There’s a wonderful new book about particle physics that has just come out, Massive:The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science, by Ian Sample, who is a science correspondent for the Guardian. The topic is the huge open question currently at the center of particle physics: is the Higgs mechanism the source of electroweak symmetry breaking (and, at the same time, the source of the mass terms in the Standard Model)? The Tevatron and the LHC are now in a race to either detect the Higgs particle or rule out its existence, with one alternative or the other very likely to come through within the next few years.

Truly explaining what the Higgs mechanism is can only be done with mathematics and physics background far beyond that expected in a popular book, but Massive makes a good try at it. Sample does a wonderful job of telling about the history behind this subject. He’s the first writer I know of who has gotten Peter Higgs to tell his story in detail. The original paper on the subject by Higgs was rejected by Physics Letters, but ultimately published by Physical Review Letters. There’s a complicated priority issue one can argue over and that someday soon a Nobel committee may need to resolve, involving Higgs, Englert, Brout, Guralnick, Hagen and Kibble. My personal opinion is that it was condensed matter theorist Philip Anderson who first understood and described the Higgs mechanism, quite a while before anyone else.

Sample’s book is full of wonderful stories about particle physics, and alludes to some that he can’t give the details of:

On June 8,1978, Adams marked the achievement in extraordinary fashion. He jotted down a poem about Rubbia and Van der Meer’s efforts and sent it out as a memo. The poem — too offensive to reprint here — suggested that Rubbia had exploited van der Meer’s brilliance to further his own career.

The footnote to this says that the memo is in the CERN archive, dated June 8,1978 and entitled “Approval of ppbar facility”.

One of the later parts of the story involves the discussion of Higgs rumors on particle physics blogs, and debates among the experimental collaborations about this. With a little bit of luck, we may hope to see more of this soon.

All in all, the book is a great read, by far this year’s best popular book that could be recommended to lay people who want some idea of what’s going on in particle physics now and why it is exciting.

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29 Responses to Massive

  1. Nameless says:

    Here’s the poem (I’m not sure what’s offensive about it):

    Clever Simon met a Bagman,
    Leader of a Team.
    Said Clever Simon to the Bagman
    I can cool a beam.
    Bagman said to Clever Simon
    I can use this scheme.
    By being first and talking faster
    Bigman I will be.
    Clever Simon is Simon van der Meer and Bagman is Carlo Rubbia.

  2. More Nameless says:

    The above poem is correct. Beaten to the post by Nameless!
    Adams also said in public that Rubbia was the ‘entrepreneur’ of the ppbar project and that Rubbia was a ‘CERN staff member and well known transatlantic commuter’. This was deemed extremely offensive and Adams was forced to apologize for the above, in August 1978.

    Sir John Adams was a master accelerator builder at CERN in its early days.
    He died in 1984, just at about the time the ppbar project came to fruition, producing the W and Z and making Rubbia a Nobel Prize winning Bigman.

  3. cyd says:

    > My personal opinion is that it was condensed matter theorist Philip Anderson who first understood and described the Higgs mechanism, quite a while before anyone else.

    Anderson’s priority should obvious to anyone who has any knowledge of the subject. I’m surprised you seem to think there’s any sort of controversy.

  4. Hamish Johnston says:

    It would be fantastic for Bell Labs to have two double Nobel winners! Go Phil!

  5. Narcissus says:

    “… the huge open question currently at the center of particle physics: is the Higgs mechanism the source of electroweak symmetry breaking (and, at the same time, the source of the mass terms in the Standard Model)?”

    It’s not much of an “open question” if people are just searching for a Higgs boson in connection with electroweak symmetry breaking and particle mass! If Higgs is “the only game in town” on this subject, then it’s a “closed question”. Does the book give any discussion for alternative theories of mass? Does the book seriously discuss the physics implications if the broken (observed) electroweak “symmetry” is broken at all energies, i.e. if the speculative electroweak unification at 246 GeV (or whatever) doesn’t occur? Does it clearly point out that the existing tests of the Standard Model with regard to electroweak unification merely validate the need for gauge boson mixing (not unification) of U(1) hypercharge and SU(2) isospin to produce the required vector bosons? The idea that electroweak symmetry may exist is much analogous to the “beautiful” mathematical idea of Plato that atoms must be regular geometric solids, or else God has missed a good idea. Well, God missed Plato’s good idea. Until there is some evidence for electroweak unification beyond dreams, we should not limit our theories to one guesswork idea.

