The Big Show of Boasters, Parroters and Fake Experts
Physik-Nobelpreis für ein Phantom? Alexander Unzicker, der die Teilchenphysik bereits kritisch beleuchtet hatte (siehe in Telepolis: Quo vadis, Teilchenphysik?), hat nun auch auf Englisch ein provokatives Werk vorgelegt. Zeitgleich mit dem Nobelpreis für Physik 2013 erschien sein Buch "The Higgs Fake - How Particle Physicists Fooled the Nobel Committee", in dem er die Entdeckung des CERN scharf angreift. Wir stellen hier Kapitel 12 vor, in dem er sich die populären Darstellungen zum Higgs-Teilchen vornimmt.
The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.John Maynard Keynes
The amount of propaganda distributed about the Higgs is overwhelming. Let’s start with an almost amusing example. Michio Kaku, a famous string popularizer, said in an interview on CBS news that the Higgs particle was the "missing piece of creation" and it "put the bang in the big bang." Whoever wonders about such claims should watch Kaku on Fox news, where he predicted the LHC would "show that our universe has collided with others where other laws of Nature held", to "tell us what happened before Genesis chapter 1:1" and so on.
This is considered to be blatant nonsense even by particle physicists. Matt Strassler, a member of the CMS collaboration, complained about Kaku’s "spectacular distortions" and wrote in his blog, "worse, Kaku presumably knew it was wrong." Well, scientists know, to say it with a quote of Barack Obama, who is the bullshitter. The problem for people like Strassler is that, at the end of the day, it’s not easy to draw a line between Kaku and themselves. Kaku certainly represents the top level of loudmouth who does not even care to parrot reliably when making a spectacle of himself. But on the other side of the spectrum, the person who oversees both experiment and physics, the person who might explain thoroughly what happened at the LHC, just doesn’t exist. It’s too complicated.
Matt Strassler, in his blog, serves the public with seemingly detailed information on how the whole experiment works, but once you try to point to a specific problem (like the unsolved issue of radiating charges), he also declares that things are complicated, unfortunately. The idea that the entire model is on sandy ground just doesn’t pass through his mind.
When I wrote in an email to him that Feynman had admitted that the problem is still there, he literally answered, "I am afraid even Feynman is out of date" and "There’s been just a tiny little bit of progress over the ensuing decades of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, and 10s." You see, these particle physicists are just wired differently. They think that Nature’s problems become resolved by acclamation if they ape each other’s arrogance long enough.
Folks like Fabiola Giannotti or Joe Incandela, the speakers of ATLAS and CMS, are among the relatively innocent ones. When Incandela said that the discovery was like finding a grain of sand in a swimming pool full of sand, he was aware of the boldness of such a claim, his face expressing, "Please, believe us!"
Much more shrewd was Rolf-Dieter Heuer with his well-planned joke that he had forgotten the name of the particle they had discovered. He is a master in making the public believe wrong things without lying explicitly. The jewel in the crown was his invention of the notorious hair-splitting between the Higgs boson and a Higgs boson, the standard model Higgs boson, and other (all sorts of non-standard, or what?) Higgs bosons. And Heuer did not lift a finger when the false news (also by "official standards," not mine!) that the Higgs particle had been discovered spread around the world in 2012. I think he just does his job, as sport functionaries and pharmaceutical lobbyists do. But he shouldn’t be treated as someone with the credibility and reputation of a scientist.
Bookmakers and Buckmakers
There are many, too, who have some reputation in other fields of physics, who, though not having a clue about the experiment themselves, jump in and make a buck with their books which don’t do more than parroting.
The most insolent example is probably Lisa Randall, string-shooting star at Harvard and darling of science journalists. The sparsely covered 46 pages of her book contain just about half the characters of the Wikipedia entry on the Higgs. It takes some brashness to sell that. About the content, she had almost nothing to say in a recent interview.
Randall seems such a sympathetic person as long as she talks about freshman physics or things like education, but when the interviewer asked the right questions (What did the LHC do for your theories? Are we going to reach some strange point where our ability to test these theories is limited? Isn’t the future of your field so abstruse?"), she becomes increasingly nervous while pussyfooting around questions, and is downright lying when she says that money limits the testability of modern theories, rather than string theory’s continuous failure to predict anything. If the interviewer had asked her about the detector components that delivered the evidence for the thing she hyped, she would probably just have had her mouth agape. Another parroter coaxed the 89-year-old Leon Lederman to appear as the first (!) author of a book, Beyond the God Particle, trying a rehash of Lederman’s 20 year old bestseller.1
Sean Carroll from the California Institute of Technology represents the cosmologists’ chumming up with particle physics, talking about useless theoretical fancy while praising the standard models. He tried to crop his share of the Higgsteria with a book, The Particle at the End of the Universe, as if he wanted to say, "Hey, we cosmologists have also hyped a lot of nonsense, don’t forget that."
His presentation is more worked out than Randall’s, it is ironic that in a way Carroll has collected all the information about the Higgs that is available - nevertheless it is the kind of rehash thousands of physicists could do, once they had read (and come to believe) the gospel of the standard model. Carroll, like most, then wanders off into wishful thinking about possible SUSY particles ("The hunt is on for yet more symmetries"), a stuff that would help cosmologists if it is declared to be the long sought-after dark matter (probably they just don’t understand gravity).2
In the end, people like Carroll are not honest, they are fake experts. Their own scientific activity should reveal to them in the first place what it means to understand, in contrast to repeating sciolism. And if asked to talk about something you don’t understand (because nobody understands what the heck the Higgs has to do with reality), you had better shut up. But the smart science presenters want to keep the semblance that physics has understood the world, with their posturing as untouchable wizards which would upset any of the deep thinkers of the past, who, in Carroll's place, would tell us that we haven’t advanced at all since 1930.
Most of the documentary stuff about the Higgs is about uninteresting meta-information that you can impart even if you don’t understand anything of physics. The LHC has a circumference of 27 kilometers, it cost 9 billion dollars, its energy bill is like that of a major city, the protons cross the Swiss-French border, it is being paid for by 88 countries all over the world, the beam size is less than a needle and so on. A pleasant read for any pinhead.
The underground beam, with the energy of a train, is 100 meters below ground, there are more than 5 million wires, it runs in an evacuated tube, and the temperature there is "one of the coldest points in the universe" (liquid helium technology from 1911, it’s quantum optics instead that holds the low temperature records.) All this is technology, not science. And psychology, rather than science it becomes when one tells a heart-rending story about the scientists involved in the experiment, as the New York Times did. It is interesting to read about emotions and tears, but it has nothing to do with their physics output, which is absent.
Almost every documentary about CERN mentions the big bang that presumably happened some 13.7 billion years ago, but this is again meta- if not dis-information. This figure is the product of the Hubble telescope, you particle guys contributed nothing! But that doesn’t prevent them from telling the fairy tale of the big bang being simulated in Geneva (actually, we are unable to simulate the interior of a common star like the sun). And it is easy to mock nuts who predicted the end of the world when the LHC was started up.
None of these documentaries say a word about the crucial factors of the discovery, on triggering, detector components, their material physics and artifacts, the energy calibration of the detectors on which everything depends, on the computer code which eliminates the background multiply stronger than the signal, and so on. Nothing. Why? Simply because none of the fake experts had anything to say about those topics.