Post-discovery Higgs Books

The Higgs particle has been the main player in various popular books about particle physics since before many of today’s college students were born, with Lederman and Teresi’s The God Particle going back to 1993. Last year’s excellent The Infinity Puzzle by Frank Close (discussed here) was largely about the Higgs story, appearing just before the first experimental indications of the Higgs late last year.

I’m not the only one who was obsessively following the Higgs discovery story as it unfolded from last year until the final announcements this past July 4. Two of the others have already produced books on the topic: Jim Baggott’s Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ came out last month, Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World, will be in stores next month.

I’ve just finished reading copies of both of them, and they’re both very good. They each cover the story of the Standard Model well, supplemented by extensive discussion of the Higgs discovery at the LHC and the background of how it came about. I confess that it’s a bit eerie to see a lot of things that were day-to-day news and often grist for the blog now packaged between hard-covers as history, while I’m also happy to see that a good job is being done of it.

Baggott’s book is quite a bit shorter, and has much more of a linear structure, taking the reader historically through the development of the Standard Model and its experimental tests, up through the LHC and the work of CMS and ATLAS that led to the Higgs discovery. You also get as a bonus a wonderful foreword by Steven Weinberg who, among other things, explains why quarks were not in his 1967 paper (he didn’t believe in them). If you want the quickest possible journey through this material, definitely choose this one.

Carroll’s effort is much longer, more non-linear and digressive. You get a significantly more in-depth version of parts of this story, with an organization that starts with the discovery and works outwards, explaining various topics needed to understand what this is all about, rather than following the line of historical development. I’m not really a good person to judge how this will work for those approaching this subject without a lot of background, but it seems to be as good a way as any to get readers into the subject. Among the topics Carroll has the space to cover in depth, he does a very good job with the history of the Higgs mechanism and the various claims to have done something Nobel-worthy, including the crucial role of Philip Anderson that often gets overlooked.

Since I’m known for my negativity, I’ll add a few criticisms here of these otherwise excellent books. Baggott goes with the “God Particle” business in his subtitle, presumably for the same excellent reason that Lederman used it: anything with “God” in it sells more books. One of Carroll’s digressions is about the “God Particle” business (he’s strongly against it and God in general) but his “Particle at the End of the Universe” replacement doesn’t seem to me to be much of an improvement. His subtitle and some of the jacket copy (“a doorway is opening into the extraordinary: the mind-boggling world of dark matter and beyond”) oversells a topic he wisely devotes no more than a couple pages to in the text of the book, so-called “Higgs portal” models of dark matter.

Both authors write fairly extensively about the role played by bloggers in spreading news and rumors during this recent period, and I make an appearance in both books. This caused me to go back and recall some of the details of how this played out. Both Baggott and Carroll describe how the abstract of an internal ATLAS note was anonymously posted on my blog (see here). Carroll’s version is slightly inaccurate, implying the entire memo was posted there, while it was only the abstract. The full note was sent to me privately by people who wanted me to have a better idea of what was going on, but I did not post that on the blog, and reading the full note made it pretty clear that while this wasn’t a hoax, it also wasn’t worth taking seriously. My impression is that the outraged reaction from various people at ATLAS to this leak was equal parts justifiable concern about keeping this kind of material confidential, and embarrassment about something this dubious seeing the light of day with the name of their collaboration on it. The unfolding of this story gave me a lot to think about, and I ended up deciding that I was definitely not comfortable being a public source of actual confidential documents, while at the same time seeing nothing wrong with providing accurate summary accounts of what the 3000 people in one of these large collaborations were all aware of and discussing. I offered to ATLAS people to remove the abstract if they asked me to, they decided it was best not to do this.

The first solid evidence for the Higgs that I heard about was in late November 2011 (see here and here), with a comment giving the right mass appearing at viXra log convincing me that the time had come to go public with some details. What was remarkable about this evidence was not that something was being seen at the 2-3 sigma level, but that both experiments were seeing something at almost the same mass value. This immediately convinced me that this was likely to be a Higgs signal, and the further details that came out over the next days up to the public announcement December 13 made for a rather strong case that the Higgs had been found.

In some sense the news this past summer was anti-climactic, just confirming that the strong 2011 evidence was the real thing. In early June news came from ATLAS that they were seeing the same gamma-gamma signal as in the 2011 data, just before I left for vacation (see here). When I got back from vacation, a lot more details showed that both experiments definitely had the thing in the bag. My posting about this got a lot of attention, including a link from the New York Times (where Dennis Overbye reported that Fabiola Gianotti of ATLAS was telling him “Please do not believe the blogs”).

