All this Hype
On the 4th of July there were some fireworks at CERN as they announced they have probably found the elusive Higgs Boson. The CERN website homepage was set to automatically redirect to a cool new facelifted page that announces this:
On the top right is a tiny link to the original site.
Very soon these fireworks set the world media ablaze. I read the news on paper, saw it on TV and watched it appear on Facebook from multiple online news sites. So I decided to take it from the horse’s mouth and visited the CERN website. And I noticed something below the image of the collision in the homepage:
Hmm. So that’s the fine print, I thought. And then it all started to seem wrong somewhere, all this hype.
If you read the interviews or go through some proper material, you’ll realize that they’re not completely sure yet. Sure of what? Oh, sorry if you don’t know the whole story yet.
With quantum mechanics as its foundation, the Standard Model is a very complicated and mathematically abstract theoretical model which aims to explain a lot of the phenomena that we see in physics, and answer a lot of previously unresolved questions. In the 1960s, Peter Higgs along with other bright theoreticians authored some brilliant papers in which they proposed a particle that formed the quantum or building block of a field, the Higgs field, that endows particles with mass, perhaps the most fundamental and familiar of the known properties of matter. Anyone moderately familiar with some day-to-day science can realize the impact of this proposition. This particle, hypothesized in 1964, came to be known as the Higgs boson. What’s a boson? It’s the whole class of particles that have integer spin (there’s no short way to explain what I mean by that, but you don’t have to understand that now). Anyway, the statistics that govern the general behaviour of this class of particles had been worked out by two brilliant minds in 1924 and 25, Albert Einstein and Satyendra Nath Bose (after whom the particles were named). These bosons are a class of particles which are not restricted by what is called the Pauli exclusion principle (which the fermion class of particles, in contrast, have to abide by), which says that no two particles can occupy the same quantum state at the same time. Because bosons don’t have to listen to this rule, they can, for example, all clump together and form a giant oodle called the Bose-Einstein condensate, which is so huge it can be seen with special microscopes in one of the most awe-inspiring demonstrations of quantum behaviour one can imagine.
Anyway, let’s not digress. Coming back to these fireworks, I want to share with you certain misgivings I have about them.
First, if you’re not sure that the decay you have seen is a Higgs boson (which decays into two photons), and there’s enough chance that it could be some other background process that you still have to write it there, why so eager to start off all the fireworks? Because it’s 4th of July and you’ll miss the date?
Look, I’m not saying you have to be absolutely sure. I’m saying you have to be sure enough that you don’t have to drag these fine prints and undertone mumblings along wherever you announce it. There’s no reason I wouldn’t be happy if you found that particle today. For a kid who has taken up physics because he couldn’t imagine himself loving anything more for the rest of his life, there are few things that stir my imagination and excitement as vividly as thinking about people finding out these so very elusive things that Nature tries so hard to cover. The whole endeavour of setting up a lab that spans countries, running experiments at unimaginable energy scales, manipulating particles at the level of the very fabric of the universe, can send naught but chills up my spine. It is one of the very few things that gives me pride in being human.
But the reason I feel skeptical today is because of those neutrinos. Remember those faster-than-light neutrinos you found? A bunch of muon neutrinos were shot from one of CERN’s older accelerators near the French-Swiss border and captured in a lab in Italy. In March 2011 the experimenters first reported that they had possible evidence that the neutrinos had arrived sooner than light would have taken to travel that distance in vacuum. If you have heard of some relativity, you might know that the travel of any information or particle above the speed of light is prohibited by Einstein’s relativity theory, which is kind of a huge theory in physics. So this result would be kind of a big deal.
After six months of cross checking, researchers announced in end September that those neutrinos did travel faster than light. With a significance of six sigma, which is like saying they were very sure. In research, being sure to the level of five sigma is considered to be a discovery.
The whole world went crazy for months about this, as layman-explanations for what Einstein had said and what these results mean appeared on all sorts of media. It was as big a deal as could be made of something that was pretty abstract and had nothing to do with all our lives.
However, all that crashed when it turned out that the confidence was in precision, not in accuracy (meaning their results were all very close to each other, and all wrong), when in February 2012 they announced two possible sources of error: a broken GPS link, and a clock on an electronic board that was ticking faster than it ought to. Later they also found a loose fiber optic cable. When they corrected for these errors, the results were consistent with the speed of light. The scientist leading the OPERA team making these experiments resigned. These announcements, in contrast, were strangely quiet, and hardly raised a stir in world media.
