help him make it.

8 thoughts on “Overbye on Hunting the Higgs”

  1. (Similar to my comment at Cosmicvariance)

    It would be very interesting to find this odd particle. Many of us would appreciate a good middle-brow grounded explanation of why there needs to be a particle like the Higgs to provide “mass” (not just inertia, but equivalent energy too!) to other particles. I mean, why can’t mass just be “fundamental”? BTW if we can actually localize Higgs particles at all, then what happens if more are in the region of a given particle? Is it more massive then? How does the quantum field fluctuation issue affect particle masses: they vary a bit moment by moment? (I mean, over and above the energy-time uncertainty, which shouldn’t (?) affect the base rest mass-energy of particles with fixed masses, like electrons.)

    It’s funny, since many physicists think “time” isn’t really fundamental in itself. (Well, “flowing time” can’t be defined in strictly logical terms, only “spaces” with various contents can be. Not that many notice that “matter” can’t be logically defined either, as substantive clothing over the structural content of model universes in the platonic mindscape.) Thanks for any illumination provided.

  2. Most likely, they just took a print article and slapped it on their website. As is done. Slacktivist has been looking at the complete disregard of old media operations for decent copy-editing in their web material. This is probably just another example of that.

    More importantly, though: Presumably the Orgasmorator works by projecting a beam of Oh-My-God Particles. Science brings us one step closer to utopia.

  3. I’m glad people are starting to complain about how traditional print media don’t use links well when they try to go electronic. As Joshua points out, for the most part they just slap the print version on a webpage. Perhaps we can’t expect more for free… but someday this form of online newspaper will be seen as resembling a “horseless carriage”: a really new thing that hasn’t fully noticed it’s a really new thing.

    In fact, when I just tried to look up some details about the history of “horseless carriage”, I didn’t do too well – but I got an article comparing online journals to horseless carriages – or something like that.

  4. Sili:

    Good point. I remember reading Geoff Pullum’s description of “linguification,” but I didn’t think to apply it here.

    John Baez:

    My old film professor, David Thorburn, once pulled out the same comparison.

    Of course, we view all new technologies through perspectives or metaphors that limit our understanding and obscure intrinsic qualities and possibilities. Nothing inherent in the internal combustion engine required that the first cars resemble horse-drawn carriages. That beginning was dictated by metaphor, by inherited notions of conveyance, centuries of carts and wagons and palanquins, by how we imagine human transport by land.

    (My father, 92, remembers driving an early Ford whose elaborate leather dashboard was fitted with a pocket for the handle of a buggy whip.)

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