1. 2013

    Obligatory musings on the Nobel Prize

    You’ve probably heard that the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded yesterday to François Englert and Peter Higgs, for the theoretical prediction of the Higgs boson. You’ve probably also heard all the commotion leading up to the announcement, about how silly it is that Nobel Prizes are awarded only to three people. And you may have noticed that I didn’t weigh in.

    Frankly, that’s because I didn’t really care. I’m sure it’s a big deal to the recipients and non-recipients of the prize, but to the rest of us, the work done by all six authors stands on its own merits. The community of physicists doesn’t need a prize to tell them whose research leads to a better understanding of the universe — and in the end, even if you ask most Nobel Prize winners, understanding the universe is what makes doing science worthwhile, not getting recognition.

    If this year’s debate gets people to look more closely at the actual science being done, and put less emphasis on who gets labeled a Nobel Prize winner, that can only be a good thing.

    I’ll leave you with the links to the Nobel-winning …

  2. 2012

    Particles gone wild: the Higgs mechanism, uncensored

    If you’ve been following the news about the discovery of the Higgs boson, you’ve probably noticed that it gets reported in two ways. There are the actual presentations with the full details of the experiments, which can only be understood by particle physicists their authors well, I’m assuming somebody knows what all of it means. Anyway, then there’s the other way. Sensationalized science journalism. “Hey, look, it’s a God Particle!!!11!” And Other Misrepresentations.

    I think some of us want a middle ground, though. Certainly I would have, not too long ago. So if you’re not actually a physicist, but you’re also not afraid to look at a little math, this post is for you. (This is adapted from a post on Physics Stack Exchange.)

    Spontaneous symmetry breaking

    In order to understand the Higgs mechanism in detail, you need to know about two concepts that are involved in quantum field theory. The first is spontaneous symmetry breaking. This is actually a pretty simple idea: suppose that the physical laws that govern a system are symmetric in some way, meaning that you can make some kind of transformation on the system without changing the …