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The Higgs Boson as a field of snow

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#1 Otto Piechowski

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 12:19 PM

Would you folk with physics background and/or understanding, go to today's New York Times and look at an article, very brief, describing the nature of the Higgs Boson by means of an analogy to a field covered with snow. After you have read/seen it, would you be so kind as to tell me/us here what you find good, and what you find inadequate about the metaphors used.

Thank you.

Otto

#2 PeterR280

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 12:38 PM

explaining quantum mechanics by using analogies of everyday life is difficult. It's a mathematical model that has no counterpart in everyday experiences.

#3 deSitter

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 02:22 PM

It's utterly meaningless.

-drl

#4 Otto Piechowski

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 03:30 PM

Thank you Danny and PeterR280.

Your responses, Danny and PeterR280 highlight very effectively the issue which continues to interest me deeply: why, when physicists such as Schrodinger assert that at best, the use of human speech to speak of quantum-subatomic-realities presents statements, the meaninglessness of which, are somewhere between speaking of winged-lions and triangular circles; why does media, whose sales depend on the public perception that their reports are accurate, continue to employ popularized descriptions of these things in human speech/analogies/metaphors?

My answer is that the non-science people in such professions, like all persons without a background in physics, like myself, are so ignorant of physics, that they have no way of judging the accuracy of the scientific statements they request of the popularizers of scientific data they hire to meet a perceived public need/request for/interest in scientific findings. Putting the best possible spin on this phenomena, media outlets such as the New York Times are trying to meet a perceived public desire/interest/need. They obtain people they believe or hope are trustworthy and accept their statements without question because they have no other choice.

This sort of thing happens, not just in popular media, but also around tables of political decision making, and review boards of various scientific journals. I read somewhere, just a couple days ago, that someone again intentionally wrote some scientific hogwash just to see how many highly qualified reviewers would publish it though it made no sense, based solely on its credentials and citations. It was something like 100 out of 200 who went ahead and published it.

My interest and concern is that expressed by Dr. Hannah Arendt in her The Human Condition. Important decisions about the spending of vast amounts of public wealth and about the creation of various technological applications happen in the political realm; around tables by often elected officials. To make their decisions they must use human speech. But, how do they make decisions about things they can't understand since the matters about which they are making decisions; e.g. building an atomic weapon, denying the creation of a super-conducting-super-collider, etc cannot be explained to them in human speech? The default position is that they trust the scientific experts they consult. But, is that not what the New York Times just did as well; trust an expert?


I wish to return to PeterR280's and Danny's statements regarding the New York Times Higg's Boson article. Has the article no merit at all? Does it help lay readers in any way to understand the essential points of the Higgs Boson?

And of course, the most interesting question; is an accurate and pertinent description of the Higgs Boson impossible in human non-mathematical speech?

I am interested in your comments and response.

Otto

#5 scopethis

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 03:40 PM

kinda like trying to write a set of instructions on "How To Ride A Bicycle"....

#6 shawnhar

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 04:26 PM

Paraphrasing Obi-Wan...
The Higgs is what gives a particle it's mass. It's an energy field created by tiny things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.
May the Higgs be with you
:jedi:

#7 PeterR280

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 04:31 PM

Interesting question. I suppose we all want to understand all the new developments, especially if we have a curious mind. Most people can understand Newton's laws if they have high school math and decide that they want to learn. Once you get to electromagnetic theory and Maxwell's equations, the level of math is beyond most people. The complexity of the math continues to increase as you get to modern physics. It also becomes more abstract, but you need that level of specialization to continue the progress. The physicists have spent many years studying nothing but.

I think it's good that popular books are written to inform people about the new developments but they don't really give a good insight. The public should be informed, especially if large tax dollars are being spent but unfortuntely those decisions are left to science advisors to the politicians. One danger I see is that these books give a false sense of knowledge that can be misdirected, like applying the concept of energy and quantum effects to healing or numerology or astrology. People use these terms in totally inapprorpiate ways and they cite words from new developments to justify false ideas. To a lay person, what they are saying is just as plausible as the words in a lay book eplaining the Higgs Field.

