The BEHGHK particle
In advance of the big announcement from LHC, here are some links to information about the Higgs boson.
John Conway explains, in “Higgs 101” at Cosmic Variance, why physicists think there has to be a Higgs field and a corresponding particle (the “carrier” of the field, as the photon is the carrier of electromagnetic fields, and the hypothetical graviton of gravitational fields). This is not for the totally naïve, but if you have a decent impressionistic grasp of high-energy physics, Conway’s piece will give you a good account of the importance of the Higgs particle to the so-called “Standard Model” in fundamental physics. Were it not to exist, that model would have to be radically revised.
See also the video at PhD Comics. The viXra.org blog has a nice list of papers on electroweak symmetry and symmetry breaking, from Heisenberg in 1928 to Ellis, Gaillard, and Nanopoulos in 1976, which initiated discussion of ways to detect the Higgs particle.
Skulls in the Stars notes that the hypothesis of the existence of the symmetry-breaking mechanism was put forward almost simultaneously by six physicists in three groups, all of whom published their work in Physical Review Letters in 1964. One of the six, Carl Richard Hagan, was among the teachers of the author of Skulls, whose account of the graduate students’ relative ignorance of their teachers’ eminence, and of their consuming interest in gossip about those same teachers, sounds very familiar.
All six co-discoverers of the Higgs mechanism were awarded the Sakurai Prize in 2010. But only Higgs’s name is used to designate the particle (on the controversy surrounding the naming of the Higgs, see Alasdair Wilkins’ piece at io9)—this even though the paper by Robert Brout and François Englert, which also put forward the hypothesis of a symmetry-breaking mechanism responsible for creating mass, was published several months earlier. It did not, however, explicitly mention the particle.
Another group of three physicists, Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Hagen, finished their paper on the symmetry-breaking mechanism just as the other papers were being published (see Guralnik’s history of his group’s contribution; also Guralnik 2009). In his detailed analysis of the three papers, Guralnik holds that only his group had a complete solution to the problem of explaining spontaneous symmetry-breaking; the earlier papers did not (2009:19–20). The moral, perhaps, is that the best presentation of a hypothesis need not be the best-known: celebrity, like grace, tracks works only imprecisely.
On bad anecdotes and good fun
My initial topic is the attractions of scandal, and an oft-told story: Diderot, humiliated at the court of Catherine by his inability to answer Euler’s supposed mathematical proof of the existence of God, limps back home to Paris.
The moral generally drawn from the story is: Learn your algebra! My moral will be an admonition to historians (but not only to historians).
I’ve read the Diderot anecdote many times—mathematicians seem to like it—and I’ve long been suspicious. Inspired by a colleague’s use of it in a talk last semester, I did some checking. Here’s what I found.