How Many Angels (can dance on a Higgs Boson)?

Lisa Randall on the Higgs Bandwagon

I’m reading on my Kindle Lisa Randall’s latest paean to CERN for what she calls the Higgs boson discovery (Lisa Randall, Higgs Boson, the Power of Nothing), in which she once again invokes the existence of the Higgs Field as something filling the void (or ether, vacuum, whatever) which she then describes in her title, once again as “nothing.” I find it confusing at least and possibly disingenuous in its implication that we are all happy with changing the meaning of words in mid-sentence. (I’ve always thought of nothing as meaning nothing, but to a physiist it seems to mean everything, or anything but nothing!) The biggest problem that I have with all of this is that we seem to be permanently stuck with the contradictions of the Standard Model, in that an electromagnetic field and the Higgs field coexist throughout each other but are still somehow different, even unique. Does no one want to simplify this mess? Why is there not a single universal field? Or is complexity actually the great god we are required to worship.

A few months ago in the midst of the original  intoxication over the “discovery” of the Higgs boson, I went back to quantum field basics. The excerpts following are drawn from a nontechnical explanation of the Higgs Field in the current entry in Wikipedia.

The Higgs field is a possibly discovered, ubiquitous quantum field supposedly responsible for giving elementary particles their masses.

All quantum fields have a fundamental particle associated with them. The particle associated with the Higgs field is the Higgs boson.

The overview of this article begins with:

In quantum field theory the fundamental entities are not particles but fields, like the electromagnetic field.

If you leave out the word quantum, which seems to be in every theory that anyone takes seriously these days, what is left is my own interpretation.

In field theory the fundamental entities are not particles but fields, like the electromagnetic field.

and following:

There are solutions of the equations of quantum field theory that represent quantised oscillations of these fields. These oscillations are referred to by the general term “particles.” The oscillations in the electromagnetic field are called photons; those in the Higgs field are called Higgs bosons.

The first part, with which I am in complete agreement, is that what we refer to as “particles” are, in fact, simply oscillations in the field, possibly a hierarchy of oscillations, generated by simple rules phase transitions, and the like. The last part makes a fundamental, but unsupported in the text, assumption, that there are two separate fields and that these separate fields, the electromagnetic and the Higgs, exist at the same time in the same place together but are somehow separate and distinct from one another. The next sentence reveals a standard position of quantum field theory, that each identified “particle” has its own field type associated with it:

Some quantum fields represent the known elementary particles, while others are brought in to enable spontaneous symmetry breaking to occur.

Question 1: What does the word represent mean in this sentence? does it mean “generated by” or “created by”? or just “associated with”? Question 2: Does spontaneous symmetry breaking mean anything in reality or only in mathematics? Question 3: Does the phrase brought in mean that these are just there to make the equation balance? that is, are they just mathematicians inventions? or what? Question 4: Why couldn’t these “separate” field be actually distortions of the general field associated with the more concentrated energy of the oscillations (nee “particles”)?

Further on in the Wikipedia article there is this somewhat amusing analogy for the mechanism by which “particles” acquire “mass” (actually energy, another flip-flop in terminology that modern physics is rife with) as follows:

The way particles acquire mass through interacting with the Higgs field is analogous to blotting paper absorbing ink. Pieces of blotting paper represent individual particles and the ink represents energy. Different particles “soak up” different amounts of energy, depending on “energy absorbing” ability and the strength of the Higgs field.

Sounds electromagnetic to me. Where does “mass” come in?

Anyhow, I’m left with the simple impression that if physicists could just stop calling these oscillations, condensations, foci, etc., “particles” then the word quantum could go back to its original role as a measure, say, of the smallest observable physical unit, Planck length, perhaps, and the whole of modern physics could breathe a great sigh of relief and we could get down to the serious work we originally signed on for. Any hope?


About Charles Scurlock

Charles is a recently retired architect/planner and generalist problem-solver with a lifelong interest in science, physics, and cosmology, and the workings of the human mind. He has started this blog in the interest of sharing his ideas with others of like-(or not so like) minds.
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