#8 dickbill

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 05:23 PM

Paraphrasing Obi-Wan...
The Higgs is what gives a particle it's mass. It's an energy field created by tiny things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.
May the Higgs be with you
:jedi:


actually...in this blog, in particular the post bellow, you'll read interesting things.
http://profmattstras...-are-unrelated/

...That the Higgs is actually not the most important contributor to give a mass to a particle: that energy and momentum may have bigger contribution, that the Higgs itself doesn't get its mass throughout the Higgs field???? did I read that correctly?
Anyways, the string theorrorist here will explain that better than I can...

#9 Otto Piechowski

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 05:48 PM

OOH, OOH, CBS has an article on the Higgs Boson right as I am typing. I can't wait to see how they summarize it.

"Gives mass to everything that exists."
"Explains why the universe held together."
"Acts as a nuclear glue that allows stars and planets and us to exist."

etc.

#10 deSitter

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 06:07 PM

It is important to uderstand how the various ideas are related. The overarching idea is called gauge invariance. Leaving aside for the moment what that means, we can say what it's about and what is implied. The salient facts of particle life are conservation laws and interactions. The latter must operate in such a way as to guarantee the former. Gauge invariance is the principle by which particle interactions may occur in such a way that consevation laws are always satisfied. This however only works if the interaction behaves like the prototype gauge field, the photon, which allows electrons and other charged particlle to interact with each other. That interaction is long-range; we can see distant galaxies because their electrons interact with those in our cameras and retinas. But nuclear interactions are very short-range. If you want to model those interactions in the same way you do light, you have to explain why it only happens across a nucleus, and not across the whole universe. That is where the Higgs particle gets involved.

It is also important to remember that one is forced to reconcile opposed principles this way, fundamentally opposed. The long-rangeness of strict gauge fields is not optional, nor are the conservation laws they support. The solution is not entirely satisfactory, as one principle is immediately sacrificed so that the other can be universally satisfied. The Higgs mechanism is phenomenology, not fundamental theory. More will come into focus in due time.

-drl

#11 GregLee1

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 06:24 PM

Whatever exactly you and Schroedinger are trying to say, I wish you would stop maligning human speech. It has nothing to do with whether what you want to say can be expressed in human speech. It may be more convenient to write out mathematical formulas, but the formulas themselves could be spoken instead of written, if need be. Not that it would be practical, but just to show that is so, you can imagine expressing the graphical form of a formula in TeX code, then pronouncing the code. It is not human speech that is the bottleneck, here.

I think the complaint is really about explanations appealing to analogies with our common understandings of how the everyday world of objects and actions works. Nothing to do with speech.

#12 Otto Piechowski

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 06:25 PM

Thank you Danny.

I am use to the way the word phenomenology is used in philosophy. I think you are using it here in a somewhat different way with a somewhat different, perhaps importantly different, meaning.

Would you please explain what you meant when you wrote, "The Higgs mechanism is phenomenology, not fundamental theory"?

Thank you. Otto

#13 derangedhermit

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 06:29 PM

The question of politicians or media purposefully conveying helpful information on any subject to the public has nothing to do with science in particular as the subject.

In most cases, if the truth and the message coincide, it is by accident; coincidental, unintended, and of no sigificance. When something helpful does get uttered, like a Surgeon General saying "Wearing a condom helps prevent the spread of AIDS", then they will often get roasted by large portions of the public and power-holders alike, who either don't like or don't believe what was said, or both.

Also, there are some fallacies the OP posits, but let them pass.

The NYT "analogies" in the two-sentence summary were, I claim, to entertain, not enlighten. Comparing the Higgs to a bill going through Congress...

