Chasing the Higgs Boson, by Dennis Overbye. New York Times, 2013. Online exclusively.
Reviewed by Sean Carroll.
Back in December, the New York Times published a remarkable online feature: Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek. In the words of Veronique Greenwood, who reviewed it here at DTU, readers were treated to
a piece not only grippingly reported but physically gorgeous, laced with soaring animations of the mountain, a looping GIF of the wind over the snow, and haunting audio and video captured by the survivors.
The effort paid off. The feature was seen by about three million people, a full third of whom had not previously visited the NYT website.
Now the discovery of the Higgs boson, the biggest physics story of recent years, has been treated to -- well, not exactly the same treatment, but something gesturing a bit in that direction. The March 5 Science Times was given over to a set of articles by Dennis Overbye and accompanying illustrations, all devoted to the Higgs, the Large Hadron Collider, and the future of particle physics. The stories are richly illustrated, with a number of animations, and the package includes a helpful glossary and guide to further reading. (I have it on good authority that entertaining and enjoyable books about this very topic are readily available in stores.)
The Higgs is an interesting challenge for science journalism, since while the excitement among physicists is palpable, it's proven very difficult for anyone (scientists or writers) to effectively convey what is so all-fired important about this particular particle. We sometimes hear that it "gives mass" to other particles -- somewhat true, but somewhat untrue as well. (It gives mass to elementary quarks and leptons, but most of the mass in your body comes from protons and neutrons, which are composite particles that don't get their mass from the Higgs at all.) It is very rarely explained with any effectiveness how this particle ends up giving mass to others. And I have seen almost no attempts at a popular-level explanation of the question that the whole discussion begs: Why do we need a particle to "give mass" to other particles at all? Why can't they just have mass without any help? (The answer comes down to the particular symmetries of the Standard Model of particle physics, which treat versions of particles with different kinds of spin as very different beasts, preventing the appearance of mass unless something breaks the symmetries. Hey, there's a good reason why you don't hear a lot of people trying to explain this stuff.)
Overbye, I think wisely, doesn't spend much time on yet another half-successful whack at Higgs pedagogy. Rather, he spins the human tale of the scientists who searched for the particle, conveying the sense of excitement by letting the physicists speak for themselves. And he is a master at teasing out the telling anecdotes. When physicist Eilam Gross brings his girlfriend down to the cavern of the ATLAS experiment to ask her to marry him, you get a feeling for the kind of emotional significance their work has for these researchers. (“But believe me, I checked a thousand times with her before to make sure she will say yes," Gross assures us.)
There is no single "Aha!" moment when looking for a particle like the Higgs; the boson itself decays before you can see it, leaving behind debris that could easily be produced in completely different ways. It's the precise amount of debris that matters (what kinds of particles, with what energies). The scientific task relies on accumulating enough data to claim a statistically significant result, so the discovery of a particle like the Higgs necessarily creeps up on you. Overbye recounts the gradually mounting excitment from 2011, when the first hints appeared, to June 2012, when teams were losing sleep in a mad rush to get the most reliable results possible in time for the scheduled July 4 talks.
And after that, the champagne.
The NYT Higgs special isn't distinguished only by length and the depth of its reporting, but by the graphical accompaniments to the story. There's a video, a timeline, and a couple of animations. It's here that the difficult pedagogical tasks are tackled, with mixed success. The reality is that it's not the Higgs particle that is important, it's the Higgs field that pervades all of space and affects the properties of the other particles moving through it. The Higgs boson is a vibration in the Higgs field, just like a photon is a vibration in the electromagnetic field. But we're used to thinking of particles much more than fields. So we reach for analogies, none of them completely successful, and the animations here are no different. They go so far as to tell us that the Higgs field is "made up of Higgs bosons." That's one of those statements that, although there are interpretations of the underlying reality according to which it is strictly true, nevertheless move the general reader further away from correct understanding rather than closer to it.
There are other quibbles one could raise, but I don't want to dwell on them too much. It's a shame that Phil Anderson, the condensed matter physicist who first suggested what we now call the Higgs mechanism, is nowhere mentioned in the piece. Indeed, as important as Peter Higgs himself was to the story, it is an accident of history that it's his name that is attached to the mechanism, and good journalism should work to redress the balance rather than contribute to it.
Overall, though, there is some great reporting here on a truly historic discovery in the history of physics. The Higgs deserves this kind of more-than-the-usual-effort take on a major scientific story. In the age of Twitter and blogs, it's harder and harder for traditional news media to be there first; but they can still use their resources to do it right.
According to the New York Times, Sean Carroll is "a cosmologist and well-known blogger." His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World.