A Hole in Texas

A short book review.

This past weekend my scientific activities included reading Herman Wouk’s new novel “A Hole in Texas”. The plot revolves around the story of the cancellation of the SSC and a supposed discovery of the Higgs Boson by a group of Chinese physicists. Wouk clearly did a lot of careful research and/or had some very competent advice since the technical and historical parts of the story are reasonably accurate.

Wouk has the US Congress and media getting tremendously excited over the Chinese Higgs discovery, leading to massive new funding for high energy physics, a charming but unlikely idea. In general the book is somewhat of a romance/wish fulfillment novel for older particle physics experimentalists. The protagonist, an experimentalist formerly involved with the SSC project, gets huge media attention, a lot of money and the use of a private jet, an old romance revived, a new romance with a beautiful Congresswoman who loves to listen to him explain physics, and funding for his current project.

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7 Responses to A Hole in Texas

  1. Chris Oakley says:

    Peter & Danny –

    I am very keen on theories which have a unique vacuum defined simply as the zero-particle state. As yet, I have seen no reason why I should abandon this requirement. Whether there is some value in doing mathematical tricks with Lagrangians that lead one to temporarily abandon this notion, I am not sure, but certainly the Higgs mechanism as it stands does not pass the test since, apart from anything else, the relevant manipulations only make sense for classical fields. However, I cannot help noticing that neither of you believe any more than I do that there are spin zero particles with mass tantalising out of reach of current experiments, just waiting to be discovered by the next generation of colliders. If, on the other hand, the required particles are found, then my personal view (note – not shared by anyone in the field that I know of who is prepared to be counted, anyway) is that it will set the subject back in that it will give all that dirty mathematics that led us there a new lease of life.

    By way of comparison, consider the W/Z boson discoveries in the eighties – a wealth of indirect evidence led us there. Unlike the Higgs particles now, even if one did not fully buy into the Glashow-Weinberg-Salam model, it would have been very surprising if the particles had not been found.

  2. Peter says:

    Hi Pyracantha,

    Actually the congresswoman was not just “beautiful”, but an ex-Hollywood starlet. Wouk spends a lot of time describing how attractive the female protagonists of the book are; this is after all the fantasy of a 90 year old guy who grew up in the 1930s.

    On the other hand, the leader of the Chinese team that supposedly discovers the Higgs is also a woman, depicted both as extremely competent and of course as “beautiful”.

  3. D R Lunsford says:

    Chris –

    In addition to Peter’s explanation the following analogy may be helpful. If you want to calculate the motion of a ball bearing on a surface, you can either do it in three dimensions with a complicated constraint that forces the ball bearing to remain on the surface, or you can introduce a “surface force field” via Lagrange multipliers – in the Lagrangian for the problem the constraint appears like a effective force of undetermined origin. If we didn’t know about the surface, we might be impelled to introduce just such a force to phenomenologically explain the motion of the ball bearing. Then we might discover the surface and say “aha! That phenomenology term is just the constraint in action!”

    Afsar Abbas showed that the Higgs can have arbitrary isospin and hypercharge and the SM still holds unchanged of experimental content. This is exactly the same state as with the above analogy – the normal force on the ball bearing is exactly what it needs to be to maintain the constraint – so the Higgs represents a sort of vacuum in itself, the referent to which the other elements must resort to have a meaning.


    Peter’s explanation in terms of Cooper pairs is perfect and right on – in the London theory there was simply the issue of a suddenly massive photon – in the BCS theory we now have a theoretical explanation of the pairing process that shows up as the apparent gain of photon mass. If the “real” theory of particles retains the Higgs and basis in Yang-Mills ideas, then it is very likely that the gauge invariances will be exact and the Higgs mechanism will have an encompassing explanation as with Cooper pairs. It could be said that this IS the real goal (or should be), of research in field theory.


  4. Pyracantha says:

    yeah, women in book reviews and blurbs are always “beautiful.” In fact, in this kind of writing, “beautiful” is code language for “female.” Just like in real life.



  5. Peter says:

    Hi Chris,

    One way to convince yourself there might be something to the Higgs mechanism is to study a non-relativistic analog: the Meissner effect in a superconductor. You can think about superconductivity as something that occurs when electrons can lower their energy by pairing together into “Cooper pairs”. Then one says that electrons have “condensed” in the lowest energy state, and low-energy excitations about this state are given by these pairs. There’s an effective complex scalar field theory describing how these excitations behave. In this theory the complex scalar field has a non-zero expectation value in the vacuum and so the U(1) symmetry of phase transformations of this field is spontaneously broken. If you now couple this theory to EM, i.e make it a U(1) gauge theory, you find that the photon field acquires a mass term.

    All of this can be made sense of in a nonrelativistic QFT setting where infinities are completely under control, and describes real-world aspects of superconductivity that you can check experimentally. The relativistic, non-abelian, version of this used in the standard model is much trickier and one can argue about whether it makes sense rigorously. It also is bad news in that it introduces most of the undetermined parameters into the standard model. There are two well-known philosophies about this:

    1. The standard model Higgs field is just an effective field for some kind of more basic fermion fields that pair together something like Cooper pairs. “Technicolor” is one implementation of this idea. There are various problems with it.

    2. The standard model Higgs field is a superpartner of some fermionic field in a supersymmetric QFT. Supersymmetry helps with some of the divergences of pure scalar field theory, but this idea also has its problems.

    Quite possibly a new idea about this is needed, maybe the LHC will give us a clue. But the success of the standard model means that something is causing spontaneous symmetry breaking of the electroweak gauge symmetry, we just don’t know exactly what it is yet.

  6. Chris Oakley says:

    Excuse me: missing the words “universe” and “a”. See if you can guess where.

  7. Chris Oakley says:

    Although neither beautiful nor a congresswoman, I would not mind someone explaining the Higgs mechanism to me, especially if they feel confident of persuading me that it is not the one of most contrived arguments that anyone has ever taken seriously (other than, of course, the notion that the is 10 or 11 dimensional entity composed of tiny vibrating strings).

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