A View from the Shadows: The Truth and Beauty of the Higgs Boson

A visualization of what we knew well-enough about the Higgs (solid black lines), and not at all (dashed lines), circa June 2017. Understanding the Higgs will, in part, come from understanding how it interacts with the other known building blocks of reality.

In our book, “Reality in the Shadows,” Jim Gates, Frank Blitzer, and I take a look at the history of the Higgs particle, see the day the discovery was announced through the eyes of one of the co-authors (me), and explore what the Higgs might be besides being just another important subatomic particle.

In some future edition of the book, we can perhaps speak more definitively about the Higgs boson and the ultimate place it will take in the pantheon of human knowledge. For now, a 20-year (or longer) program of study is underway, initiated in 2012 and 2013, to map out all the properties of this fascinating particle. Discovering something is the first step. Now we must explore what we have found.

The Higgs is still veiled in shadow. We don’t know all its properties as precisely as we would like, and many we do not know at all. Could something new lurk in those unexplored crevasses of its nature? In this post, I’ll take you inside one of the shadows where light is beginning to shine, and we’ll see something of the truth and beauty of the Higgs boson.

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A View from the Shadows: The Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. This drawing is by Markus Maurer.

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” could almost, taken at face value, be the plot of a movie in the “Saw” series [1]. Prisoners in a cave, born into chains and forced forever to face a single wall, know nothing of the reality of what lives behind them. A fire somewhere behind the prisoners cast shadows that play on the walls. Our poor prisoners try to make sense of the reality of the world behind them merely through interpreting these shadows, never able to turn as see the world as it truly is.

It’s has the potential to be a terrible image, but softened a bit it can be a useful metaphor for thinking about what it means to use scientific inquiry to understand the reality of the cosmos. When we discover something using scientific inquiry and describe it mathematically, is that mathematical statement one approximating reality or truly describing reality as it is?

That question aside, Plato himself was not big into what we would now call “science” – in fact, he held many core beliefs that suppressed scientific thinking. In this post, another personal journey into “Reality in the Shadows,” I reflect on the satisfaction of wresting this metaphor our of Plato’s hands and giving it to a new generation. It is my hope that such a generation might only ever know the tools of scientific investigation for use in understanding the natural world. The world is filled with shadows, crying for explanation; I hope a new generation can appreciate how the tools of science can be used to make sense of those shadows in a reliable and reproducible way.

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What now for U.S. Graduate STEM Education?

Update: A Look at the Final Senate Bill

Dec. 3, 2017

The U.S. Senate, shown in session (1999). Early this morning, the Senate passed their version of tax reform, but the bill was not available in its final form in Congress.gov. An earlier version of this post drew conclusions based on what was sent to the Senate floor, not what survived their process. That is not amended in this blog post.

Based on comments from some people (thanks!), I had to revisit my consideration of the Senate bill passed on Saturday morning because the text I had access to was merely the one that was sent to the floor of the Senate on Nov. 28… it was far from the one finally voted on. In a sense, this demonstrates the ridiculousness of the procedure used to reset tax policy by this government: a bill, drafted within 48 hours by markup and amendment, voted on before anyone could read it or score it, and not even available on the standard congressional bill recording systems for the public to consider. But, I digress.

One commenter sent me the link to the bill [1], merely a scan of text. I had to run it through optical character recognition [2] to convert it to searchable text. This allowed me to look for mention of the provisions striking text or subsections from U.S. Tax Code section 117, the one dealing with qualified tuition reductions and qualified scholarships.

What did I find when I searched? Nothing. Indeed, the final draft of the Senate bill does not appear to touch at all this section of the U.S. Tax Code. So, my original post really still only applied to H.R. 1 as passed by the House of Representatives. 

There is still the conference process and reconciliation of the bill between the two houses of Congress. It’s possible these provisions could come over from the House version of the bill. Now is the time to contact your members of Congress to influence this process. But be vigilant. This Congress is clearly willing to make sweeping policy changes under cover of darkness in very short periods of time. The average American citizen’s window of influence is small, and rapidly closing.

Here is the text of the Senate version of the bill, as recovered from the scanned document by OCR. Beware! OCR is NOT 100% accurate and words and meaning may have been changed by this process. The Senate should not rush such large bills before they can be placed into their public accounting system, so I wouldn’t have to do inaccurate things like this just to search the bill.

[1] https://www.budget.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/TAX%20SUBSTITUTE.pdf

[2] https://askubuntu.com/questions/267920/how-do-i-convert-a-scanned-pdf-into-a-pdf-with-text#612182

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A View from the Shadows: Reading List

“Reality in the Shadows (or) What the Heck’s the Higgs” is meant to help a new audience come to discover a love of science and especially physics, or to welcome to the frontier those who already discovered that love a long time ago.

Reality in the Shadows” is a book that required years to write. I was the latest addition to the creative team, but it is very much a shared vision between three co-authors each with different perspectives on the subject matter. Jim Gates has a keen mathematical mind and delights in showing an audience that math is not as scary as they have been led to believe (or have wrongly convinced themselves). He sees the deeper connection between mathematics and reality. Frank Blitzer has a deep love of physics as a branch of science that seeks some of the deepest truths about the universe, and brings to bear on this a wealth of experience in computation, engineering, and modeling processes. I’m the experimental physicist and Higgs hunter, who believes that reliably gathered independent lines of evidence are the best way to support, or refute, an idea.

Despite our existing expertise, this book didn’t spring fully formed from the minds of the authors. It was a labor, and that labor benefited from learning. We, too, depended on those who had written things down before us. We drew from many sources to tell the story of the past, present, and possible futures of physics.

Below, find a reading list of material I used to support my writing contributions to the book. I hope some of these will allow you a much deeper and more technical exploration of some subjects in the book. Many are highly technical, but they provided the raw scientific material that I tried to communicate to a general audience.

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