I’m not saying you cannot make these mistakes. Hell, if you’re not making a lot of mistakes on a regular basis, you’re probably not doing science. I am also not saying that these errors would surely have been found in those six months of cross-checking. Sometimes mistakes slip through.
All I’m saying is, I see again this hype. This huge hype, much bigger than the neutrino hype. And not all of it by the media. A lot of it is being constructed at the source, by CERN. And I see again their tiny notes that they may be wrong. (This time it’s a five sigma confidence.) And I’m asking, why so early? Why don’t you do those calculations you’re saying you’ll do, become sure enough, and then announce? I don’t think anyone will want to see these results turn out to be wrong again. Least of all you. And I have a bigger point. Why must you put those disclaimers in fine print? If you’re not sure, go ahead, tell people that with as much emphasis as you’re saying that you might have found something. If you don’t want people to hear that you’re not sure, that’s fine, then why would you announce it now? With all this hype? Somehow the level of the hype you’re creating is inconsistent with your simultaneous constant footnotes that you may be unsure. I cannot find myself getting all excited and dreamy-eyed about it, much as I would like to. There’s something here, some lack of transparency, that’s lodging like a splinter in my head.
Say God Particle. One More Time.
The second thing I’m really pissed about is the constant reference to the ‘God Particle’. In 1993 physicist Leon Lederman wrote a book on particle physics that he wanted to title first ‘The Higgs Boson’, and then ‘The Goddamned Particle’, referring to the particle postulated by Peter Higgs that was so frustratingly difficult to find (pre-LHC era, of course). The publisher refused to publish it under the first title saying nobody will read it, and the second title because it would be controversial, especially in strongly Christian US. So the book was renamed to ‘The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?’ Of course, that’s a very titillating title, and this kind of thing sells (this one sold like hot samosas). But somewhere down the line this kind of sensationalism sends the wrong messages, hurting those very processes of science and efforts of scientists they were meant to popularize.
Perhaps for the same reason most scientists hate the term too. (I really recommend you read through this article.) As Pippa Wells, an ATLAS researcher rightly commented,
Hearing it called the ‘God particle’ makes me angry. It confuses people about what we are trying to do here at CERN.
Predictably now, the media is now rife with references to the ‘God Particle’ (sometimes ‘God’s Particle’), with only a few explanations here and there, as an afterthought, that oh, the God Particle is the Higgs boson. And how in the media can you protect such a heavily loaded term from obvious but bullshit religious references? You can’t. So there are now news channel programs on how ‘science discovers footprints of god’, and ‘science finally witnesses god’:
I am so pissed at Lederman right now. He shouldn’t have settled for that name. Well, I guess it’s hard to make these choices when it’s your own book-sells that stand to get pumped up. Higgs himself commented that “Lederman has a lot to answer for”.
I’m surprised at how the whole industry of religion and its public workforce manage to so regularly and reliably embarrass themselves with utter batshit like this. First it was the religious public in the U.S. for whom goddamned had to become god, and now that same god comes around to translate into misunderstood religious propaganda at the hands of similar people.
There. is. no. god. in. this. Not an inkling. If anything, we’re jostling him out of any remaining physical processes he might have wanted to claim for himself. Grow up, people. Stop being so stupidly juvenile.
Bose the Sudden Hero
The third, and happily, last thing that I’m slightly disgruntled about is this particular angle that the Kolkata-based, and perhaps India-based, media has taken on this thing. Because Bose was the first to work out the business of these Bosons, he’s suddenly the forgotten-but-now-resurrected-hero because something like the Higgs boson has been found.
Let me remind you what I said. The bosons are a whole class of particles. The Higgs boson, if it has been found, will not be the first boson to have been found. Even the familiar photon is a boson. There are the W-bosons, the Z-boson etc, and a whole host of composite bosons created out of such elementary bosons. They have been known for a long time, people. I absolutely fail to understand the sudden focus on S N Bose because this particle they’re looking for happens to be a boson. I was in fact appalled by what the Anandabazar has allegedly quoted Dr. Bikash Sinha, director of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, contributor and collaborator to the LHC, as having said:
ভারতীয় হিসেবে গর্ব বোধ করছি। সত্যেন্দ্রনাথ বসু যে ধরনের কণার কথা বলে গিয়েছিলেন, অবশেষে সেই জাতের কণারই চিহ্ন মিলেছে যে!