All in all, I’m fairly happy with my decisions about what to write and what not to write on the blog about not-quite-public results about the Higgs. There’s been a certain amount of criticism about the terrible violations of confidentiality involved, but I can’t help pointing out that the things I was writing about were at the time known to the majority of the HEP community: the 6000 physicists on ATLAS and CMS. Carroll has this to to report about the confidentiality question:

I asked one physicist whether the results that ATLAS was getting were generally known within CMS, and vice versa. “Are you kidding?” I was told with a laugh. “Half of ATLAS is sleeping with half of CMS. Of course they know!”

For that quote, and many other stories worth reading about, if you’re the sort who loves popular books about particle physics, both of these are worth buying. If you’re only moderately interested, just pick one of the two and read it, you can’t go wrong…

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27 Responses to Post-discovery Higgs Books

  1. hhgttg says:

    You may or may not know this (you do not say so explicitly) but “Particle at the End of the Universe” is taken from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Milliways is the “Restaurant at the End of the Universe”.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    hhgttg,

    Yes, I was aware of that. Maybe my problem with it just has to do with not being much of a Douglas Adams fan…

  3. Robert Rehbock says:

    If one person knows something they do not share with others, that is secret. If two persons know something that neither share with others, that is a confidence. If three persons know something that none of them share with others, that is unlikely.

  4. BJM says:

    What about “Higgs Discovery”, a short book by Lisa Randall?

  5. Peter Woit says:

    BJM,

    I think Randall’s book is rather different. It’s very short: a couple chapters from her other books about the Higgs with a new chapter describing the story of the discovery. As far as I know, it’s only available as an e-book.

  6. ed hessler says:

    I’m a K-12 science educator who reads NEW almost daily, not always understanding everything or expecting to or believing that it is your job. Today’s post is one of many that explain why why I read it and look forward to it on nearly a daily basis. This thanks is long, way-long overdue but it is about time I said that. I also appreciate the way you keep the comments focused.

    Cheers.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Ed,

    I hope there will be continue to be news as exciting as the past year’s to cover here in the future, probably too much to expect though…

  8. Philip says:

    As long as that news isn’t evidence for SUSY or string theory, right Peter?

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Philip,

    Well, if the LHC finds SUSY or strings, people at ATLAS and CMS will likely send me the news and you’ll read about it here first. More likely though, further strong evidence against SUSY (evidence against strings isn’t possible, for obvious reasons…) will continue to accumulate, and that will get covered here, even if ignored elsewhere.

  10. Owen Patterson says:

    So now that the Higgs has been found, now what for this branch of science?

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Owen Patterson,

    From the experimental side, investigate the properties of the Higgs. From the theoretical side, the LHC is killing off a wide range of bad speculative ideas. So, give up on those and find something better…

  12. B says:

    “…now what for this branch of science?”

    writing books, apparently.

  13. paddy says:

    Kudos PW. Your site did indeed provide the best objective real time coverage of the Higgs search story this last year or more. If folks wish to equate “objective” (i.e., a skeptical no agenda approach) with “negative”, then they have some self introspection to do. Thank you again for your insights.

  14. cormac says:

    Hi Peter, I read Baggot’s book last week and I have to say I was a bit disappointed. It starts very well and has a strong theoretical basis, but I think there a lot of abstract theory for the lay reader.
    Of course, it’s very hard to tell the story of the SM without quite a bit of quantum theory. My solution in talks and suchlike is to concentrate on phenomenology, and tell the story of the discovery of particles, with only a little on qft. I get criticized for this (see current comment on blog), but I’m pretty sure the layman won’t understand much of Baggot’s book (my students didn’t)

  15. Peter Woit says:

    cormac,

    The problem is that the basic idea of the Higgs mechanism (spontaneous breaking of a gauge symmetry) is inherently an abstract and tricky one. You’re probably not going to be able to communicate much about it to a lay reader, but if you just completely avoid it, you’ve written a book about the Higgs without actually explaining anything about what it is. You can’t win here, but I think it’s often better to leave readers aware that they don’t really understand than to tell them a story which convinces them they have understood something that they haven’t been told anything about.

  16. cormac says:

    Yes, I’m inclined to agree, I don’t accept the mantra that the reader has to understand everything. However, I read Jim’s book just before giving a talk on the subject myself, had the feeling it’s more conscious of readers like you and me than a lay audience.
    I suspect a lot of readers won’t get past the half-way mark, but what do I know? It’s certainly succinct, thank God for a release from the obligatory anecdotes!

