2013/14 - John Wykes and the Higgs boson
Does symmetry govern the universe? 

John Wykes, an Edinburgh graduate, came into our lives about 1970 when he won the heart of Catherine Woods who came from Galway to work with Dick for her PhD.    John was working for his PhD in Peter Farago's Atomic Physics group.

Decades later, long after he had retired as Head of Physics with the Coal Board, John wrote some articles for a Derbyshire amateur astronomers' magazine about a very hot topic - the award of the Nobel prize to our former colleague Peter Higgs.

Hearing from Catherine that these articles had been well received, I asked for a copy.  Here's what John wrote:

I'm trying to explain to non-physicists what all the fuss over the Higgs boson is about. The Higgs is the final piece of the jigsaw in the revolutionary structure in fundamental physics that has come to be known as The Standard Model. This Model is said to be the greatest intellectual construction ever achieved by mankind, so you can guess that it takes a little work to understand. To appreciate the Higgs boson discovery one has to have some visibility of this great structure. It just can't be explained in single page articles – they are inevitably uninformative or baffling, or both! Even the headline, that the Higgs boson is the particle that gives everything else mass, is neither accurate nor the essence of the discoveries of the Model. The Standard Model requires that all particles start out having no intrinsic mass and then, yes, the Higgs mechanism makes some of them appear as if they do, but most of the mass we experience comes from the behaviour of particles that get no mass from Higgs. The really interesting thing is why the Standard Model demands that particles start out having no intrinsic mass at all, and why the Higgs mechanism is needed to give it to some of them.

The success of the Model gives support to the idea that the workings of nature are governed, deep down, by the demands of symmetries. Some longer popular treatments do give an idea of the importance of symmetry, but even there, I find that they fail to give an explanation detailed enough for the lay reader to feel they have any grasp of the deep role that symmetry plays and how the Higgs mechanism helps out where symmetry seems to fail. They also don't highlight what, in my view, is potentially a tectonic shift in the relationship between mathematics and the nature of physics discovery.

Whilst my own work has been mainly in low energy quantum theory and in nuclear geophysics, I have kept a distant watch on the development of the Standard Model ever since working in the same Department as Peter Higgs 40+ years back. My hope is that this distance, whilst precluding the detailed knowledge of the sort one acquires when actually working with the Model, may help give a simpler, and hopefully thereby more accessible, perspective on the core logic. The text was originally written for amateur astronomers of the Mansfield and Sutton Astronomical Society in the UK (readers may detect some astronomy-directed references); their membership is characterised solely by their enthusiasm for astronomy rather than qualifications in physics and maths, so it assumes no such prior knowledge.
You can download John's complete article here
From Galileo to Higgs – A Detective Story in Symmetry.
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