Physicists Discover Never-Before Seen Particle Sitting On a Tabletop

I woke up this morning to find out that a new Higgs particle which could explain dark matter has been discovered, in a table-top experiment at Boston College. For some of the news stories about this, see here and here. Wikipedia now has an entry for this that explains:

The Axial Higgs boson is a fundamental particle whose discovery was announced by American researchers in Nature on June 8, 2022.[1]

Of course this is complete nonsense. The paper Nature just published (the preprint is here) is about a condensed matter experiment that has nothing at all to do with the Higgs (effective fields in a description of a condensed matter system have nothing to do with fundamental fields).

Who is responsible for misleading the public and discrediting science with this kind of behavior?

  • The authors, who begin their abstract with

    The observation of the Higgs boson solidified the standard model of particle physics. However, explanations of anomalies (for example, dark matter) rely on further symmetry breaking, calling for an undiscovered axial Higgs mode.

    which has nothing to do with the result in their paper.

  • The editors and referees at Nature, who should never have allowed such an abstract.
  • Boston College, which put out this press release, which starts out:

    Chestnut Hill, Mass. (6/8/2022) – An interdisciplinary team led by Boston College physicists has discovered a new particle

    In this case another institution, Oak Ridge, put out a much more responsible press release for the same paper, showing how to do this properly.

Universities desperately want to see this kind of story in the press, and there’s rarely any downside for the scientists and PR people who produce bogus such stories. Boston College needs to take action to retract the press release and make sure this doesn’t happen again. Nature should also take action to issue a correction stating this paper has nothing at all to do with the Higgs field and address the bad editing and refereeing that led to this.

Update: At least the Wikipedia article has been fixed.

Update: More physicists spreading hype about this here.

Update: The Higgs hype has been extended to add quantum computing hype, see Newly-Observed Higgs Mode Holds Promise in Quantum Computing, and the Wikipedia article now includes this new, extra hype.

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19 Responses to Physicists Discover Never-Before Seen Particle Sitting On a Tabletop

  1. Peter says:

    I assume that it was BC and not BU that put out that press release. That aside, this is tremendously, tremendously depressing.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Peter,
    Thanks for pointing out the mistake attributing the press release to BU rather than BC, fixed. Apologies to BU.

  3. WD says:

    I am guessing that there isn’t a downside in the short term for the parties involved. However, in the medium-long term the damage that this kind of thing does is enormous – those of us old enough remember how the ridiculous hype spread by many practitioners condemned the AI discipline to decades in the cold, and we can’t help but having a sickening déjà vu feeling concerning AI (again!) and quantum computing. If this percolates to fundamental physics research as well we are going to be in a world of trouble.

  4. paddy says:

    Not quite the Jesuitical logic I am familiar with.

  5. Peter Shor says:

    Weren’t there similar misleading articles when the Majorana quasiparticle was “discovered”, also in condensed matter?. (“Discovered” here is in quotes because the result was later retracted.)

    Let me add that the condensed matter versions of both the Majorana and this Higgs boson are important discoveries — much more interesting than the entanglement experiments that have been claimed to connect to quantum gravity. However press releases and the press should not confuse these condensed matter quasi-particles with high energy physics particles.

    Since there are probably a lot more unknown condensed matter phenomena to be discovered which can be couched in terms of unusual quasi-particles, we should be prepared for more of these types of news releases.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Peter Shor,
    The Majorana case was somewhat different in that there wasn’t a significant attempt to mix it up with particle physics and dark matter. Also, there the condensed matter system was of huge practical interest as a possible topological qubit.

    There’s by now a very long history of misleading press stories of this kind related to string theory, typically of the form “string theory finally related to experiment”, based on the appearance in some condensed matter system of something that had some sort of analogy with something that appeared in something related to string theory. At least this story didn’t do that (they easily could have, adding something about axions in string theory), perhaps a reflection of the fall in popularity of string theory hype.

  7. Peter Shor says:

    Peter Woit,

    I definitely remember reading news articles about the Majorana particle discovery that mixed up fundamental particles and quasi-particles (here’s one), but looking back, you’re right — it looks like the universities’ actual press releases didn’t do this.

  8. John says:

    The title of this blog post is much more misleading than the authors’ abstract. I (seriously) think that you should edit it.

  9. SteveB says:

    Only after reading the Oak Ridge release, I see that they detected a quasi-particle, not a fundamental particle.