  6. Bugsy says:

    Adams died at 64; von Neumann and Feynman also died young. I have always wondered if exposure to radiation had anything to do with that….
    maybe things weren’t as safe back then as now?

  7. Seth Thatcher says:

    As a layman, I have been wondering why Higgs seems to get the honor when a simple reading of Wikipedia will show that others were first in theorizing the mediator of mass, if in fact it even exists. I was explaining this concept to my wife the other night as she drifted off to sleep. She made the mistake of saying something about CERN not realizing my deep interest in this subject. Well, lets just say it was like taking a sip of water from a firehose for her. I find these discussions utterly fascinating. Peter, thanks for the tip on the book and the blog.

  8. passb says:

    Phil Anderson’s model was nonrelativistic (BCS and how the photon becomes effectively a massive field). Anderson never developed a relativistic model, although he may have made some statements that such a thing is possible. Also Anderson was (is?) terribly bigoted about HEP. Recall that Kobayashi and Maskawa were awarded the Nobel Prize, but Cabibbo was left out, despite Cabibbo clearly being first with a 2×2 matrix, and the 3×3 matrix is universally called the ‘CKM matrix’. Cabibbo is a much clearer case of well-deserved priority. Many NP awards are controversial, even when the evidence seems clear.

  9. Nameless says:

    @cyd: anyone with real knowledge of this issue knows that extending Anderson’s results from the condensed matter framework to the high energy one, namely, introducing the Lorentz group in the play, is a highly non-trivial task. This is, in fact, the reason why Anderson didn’t do this himself.

    Furthermore, Anderson’s bigotry towards HEP just serves to murk the waters even more: if he ever made claims that this issue would be easily solved in HEP, he was wrong.

    Aside from that, there’s a very nice read on this topic, by one of its founders (Guralnik),

    » “The History of the Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble development of the Theory of Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking and Gauge Particles”,

  10. Peter Woit says:


    One justification for Anderson’s bigotry toward HEP might be the way HEP theorists handled references to his work. His 1963 paper clearly and explicitly laid out the physics of the Higgs mechanism (he claimed that this was independent of the issue of relativistic vs. non-relativistic, and was right). Among the 1964 papers, Higgs referred to Anderson, the rest didn’t. Guralnik explains how he and collaborators dealt with this:

    “At the same time, Kibble brought our attention to a paper by P.W. Anderson…. We did not change our paper to reference the Anderson work.”

  11. Nameless says:


    For completeness’ and context’s sake, here’s the full quote that you referred to (above), straight from the Guralnik paper I cited:

    At the same time, Kibble brought our attention to a paper by P.W. Anderson [26]. This paper points out that the theory of plasma oscillations is related to Schwinger’s analysis of the possibility of having relativistic gauge invariant theories without massless vector particles. It suggests the possibility that the Goldstone theorem could be negated through this mechanism and goes on to discuss “degenerate vacuum types of theories” as a way to give gauge fields mass and the necessity of demonstrating that the “necessary conservation laws can be maintained.” In general these comments are correct. However, as they stand, they are entirely without the analysis and verification needed to give them any credibility. These statements certainly did not show the calculational path to realize our theory and hence the unified electroweak theory. It certainly did not even suggest the existence of the boson now being searched for at Fermi lab and LHC. The actual verification that the same mechanism actually worked in non-relativistic condensed-matter theories as in relativistic QFT had to wait for the work of Lange [28], which was based on GHK. We did not change our paper to reference the Anderson work.

    So, it’s not that GHK simply ignored or hand-waived Anderson’s work; quite the opposite, as Guralnik clearly explains above.

    The bottom line is that you have to deal with PCT and Lorentz symmetries, and also Goldstone’s theorem; and none of these play a role in condensed matter.

    Thus, things are not as straightforward as they’re made to sound…

  12. Nono says:

    maybe things weren’t as safe back then as now?

    I don’t know whether von Neumann or Feynman where significantly exposed to radiation, but Madam Curie and Fermi, to quote just two examples, were, and paid with their lives for it. Things were definitely not safe back then.