Perhaps, as far as believability about the Higgs, what is pertinent to the public is that it was
- predicted/proposed almost 50 years ago (by multiple researchers in similar papers)
- described before discovery in more detail as the experimental search was being conducted
- found, by two different teams, numbering thousands of contributors, doing very careful work

That, in general, sounds like science happening, and gives one a base level of confidence, a cautious optimism that they have made progress in understanding the natural world.

That not every human can develop an understanding of a fact is no reason to discount it. Not every human understands that defecating in the same water one drinks from leads to disease. Many of the "religious" rules laid down in the Old Testament appear to have been issued by the equivalent of the Department of Health. To get people to follow them, it works well to put it in the religion - that, the followers believe in (or at least abide by).

#14 Otto Piechowski

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 06:43 PM

Hi Greg. Nice to make your acquaintance and to here/read your comments.

I do not mean to malign human speech. I believe it is one of the most precious things we have.

I think what Arendt was saying and with which I agree is that mathematical symbols now say things which no longer make sense in human speech or can be made sense of in human speech. She wrote, "...the truths of the modern scientific world view, thought they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thought. The moment these truths are spoken of conceptually and coherently, the resulting statements will be "not perhaps as meaningless as a 'triangular circle,' but much more so than a 'winged lion'" (Erwin Schrodinger)..." The Human Condition, "Prologue", page 3, Hannah Arendt.

The fact, if it is a fact, that scientific statements made in mathematical language cannot be translated back into normal everyday human speech, does not minimize the value of everyday human speech nor is it meant to criticize mathematical expression of scientific concepts. It means, if it is a fact, there is a disconnect between the things physicists know by means of mathematical-speech and what can be explained to political decision makers in the everyday normal human speech they use and understand.

An example I have used in philosophy of science lectures to give high school students an understanding of how something can be very correct, extremely useful, but not easily understood in human speech is the limit function and the derivative of the calculus. When these are explained in mathematics books it is sometimes said that what the derivative (limit function) "does" or "provides" is the "instantaneous rate of change of the given function". Well, that sentence makes no sense in everyday human speech because to obtain a rate of change one needs to have two points separated by some "distance". That "distance" is then, as we all know, divided by the "time" (or whatever 'marker' of change one is using) used to cover that "distance". If one has only one point, (i.e. the "instantaneous" in "instantaneous rate of change") to speak of a "rate of change" makes no sense in everyday normal human speech.

I'll stop now and eagerly await others to weigh in and affirm, deny, add in, modify, etc. these thoughts of mine, yours, others.

Otto

#15 Otto Piechowski

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 06:57 PM

Hi Lee, good to read your input as always!

I want to share with you something I heard some thirty years ago now and invite your thoughts and response. You wrote, "Many of the "religious" rules laid down in the Old Testament appear to have been issued by the equivalent of the Department of Health. To get people to follow them, it works well to put it in the religion - that, the followers believe in (or at least abide by)."

While studying theology in Israel/Palestine and Egypt in the early 1980s I studied under a number of Old Testament biblical scholars one of whom was a Benedictine monk and biblical scholar from St. John University, Collegeville, MN. It seemed perfectly obvious to those of us who were interested in the issue you touched on, that many of the dietary and "health" rules of the ancient Hebrews/Israelites/Jews were based on common sense/health reasons; i.e. medical reasons. He disagreed and shared with us his opinion that many, if not most, of these regulations were created for the purpose of creating and nurturing a sense of community; i.e. for political reasons.

Otto

#16 GregLee1

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 07:42 PM

An example I have used in philosophy of science lectures to give high school students an understanding of how something can be very correct, extremely useful, but not easily understood in human speech is the limit function and the derivative of the calculus. When these are explained in mathematics books it is sometimes said that what the derivative (limit function) "does" or "provides" is the "instantaneous rate of change of the given function". Well, that sentence makes no sense in everyday human speech because to obtain a rate of change one needs to have two points separated by some "distance". That "distance" is then, as we all know, divided by the "time" (or whatever 'marker' of change one is using) used to cover that "distance". If one has only one point, (i.e. the "instantaneous" in "instantaneous rate of change") to speak of a "rate of change" makes no sense in everyday normal human speech.

