What the Higgs Boson Owes to the World Wide Web
Quick: Name the greatest thing ever to come out of CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research.
If your answer is the Higgs boson, the existence of which was more or less confirmed this week by two teams working on parallel experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), I respectfully disagree. The greatest thing to come out of CERN is the World Wide Web, which was first conceived by former CERN computer scientists Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau in 1989 as a tool for creating a network of hypertext documents such as physics papers.
In fact, I’d argue that 1) Web was one of the key enabling technologies that allowed the LHC to be constructed in the first place, and 2) without the Web, average citizens would be having a much harder time understanding this week’s discovery.
It’s a provocative point of view, I know, so let me step through the two parts of my argument one at a time.
First, hats off to the armies of scientists at CERN. The world is rightly hailing the discovery of the Higgs boson as a keystone moment in science. The Higgs was the last particle needed to complete the “standard model” of particle physics, and if it’s real, it vindicates the leading theory about why elementary particles like quarks and electrons have mass.
Let’s be honest, though—it’s not like this was a big surprise. Smoking out the Higgs particle was the whole reason governments spent $10 billion to build the LHC, and so far, it seems to have the exact properties that physicists have been predicting since the 1960s. Not finding it at the predicted energies, or finding a Higgs-like particle that didn’t quite accord with the theory (thus forcing physicists to go back to the drawing board), would have been much more interesting news.
Then there’s the matter of the Higgs particle itself, which is a bit of a kludge. Physicists came up with the idea mainly so that they wouldn’t have to throw out an elegant set of equations about the symmetry of quantum interactions. The problem with these equations was that they had no provisions for mass; the new theory explained mass as the resistance certain particles encounter as they move through a pervasive, molasses-like “Higgs field.” (The Higgs boson is a manifestation of the Higgs field, briefly brought into being inside the LHC when protons slam into one another at nearly the speed of light.) Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica, calls the Higgs field “an unfortunate hack.” Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Sheldon Glashow has derided it as the standard model’s version of the toilet. “It fulfills an important and necessary function, but one is not proud of it and doesn’t want to show it off to the neighbors,” mathematician Peter Woit wrote in a paraphrase of Glashow’s objection.
But while the plumbing of the universe may not be pretty, we wouldn’t know if it was there at all without the LHC. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the LHC itself couldn’t have been built without the kind of international communication and collaboration that the Web enabled. My evidence is simple: The U.S. tried to build a bigger and better particle collider in Texas between 1987 and 1993—before the Web had really taken hold—and failed.
The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was to be constructed south of Dallas and would have boosted particles to far higher energies than those the LHC can reach. The Department of Energy spent $2 billion on the project and bored 14 miles of tunnels before Congress killed the project in 1993. If the project had gone forward on schedule, the Higgs boson would have been discovered years ago—at least, so says Harvard physicist Lisa Randall.
There are many ways to explain the cancellation: budget overruns, DOE mismanagement, and the skyrocketing cost of a competing project, the International Space Station, were all factors. But I’d argue that the physics community’s inability to mount an effective public-relations campaign to save the SSC was another big cause. If scientists had had the modern Web at their disposal, they could have educated the public directly about why the project was important, and perhaps spurred a grassroots movement to rescue it.
I’m not saying that Kickstarter could have saved the SSC. But the Web has clearly been a huge boon for the LHC, which was built between 1998 and 2008. Not only has it been an important channel for generating taxpayer support for the project in Europe, but it also has been the key repository for design and planning documents and scientific reports. It’s hard to see how a project spanning laboratories in Canada, France, India, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, the United States, and the U.K. could have been completed without the Web as a communications fabric. Finally, the Web has provided the model for the LHC Computing Grid, a vast network of 140 computing centers in 35 countries that collaborate to house the huge volumes of data generated by the collider’s detectors.
“Particle physics always has been pushing the envelope on communication,” said Sarah Eno, a University of Maryland scientist who is part of the CMS detector team at CERN, in 2006. “That’s why the World Wide Web was developed by the particle physics community. We’ve always had a tremendous need for communication.”
Speaking of communication, we’ve arrived at Part 2 of my argument. I’ve been following the coverage of the Higgs boson announcement all week, and frankly I think the broadcast media have been doing a bad job of explaining the science. It’s only on the Web and in the leading newspapers that the context and significance of the discovery have been adequately conveyed.
Let’s take a look at how PBS and NPR covered the July 4th announcement at CERN. I have immense respect for these two organizations and their reporters. But when it came time to explain what this $10 billion particle actually is and why we should care, both outlets fell short. Here’s Richard Harris, about 3 minutes and 30 seconds into a 4-minute report for NPR’s All Things Considered: “If it is indeed the Higgs boson, the discovery would provide evidence that there’s a field—the Higgs field—that permeates our universe and interacts with particles to create mass. It explains why the atoms that make us who we are actually have substance.”
And here’s ITN reporter Tom Clarke, who supplied a report broadcast by the PBS NewsHour: “Most of the things we’re familiar with in the universe have mass. But without the Higgs boson, there is no mass…. take away the Higgs, and there’s nothing left to hold the entire universe together.”
That’s all they said about the actual science. It’s not that these descriptions are wrong—they’re just incredibly vague. I won’t even bother you with the lame descriptions of the Higgs boson offered by the mainstream TV networks. (But Stephen Colbert’s take was amusing: to understand the excitement of physicists at CERN, he said, you “had to be there…and simultaneously not be there.”)
But on the Web—in which I include the websites of the major newspapers and other media organizations—writers have offered a variety of thorough and clever explanations of the Higgs boson, how it fits into the standard model, and how its associated field imparts mass. When the actual math is so inaccessible, there’s no alternative but to use analogies, and I’ve seen a number of great ones offered this week.
Particles moving through the Higgs field are like ping-pong balls rolling across a tray of sugar, said Ian Sample, science correspondent at The Guardian. It’s “not unlike a field of snow, in which trudging through impedes progress,” offered the BBC. Or maybe it’s more like actors moving through an ocean of paparazzi, said physicist Brian Greene for a PBS Nova segment: “Some particles, like unknown actors, pass through with ease. The paparazzi simply aren’t interested in them. Other particles, like superstars, have to push and press. The more those particles struggle to get through, the more they interact with the ocean and the more mass they gain.”
But my absolute favorite analogy came from Dennis Overbye at the New York Times: “Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.”
YouTube and Vimeo have also been a gold mine of physics information this week. At Minute Physics, cinematographer-physicist Henry Reich offers a three-minute overview of the Higgs that’s already been viewed 112,000 times. For an explanation of the Higgs boson that’s both accurate and fun, meanwhile, you can’t beat the cartoon version of roboticist Jorge Cham’s talk with CERN physicist Daniel Whiteson, embedded below. (The video is also online here and is part of Cham’s PhD Comics series.)
The medium CERN invented, in other words, turns out to be the best one for explaining the science CERN is uncovering. It doesn’t matter that the Higgs is a kludge, or that the standard model, while now “complete,” still offers a woefully inadequate explanation of the universe—it offers no clues about the nature of gravity, dark matter, or dark energy, for example. This just leaves more for us to chew on in coming years, as researchers create more Higgs bosons, study the different ways they decay, and debate the relationship between the standard model and more radical ideas such as string theory.
Maybe it’s a good thing that the SSC went unfinished in the 1990s. Without today’s Web, we might not have appreciated the results anyway.
Addendum July 10, 2012: On the flip side of the coin, Hank Campbell at Science 2.0 documents how the Web has been the scene of some unbelievably silly stories using the Higgs discovery as the jumping-off point for pseudoscientific click bait.