    Why is the name “Higgs” used here for a quasi-particle as in “the axial Higgs mode”?

  10. Peter Woit says:

    SteveB,
    I’m not sure exactly what they’re doing in this paper, but assume that the usage is by analogy to the particle physics setup, where there’s a Higgs field acted on by a gauge symmetry. Some modes are gauge modes, but there’s also a gauge-invariant degree of freedom, and this is the Higgs mode, excitations are Higgs particles.

    In the simplest case (Abelian Higgs model), the Higgs field takes values in the plane, lowest energy on a circle, gauge mode is motion around the circle, Higgs mode is radial motion.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    John,
    If you click through the first link, you’ll see that the blog post title is just exactly the title of a press article about this, also the title of a Slashdot post about this
    https://science.slashdot.org/story/22/06/08/2224227/physicists-discover-never-before-seen-particle-sitting-on-a-tabletop

    When I write about a press article, I often use the title of the press article as the title of the post. Doing this in this case was intended as a bit of a joke, since for most of my usual readers just reading that title should have made clear this was comically absurd hype.

  12. Anonymous says:

    There is in fact no gauge symmetry or Higgs mechanism at all in the system studied in this article. The authors study a charge density wave material in which the (global) translation symmetry is broken (to be contrasted with superconductors, where there is actual gauge symmetry). The phase/goldstone mode remains intact and what the authors study is the corresponding amplitude mode. In fact, one of the referees argues that such a mode should simply be referred to as an amplitude mode, not a Higgs mode, but the authors assert that this terminology–referring to an amplitude mode with no Higgs mechanism as a Higgs mode–has been used previously in the literature, and the matter was dropped (see peer review file available with the article, referee 3).

  13. Alessandro Strumia says:

    It’s a shame that Nature and Boston College did not claim that their new Dark Matter axial Higgs confirms string theory

  14. Adam says:

    @Anonymous: this battle has been lost ten years ago. The first appearance I am aware of in condensed matter is PRB 84, 174522 (2011) by Podolsky et al, where they call it an “amplitude (Higgs) mode” in the title, but mostly “Higgs” in the text.
    It became a ” ‘Higgs’ amplitude mode” in Nature 487, 454 (2012), and soon after, the term amplitude was finally dropped, e.g. PRL 110, 170403 (2013).

    Having worked on this problem, I tried at first to fight not to call that a Higgs mode at all. But when everyone else does, what can you do (I still say in my talks on the subject that this Higgs mode has nothing to do with the Higgs boson since there is no gauge field though).

    I guess the referee dropped the matter because there wasn’t much they could do about it (especially if the other referees did not complain).

  15. vmarko says:

    @Adam: The issue is not the common terminology of the “Higgs mode” or whatever, but the fact that (in the abstract) the authors make an explicit connection to the Standard Model and dark matter, both of which are completely unrelated to the topic they have actually studied in the paper.

    Using the same terminology for different things is not an excuse to confuse and conflate those things. The referees should have pushed against that part of the abstract, regardless of the commonplace terminology.

    Best, 🙂
    Marko

  16. Peter Woit says:

    Anonymous/Adam,
    I hadn’t realized how bad the Higgs hype problem in condensed matter had gotten, that people were calling the amplitude of a field a “Higgs” mode when there is no gauge symmetry. Paying a little bit more attention, I also realized that the “Higgs” in this case isn’t even a scalar field, it’s a vector field. Calling the amplitude of a vector field in a theory with no gauge symmetry a “Higgs” is just completely absurd.

  17. Pingback: Observación potencial de una cuasipartícula de tipo Higgs axial en telururos de tierras raras - La Ciencia de la Mula Francis

  18. Adam says:

    Peter: it is not as bad as you say. It is a scalar field under spacetime transformation, but it has N (typically 2) internal degrees of freedom, with O(N) symmetry (equivalent to U(1) for N=2).
    In the symmetry broken phase, there are N-1 Goldstone modes (that would be eaten by the gauge field if it were present), and a remaining one, which would be the Higgs field. It used to be called the amplitude mode because it is related to the longitudinal fluctuations of the order parameter (along its vev), which, at least at a mean-field level, is equivalent to the fluctuations of the amplitude of the order parameter.

    So the problem is “only” that people use the term Higgs even though there is no gauge field and thus no Higgs mechanism.

  19. Blake Stacey says:

    The Wikipedia article appears to have been deleted.

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