If this is a clear account of the difference between what can be expressed mathematically and what can be expressed in human speech, isn't it odd that it is given entirely in human speech? Just examine what you've written ...

You are explaining to me, I think, the change from Newton's conceptualization of the differential calculus, much criticized by Berkeley, and the later formulation by Weierstrass and others in terms of "limit". That was an advance, but it was a conceptual change, not a change from a linguistic expression to a mathematical expression. After all, Newton did a bit of mathematics, too, and "limit" is a word of language.

#17 PeterR280

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 07:52 PM

Physicists have no problem dividing by zero and multiplng with infinity. Mathematicians introduced the idea of limits and approaching things to make them more palitable. Complex variables which involve imaginary numbers are routine in solving problems. Quantum mechanics doesn't work without the square root of minus one.

#18 Otto Piechowski

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 08:25 PM

PeterR180 and Greg....your knowledge of mathematics and the history of mathematics is way beyond me. Can you/either of you/both of you explain to me the issue(s) you are discussing?

Thanks much.

Otto

#19 AstroGabe

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 08:41 PM

I have no problem with the analogy as long as people keep in mind that it's simply an analogy, meaning the inner workings won't be fully known.

BTW, the original paper by Peter Higgs involved a classical description, so a fully quantum mechanical description isn't necessary to understand the key details.

Gabe

#20 GregLee1

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 09:43 PM

Can you/either of you/both of you explain to me the issue(s) you are discussing?


You could take a look at the Wikipedia article on the Infinitesimal. This is a very, very tiny quantity, smaller than any real quantity, yet enough to take ratios with, e.g., to characterize a instantaneous rate of change. That is rather unintuitive. And when Newton and Leibnitz appealed to infinitesimals in their development of the "infinitesimal calculus", Bishop Berkeley objected that this made no sense, echoing your criticism when you write:

"When these are explained in mathematics books it is sometimes said that what the derivative (limit function) "does" or "provides" is the "instantaneous rate of change of the given function". Well, that sentence makes no sense in everyday human speech because to obtain a rate of change one needs to have two points separated by some "distance".


When you say that the derivative as an instantaneous rate of change (a ratio of infinitesimals) "makes no sense in everyday human speech", the "makes no sense" part seems to be Berkeley's conclusion, and the "in everyday human speech" is some other issue -- I don't quite know what. There is certainly an interesting issue whether infinitesimals make sense, but I don't think it has any connection with human speech.

Eventually, a formulation of the calculus based on limits was found, and so mathematicians didn't need to invite criticism any longer by using infinitesimals. Later still, in the '60s, Abraham Robinson discovered that the calculus based on infinitesimals was just as sound as the calculus based on limits. Full circle.

#21 llanitedave

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 10:00 PM

I think you provided the answer to the "makes no sense in everyday human speech" already in your post, Greg. They aren't two different issues. They both refer back to intuition. Analogy appeals to intuition, and much of physics is counterintuitive. Human speech has a lot of difficulty conveying counterintuitive concepts -- those usually require some sort of physical demostration rather than explanation.

#22 GregLee1

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 10:15 PM

Human speech has a lot of difficulty conveying counterintuitive concepts -- those usually require some sort of physical demostration rather than explanation.

Could you tell me please what humans' difficulty with counterintuitive concepts has to do with their speech? Doesn't "counterintuitive" refer to a conceptual difficulty rather than a linguistic one? When one of your physical demonstrations successfully conveys a concept, do you think it produced a language change? If so, what?

I really am baffled here by what seems to me to be a confusion of language and thought. Do you think those two are the same?

#23 PeterR280

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 10:25 PM

language conveys thought

#24 PeterR280

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 10:25 PM

otherwise you have to read minds

#25 derangedhermit

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Posted 08 October 2013 - 10:31 PM

math is a language

a human one






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