  17. cormac says:

    P.S. Re ‘ completely avoid it’, I’m not advocating such a thing, of course you can’t tell the story without some reference to e-w symmetry breaking, My point is one of balance; I suspect Jim’s book, like your own, has a little too much gauge theory for the lay reader, but that’s entirely subjective!

  18. ScentOfViolets says:

    The problem is that the basic idea of the Higgs mechanism (spontaneous breaking of a gauge symmetry) is inherently an abstract and tricky one. You’re probably not going to be able to communicate much about it to a lay reader, but if you just completely avoid it, you’ve written a book about the Higgs without actually explaining anything about what it is. You can’t win here,

    In reply to Cormac, this sort of thing happens all the time when it comes to explaining even basic physics to the lay public. A case in point is the notion of negative temperature. In a quick exposition you can get the idea across that temperature is basically just how fast things move on average, both because it’s easy to make little pictures in your head about what this means and because somehow it “makes sense”. But to try to explain temperature as the change in heat wrt to the change in entropy? Try to communicate that intelligibly to a lay audience in a few paragraphs or pages.

    Some stuff really is hard to explain, and it’s not just that people who do this sort of thing for a living making a poor job of it. Hmmm . . . did Asimov ever make a stab at this. Be interesting to see how the Great Explicator did it.

  19. paddy says:

    On explaining the “Higgs mechansim” to laity: I’ve always been sure this is straightforward…right up to the point I try to do it. As an example of someone far better equipped than I attempting this, I note Matt Strassler’s careful building up of a series a lecture articles (which are quite good) and which in the end should culminate in a “voila!” moment. Unfortunately, I suspect that said laity have long since lost the train of thought. Tomas Dorigo on the other hand (though likewise not successful yet) is struggling with finding the right analogy/metaphor for, if not the Higgs mechanism, then the concept of “natural”. During a pedagogical explanation (such as our education and MS’s approach) comes the problem that said laity are not students and may lose the train of thought. With a metaphorical approach comes a constant “not quite right” issue.

  20. Bernhard says:

    “From the experimental side, investigate the properties of the Higgs. ”

    Yes, well, the problem with this is that not all experimentalists can jump on this at the same time. Higgs was already a crowed subject in collaborations before the discovery. The Higgs properties must and will be measured, no danger there, but I guess this question really depends on the career stage you are. For very young experimentalists, jumping this Higgs crowd can perhaps lead to a job, if the person is very qualified, but I would think people entering the field dream with a bit more than that (in your mid-thirties that is probably your only dream, but anyway…).

  21. Igor Khavkine says:

    @ScentOfViolets: I think negative temperature can be disposed of in just a few lines of explanation. By historical accident, we’ve been using the “wrong” variable T (temperature). The “right” variable is β = 1/T (coldness). The second law of thermodynamics then states that thermal energy spontaneously flows only from low coldness to high coldness (valid over both positive and negative ranges). So, thinking in terms of negative β immediately explains some puzzling properties of negative T.

    @paddy: Perhaps the difficulty in finding a common sense (yet non-fallacious) analogy/metaphor for naturalness is a signal of the actual unnaturalness of the concept.

  22. Spencer Tracy Jr. says:

    Has anyone seen Leonard Susskinds Higgs Lecture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqNg819PiZY
    or the Cal Berkley Higgs lecture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jchDY6xuiZ0&feature=related

  23. fuzzy says:

    paddy, Igor
    i would be content with a physics explanation of naturalness, even if it were remote from common sense. i mean, something having to do with measurable stuff, rather than with mathematical constructs. in the last 20 years, i saw nothing like that, just the same lame arguments.

  24. paddy says:

    fuzzy,
    I could probably blather on about your point…but in the end I agree with you.

  25. Tammie Lee Sandoval says:

    Dear Igor Khavkine

    Thank you for that wonderful thought, that 1/T is “coldness”.
    I teach high school physics
    We have a thermodyamics seminar, and I’m going to use your idea.

  26. Chris Oakley says:

    1st law of thermodynamics: You can’t lose
    2nd law of thermodynamics: Yes, but you can’t win, either
    3rd law of thermodynamics: Except at absolute zero, and you can’t get that

  27. Igor Khavkine says:

    @Tammie, I hope you won’t use my blog comment as an authoritive reference! You may want to look up Appendix E in Kittel & Kroemer’s Thermal Physics textbook for a more detailed explanation of negative temperature along these lines.