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affecting science, medicine and the environment | MIND

Lies Your Science Columnist Told You

November 16, 2000|K.C. COLE | Cole can be reached at

I've written before about the necessary lies that science writers tell, but even by my own standards, this was a whopper.

The reason was the usual one. The lie was relatively simple. The truth, as always, was a lot more interesting, but a lot more complicated, too.

The matter was mass. Physicists at a European particle accelerator, I wrote, were all excited because they think they've seen traces of an invisible substance that all particles slog through like worms crawling through mud. This so-called "Higgs field" makes particles sluggish, endowing them with mass. The physicists think they saw a chunk of this mud when they hit it with fast-moving particles, and a piece flew off and left some tracks in their detectors--like mud in your eye.

This chip off the mud would be an extremely important discovery because everybody wants to know the origin of mass. And Higgs, any self-respecting science writer will tell you, has the answer.

Of course, this is nonsense. Mass is hardly so simple.

Higgs provides "rest mass" (that is to say, "standing still" mass) to the fundamental particles that make up our world, like quarks and electrons. But there are other kinds of mass, with other sources.

For one thing, most of the ordinary stuff that makes up this newspaper and its loyal readers does not get its mass from the Higgs field at all. It gets its mass from--hold on to your hats--nothing at all! That is to say, the protons and neutrons that make up the bulk of atoms are in turn composed of quarks. And quarks on their own weigh practically nothing.

The mass of the proton and neutron comes, rather, from the frenetic bouncing around of quarks trapped in the bubbles in empty space, bouncing off the "walls."

As MIT physicist Frank Wilczek puts it: "You start with massless particles and you get mass. That to me is much more satisfying and compelling [than finding the Higgs particle.]"

In fact, Wilczek likes this idea so much that he has written in Physics Today that people who complain about gaining weight even though they eat practically nothing are, in essence, correct--and deserve our sympathy.

There are other ways to make mass. Consider the tiny particles that the physicists in Europe are bashing together to tweak the Higgs field and send the Higgs particle flying. These electrons start off their journey around a series of accelerator rings (the last one 17 miles around) as insubstantial lightweights. But by the time they collide at four places around the ring, they've gained 200,000 times their "weight" in mass.

Where did it come from? Good old E=MC2. Energy turns into mass. And no thanks to the Higgs.

Or think of black holes, among the most massive objects in the universe. And yet, this "massive" object is composed of nothing but the energy of severely warped space-time. No Higgs at work here either.

Still, the Higgs is critical because it gives rest mass. But is it really like mud? Hardly.

Mud wouldn't begin to explain why some particles--light particles, or photons for example--can fly through it without so much as slowing down to wave hello.

A better (if more complicated) analogy is that the Higgs field is the topology of the vacuum we live in--the mountains and valleys of the unseen landscape that determines everything else. Light particles are like water that runs freely through lowlands. Other particles get slowed down because they need to go around--or even over--mountains.

Which brings me to the last lie I have room to disclose in this column. This topology of the vacuum, I told you, can't ever go away because it's part of the ultimate "nothing" behind everything. That's not entirely true. Just as the Earth and all its mountains and valleys would melt down into an amorphous, molten blob if it got hot enough, so the Higgs, too, can "melt" under the right conditions--destroying everything.

In fact, the Higgs structure got here in the first place, scientists believe, when the early universe "froze" like water freezing into ice, creating the landscape we live in today.

Don't worry; it would take a temperature of a few million billion degrees to melt the Higgs field--a temperature not found today even in the centers of the hottest stars.

But don't ever let a science writer--even this one--tell you that discovering the Higgs particle will explain mass.

The concept of mass, at its most fundamental level, remains about as clear as mud. Or, as physicist Max Jammer concludes a new book on the subject: "In spite of all the strenuous efforts of physicists and philosophers, the notion of mass [is] still shrouded in mystery."

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