  13. Peter Woit says:


    After reading Guralnik’s justification for not referring to Anderson, I went back and took a look at Anderson’s paper. It’s remarkably modern, with his understanding of the Higgs mechanism much as it’s explained in textbooks today. I find Guralnik’s excuses for not referring to it kind of ridiculous. It’s rather rich that he and his co-authors have spent much of their lives complaining that other people don’t refer to their work on this given the way they treated Anderson. I have no idea whether Anderson cared at all about this, but he would have been fully justified in being unhappy with their behavior.

  14. anon. says:

    The bottom line is that you have to deal with PCT and Lorentz symmetries, and also Goldstone’s theorem; and none of these play a role in condensed matter.

    Since when does Goldstone’s theorem not play a role in condensed matter? Goldstone bosons are everywhere in condensed matter: phonons, magnons, ….

  15. Anonymous says:

    HEP is much more popular with mass media and attracts more bright young students. These are enough reasons to make condensed matter theorists feel bitter and under-acknowledged.

  16. famelessnameless says:


    Whatever Guralnik says, that’s not an excuse to not even reference the paper! He could have referenced it, and could have pointed out whatever he wrote in the para of his that you quoted.

    Not referencing such a paper once you’re aware of it, and which is clearly doing something directly connected and useful to your own paper, is just plain dishonesty.

  17. beta says:

    It puzzles me slightly (i.e. I don’t really lose any sleep over this since I have no aspirations to a Nobel) that everybody (i.e. you) discusses the Higgs only in the context of spontaneous symmetry breaking (and Goldstone bosons). That may be its immediate raison d’etre, but I see the Higgs is the culmination of a story that goes back to Ernest Rutherford. After the discovery of radioactivity by Becquerel, Rutherford found that there were three types of radioactivity, termed alpha, beta and gamma rays. This was circa 1899, and to this day we continue to seek the full explanation of beta decay. It is a great story of scientific advance, with many twists and turns, which have greatly altered our understanding of Nature at the most fundamental level. The Higgs boson is the culmination of a century-long quest. Does one doubt that the quest is worthy?

    And yes, it is a great story, and makes for excellent press! HEP does appeal to the mass media, and schoolchildren, and for good reason. It has a central thread, which is easy to state and is obviously worthy, that of seeking to understand Nature at its most basic. And by that I mean not only particles but also the nature of space and time, and all this spills over into efforts to understand the Universe (or the Multiverse if you prefer). Condensed matter (theory or expt) has no such central thread.

  18. A.J. says:

    Feynman was nearly 70 when he died. That’s close to the average for a male of his generation.

    Presumably Bugsy meant to write “Fermi”.

  19. jpd says:

    “Adams died at 64; von Neumann and Feynman also died young”
    64 is the new young?
    i feel better already

  20. 46 says:

    I’m on the way out!

  21. Mark Decker says:

    If the Higgs doesn’t exist afterall (which is my bet) then the electroweak theory of Glashow, Salaam and Weinberg goes down the tubes. Then it’s time to look at other theories. I know John Moffat has published one (sorry don’t have link handy) as I am sure others have too.

  22. tubes says:

    GSW does NOT go ‘down the tubes’. Remember that weak neutral currents have been observed, the W and Z have been found, numerous branching ratios have been measured (neutral to charged currents?), all in agreement with the GSW theory. These aspects of the theory will survive.

    ***BUT*** if indeed the Higgs is not found (or rather is ruled out in a large area of parameter space), THEN one begins to search for alternative explanations for the existence of massive bosons. The alternative answer may not be a gauge theory (who knows?) but it must reproduce weak neutral currents and branching ratios etc.

    Remember that the discovery of the photoelectric effect, and the failure of the wave theory of light to explain it, did not mean the wave theory went down the tubes. (Ok, you have to define a tube.) Instead the wave theory was woven together with the particle theory of light. More precisely, the discredited corpuscular theory of light was resurrected in a manner compatible with the wave theory.

  23. Nameless says:

    @anon. (November 11, 2010 at 7:54 pm): The constraints imposed by Lorentz symmetry and the Spin-Statistics theorem (PCT) render Goldstone’s theorem quite a different beast in High Energy (compared to its Condensed Matter application) — I didn’t mean to imply anything else other than this.

    Indeed, it is these intricacies (Lorentz symm, PCT, Spin-Stat, etc) that render High Energy quite a different beast than Condensed Matter, even though most techniques can be applied in both. See, e.g., Goldstone Theorem in Nonrelativistic Theories (note that R. V. Lange worked closely with G. Guralnik — and is, thus, cited by Guralnik).

