The Higgs Story-Part 2: What ordinary matter is made of

Everyday matter is made up of protons, neutrons, electrons, and something called electron neutrinos. These particles interact with each other via one or more of four forces: gravity, electromagnetic (which is the unified force of electricity and magnetism), strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. Almost all of everyday life could be explained pretty well with just this short list of four particles and four forces. [Read more…]

The Higgs Story-Part 1: The three faces of Higgs

Around the time of reports last year about the discovery of the Higgs particle at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), reader Anthony in a private email to me asked a good question. The Higgs particle is repeatedly referred to as the means by which all other particles get their mass. If not for the Higgs, elementary particles like the electron, muon, and the like would be massless and like all massless particles would be zipping around at the speed of light. At present, there is no explanation for why these particles have mass at all let alone the actual values that they do have. According to current theory, it is the Higgs phenomenon that gives all the other particles their mass. So how does that happen? [Read more…]


A press release from CERN cautiously announces the discovery of what may be the long-sought Higgs boson, with a spokesperson being quoted as saying, “The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found.” [Read more…]

Narrowing the search for the Higgs particle

It looks like the search for the elusive Higgs particle is getting close. The so-called Standard Model of particle led to the existence of the Higgs being proposed 1964 as an explanation of how elementary particles get their mass and it is the final particle of the model to be yet directly detected. If it is not found, that would require us to re-think some important theories of particle physics.

They are hoping for something definite to emerge within the next year. But if the Higgs is not found by then, the search may drag on longer because concluding that something is not there is more difficult than concluding that it is.

It’s about time: Moratorium on federal death penalty

In a welcome move, US attorney general Merrick Garland has imposed a moratorium on the federal death penalty.

The US attorney general has imposed a moratorium on all federal executions while the justice department reviews its policies and procedures on capital punishment. Civil rights and criminal justice advocates have been pushing for a halt following a wave of controversial executions under the Trump administration.

Citing the disproportionate impact of capital punishment on people of color, and deep controversy over the drugs used to put people to death, the attorney general, Merrick Garland, ordered a temporary pause on scheduling executions.

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Moving to end the death penalty

There were many things that I hated about the Trump administration but one of the most gratuitously revolting things was how in its last days, we had the grotesque spectacle of Trump and his attorney general Bill Barr rushing through the executions of people on federal death row. There was absolutely no reason for this killing spree except that with Joe Biden being against the death penalty, Trump and Barr mush have feared that those people might be reprieved once Biden came into office. Trump and Barr did not want to give them any chance of life. It was truly sickening. One should never take away someone’s life. To rush to do so when you did not have to reveals the existence of a deeply disturbed mentality.
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Why Scientists Should Be Atheists revisited

My Oxford University Press blog post on Why Scientists Should Be Atheists generated an interesting discussion in the comments of my blog post here that linked to it. One issue that was raised was my use of the word ‘should’ and why I was singling out scientists with that imperative. Why should scientists apply the same standards they use in science to everything in life? Of course, no one can be forced to do so and people can (and do) compartmentalize their thinking to enable them to be scientists by day and believers in all manner of supernatural entities by night (so to speak).
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The extended mind and the problem of consciousness

How the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience (i.e., what is it like to be a bird or dog or whatever) has been labeled as ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness. Science journaloist Michael Hanlon writes that claims to be making progress on solving this using the latest developments in neuroscience, computation, and evolutionary science have proved to be premature.

For long periods, it is as if science gives up on the subject in disgust. But the hard problem is back in the news, and a growing number of scientists believe that they have consciousness, if not licked, then at least in their sights.

Despite such obstacles, the idea is taking root that consciousness isn’t really mysterious at all; complicated, yes, and far from fully understood, but in the end just another biological process that, with a bit more prodding and poking, will soon go the way of DNA, evolution, the circulation of blood, and the biochemistry of photosynthesis.

Committed materialists believe that consciousness arises as the result of purely physical processes — neurones and synapses and so forth. But there are further divisions within this camp.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Daniel Dennett wrote that: ‘Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery.’ A few years later, Chalmers added: ‘[It] may be the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe.’ They were right then and, despite the tremendous scientific advances since, they are still right today. I do not think that the evolutionary ‘explanations’ for consciousness that are currently doing the rounds are going to get us anywhere. These explanations do not address the hard problem itself, but merely the ‘easy’ problems that orbit it like a swarm of planets around a star. The hard problem’s fascination is that it has, to date, completely and utterly defeated science. Nothing else is like it. We know how genes work, we have (probably) found the Higgs Boson; but we understand the weather on Jupiter better than we understand what is going on in our own heads. This is remarkable.

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The uncertain future of particle physics

The field known as particle physics has as an important goal the search for the fundamental constituents of matter and it has proved very fruitful, leading us to our present understanding of matter being made up of quarks, gluons, and leptons. Pretty much everyone has heard of the Large Hadron Collider, the massive accelerator of radius 27 km near Geneva that was built mainly to search for the Higgs boson, and found it. But as is always the case with physics, immediately after any discovery comes the question: What next? And in this case, the answer is not clear. The Higgs was the last remaining particle in the Standard Model of particle physics so in one sense one can say that that chapter has come to end. But is the end merely that of the chapter or is it the end of that particular physics book, that we have reached the end of particle physics and all that remains are just mopping up operations?
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