Translated from Bangla, that means “I am feeling proud as an Indian. And why not, we have finally found those exact kind of particles that Satyendra Nath Bose had talked about!”
That is gross misrepresentation. That is bad, bad science. That. is. Wrong. Photons for one had been detected back in the times of Einstein and the photoelectric experiment that had won him the Nobel prize. The theory of bosons was a great theory, okay. But there’s no reason to bring it up now. It’s irrelevant. There’s nothing new about Bose’s theory that’s validated by this finding. If you want to bring that up, why don’t you also start celebrating J. J. Thomson, who first experimentally established the existence (nice tongue-twister there) of a subatomic particle of any kind, the electron? Or Dalton, who was one of the first to boldly propound and stick to the atomic theory? Or the Greek Democritus, who was one of the earliest to believe that matter comprised of tiny particles?
This Anandabazar Patrika, the most widely read Bangla daily, was also one of the first to pounce on Einstein after the neutrino experiment, with headlines such as ‘Einstein proved wrong’ and the world is coming to an end and so forth. That was something that had really upset me at that time, although I wasn’t doubting the experiment then. Even if Einstein had been wrong, it would be in a special regime, and he would still mostly be quite correct and useful. Einstein himself got there by proving Newton wrong. Do we still not study Newton? Yes, because his ideas and theories are still relevant to a whole lot of Physics. And only in disproving, in falsification, is there any excitement and progress in science. I seriously feel it is one of the responsibilities of mass media to get these ideas across to people when they report on science. I know Feynman would have wished that. But no, these guys are doing the polar opposite.
So anyway, why the focus this time on Bose? Is it that patriotic itch again? (Or, far stronger and more bitter, paranoid and vengeful than any other community spirit, the Bangali itch?) Talking about patriotism, we Indians have a really misplaced sense of that. We’ll drag whatever little fringe tidbits we’ll find about India from a story, connect it however we can to a sense of patriotism, and make an awesome headline out of it that will make the Indian reader’s chest expand till he floats slowly up to the ceiling.
I am especially appalled by this Guardian article (no less) on this particular angle of the discovery, that my friend pointed out. I recommend you have a look. It’s written by some Amit Chaudhuri, whose Bangali-ness is evident from his tell-tale classic mistake as he starts the article:
“With tomorrow’s announcement of the latest findings in the search for the Higgs boson, the elusive particle is on everyone’s mind…”
(In Bangla the colloquial words for yesterday and tomorrow are the same.)
It keeps on talking on the tired familiar vein of the downtrodden, unrecognized Indian science, even suggesting they have to become Americans to get a Nobel. I’ll quote:
Indians can be excellent geeks, as demonstrated by the tongue-tied astrophysicist Raj Koothrappalli in the US sitcom Big Bang Theory; but the Nobel prize can only be aspired to by Sheldon Cooper, the super-geek and genius in the series, for whom Raj’s country of origin is a diverting enigma, and miles away from the popular myth of science on which – along with solid scientific background research – Big Bang Theory is dependent.
Bitter, bitter pettiness. You’re disgracing yourselves with this paranoia. You’re making laughable cartoons of yourself. There were ‘agree with the author’ and ‘disagree’ buttons at the bottom of the guardian facebook page. I was the first to hit disagree.
There was this angle in the Kalpana Chawla story too. Look at that awesome great Indian girl, they said. I remember once she came to India and was talking to school students. A schoolgirl asked her what she must do if she wanted to become an astronaut like her. Her blunt reply was, ‘flee India as soon as possible’.
If you must feel good about India, work for it. Do your own personal bit to contribute. Don’t borrow these misplaced fabrications. There can be no greater insult to the honour and spirit of a country than this kind of crap.
In conclusion, I want to set my angle on this straight. I really, really hope they’ve found what, or close to what they were looking for. Or anything that raises questions and takes this forward. And Bose was a hero. In fact, I might just be able to find a book signed by him that my grandmother received from him at a prize distribution in school. And if I do that, I shall drool over it for a week and then blog about it.
But I also feel all the other things I’ve written. And I had to say it all to get rid of the splinter in my head.
Here’s to science, the LHC, and the Higgs. May the truth be the last word.