    Case in point: this discussion about Anderson’s claims in this topic of the “Higgs”.

  24. Nameless says:

    @PWoit: i disagree: GHK was the only paper that counted the degrees-of-freedom in the problem of symmetry breaking: Higgs’ first paper was classical and BE was semi-classical; GHK was the only quantum mechanical calculation.

    Further, Guralnik was working with Lange and knew fairly well the issues in Condensed Matter (see above response to ‘anon.’).

    In hindsight, however, vision is always 100% (this is the only part that’s truly “ridiculous”). But, if you contextualize appropriately, things are not so straightforward. For example, there is a reason why Streater only cited Guralnik in this paper (see seciton 4: “The Guralnik Model”): Spontaneous Breakdown of Symmetry in Axiomatic Theory.

    So, as you can see, what i’m saying here is a more widely known fact among ‘old timers’… but, somehow, this information (and history, and details) got lost through the years.

  25. Nameless says:

    @Mark Decker: The result presently known as “Higgs boson” is a perturbative one. Unfortunately, only very recently some non-perturbative aspects of QFT have come to light, e.g., Complexified Path Integrals and the Phases of Quantum Field Theory.

    In fact, as it turns out (check the ref above), you can have symmetry breaking without the so-called “Higgs”, and without destroying any of the current structure of the Standard Model (namely, QFT and Gauge Theories).

    So, not so quick to draw… ;-)

  26. Grumblenik says:

    Look at this!
    But J J Sakurai Prize 2010 awarded to all six.

  27. Peter Woit says:

    For some other views of the history of the Anderson-Higgs mechanism, see this

    by Kibble, and an interview with Anderson here:

    He describes his paper published in 1963 as based on work he did during the summer of 1962, and says:

    “So it was probably completed summer ’62. Very little attention was paid to it except that in fact— well, Higgs reinvented it. In some ways the particle physicists tell me had less understanding; in some ways he had more. He certainly made a real model out of it where I had only a mechanism…

    about the Anderson-Higgs phenomenon, if I may use the word. In the paper that I wrote I definitely said people have been worried about the Goldstone boson in broken symmetry phenomena. The Goldstone boson is not necessary. Here is the possibility of removing the Goldstone boson, mixing it with a gauge boson, and ending up with zero mass. [should be "non-zero" maybe a transcription error]…So I think I really understood the nature of the mechanism…

    It was not published as a paper in the Condensed Matter Physics. It was published as a paper in Particle Physics. Brout paid attention to it. And he and Englert two years alter produced a model of symmetry breaking, which if you’ll read carefully the summary of their work that t’Hooft and Veltman give (Nobel Prize winner this year), they say that they took off very much from the Brout-Englert paper, and there’s no way Brout was not perfectly aware of my work and I would be surprised if the Brout Englert paper doesn’t reference it rather than Higgs or along with Higgs. So in fact it didn’t fall completely on deaf ears.”

    Actually, Englert-Brout (why not Brout-Englert??) doesn’t refer to either Anderson or Higgs, in the case of Higgs because his paper had been rejected by Physics Letters and thus not yet published.

    Higgs gives his version of the history here

    properly recognizing Anderson’s prior work, but claiming credit to be the first to discuss the mode that gives the “Higgs particle”. He uses the term “Anderson mechanism” to refer to what is usually called the “Higgs mechanism”.

  28. Peter says:

    What about Ernst Stueckelberg? Wikipedia says “In 1938 he recognized that massive electrodynamics contains a hidden scalar, and formulated an affine version of what would become known as the Abelian Higgs mechanism.”

    In the Discussion section somebody writes: “his despite the fact that he invented the renormalization group, despite the intermediate bosons, despite covariant perturbation theory, and despite the first Abelian Higgs mechanism, in 1957, remember this is same year as BCS, before Anderson, before Brout. His lack of recognition is a notable and sad fact.”

  29. MP says:

    I can recommend another fantastic book for laymen (of which I am one) on this subject. Deep Down Things: The Breathtaking Beauty of Particle Physics by Bruce A. Schumm

    This book does a great job of explaining the Standard Model, Gauge Theory, Lie Groups, and the basics of the Higgs Mechanism at a level that should be comprehensible to anyone who remembers a little high school algebra and trigonometry.