For Nobel, They Can Thank the ‘God Particle’
The “God particle” became the prize particle on Tuesday.
Two theoretical physicists who suggested that an invisible ocean of energy suffusing space is responsible for the mass and diversity of the particles in the universe won the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday morning. They are Peter W. Higgs, 84, of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and François Englert, 80, of the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.
The theory, elucidated in 1964, sent physicists on a generation-long search for a telltale particle known as the Higgs boson, popularly known (though not among physicists) as the God particle. The chase culminated last year with the discovery of this particle, which confers mass on other particles, at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Switzerland. Dr. Higgs and Dr. Englert will split a prize of $1.2 million, to be awarded in Stockholm on Dec. 10.
“You may imagine that this is not unpleasant,” Dr. Englert said in an early morning news conference.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences had not been able to contact Dr. Higgs, who had vowed he would not be available Tuesday. A friend and fellow physicist, Alan Walker, said in a phone interview on Tuesday morning that Dr. Higgs, who does not use a cellphone or a computer, had gone off by himself for a few days without saying where, and that he would return Friday.
Dr. Higgs, he said, is a modest man who likes his own company and the ability to come and go without a fuss. Even before the announcement, he said, one journalist had invaded Dr. Higgs’s building looking for an interview. “He was sent away with a flea in his ear,” Dr. Walker said.
In a statement released later by the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Higgs pronounced himself “overwhelmed,” saying, “I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.”
The prize had been expected ever since physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider announced on July 4, 2012, that they had discovered a particle matching the description of the Higgs. Thousands of particle physicists worked on the project, and for many of them the Nobel is a crowning validation.
Fabiola Gianotti, who led one of the teams at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, called the prize “a great emotion and a great satisfaction,” adding that it was nice that the experiments were cited in the award. “The young physicists are superexcited.”
The Higgs was the last missing ingredient of the Standard Model, a suite of equations that has ruled particle physics for the last half-century, explaining everything from the smell of a rose to the ping when your computer boots up. According to this model, the universe brims with energy that acts like a cosmic molasses, imbuing the particles that move through it with mass, the way a bill moving through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming more and more ponderous and controversial.
Without the Higgs field, many elementary particles, like electrons, would be massless and would zip around at the speed of light. There would be no atoms and no us.
For scientists, the discovery of the Higgs (as physicists call it) affirmed the view of a cosmos ruled by laws of almost diamond-like elegance and simplicity, but in which everything interesting — like us — is a result of lapses or flaws in that elegance. That is the view that emerged in a period of feverish and tangled progress after World War II, in which the world’s physicists turned their energies from war to looking under the hood of nature, using the tools of quantum field theory.
At the heart of this quest was an ancient idea, the concept of symmetry, and how it was present in the foundations of physics but hidden in the world as we experience it. In art and nature, something is symmetrical if it looks the same when you move it one way or another, like a snowflake rotated 60 degrees; in science and math, a symmetry is something that does not change when you transform the system, like the length of an arrow when you turn it around or shoot it.
In 1954, the theorists Chen Ning Yang and Robert L. Mills at the Brookhaven National Laboratory concluded that all fundamental forces were the result of nature’s trying to maintain symmetries — for example, the conservation of electric charge in the case of electromagnetism, or the conservation of momentum and energy in the case of Einstein’s gravity.
By then, however, two more forces of nature had been added to the roster: the so-called weak nuclear force, responsible for some types of radioactive decay, and the strong force, which holds atomic nuclei together. In quantum field theory, forces are transmitted by bundles of energy called bosons. By quantum rules, the mass of a boson is related to the range of the force: the more massive the boson, the shorter its reach.
When the physicist Sheldon Glashow, now of Boston University, wrote down a theory in 1961 that explained the weak force and electromagnetism as manifestations of a single “electroweak” force, the math indicated that the particles that transmitted the nuclear part of that force should be massless, like the photons that transmit light and can spread across the universe. But the nuclear forces barely reach across an atomic nucleus, suggesting that their carriers should be among the most massive of elementary particles. How did the carriers of the weak force become so massive while their brothers the photons remained free and easy?
It was Yoichiro Nambu of the University of Chicago, who would win a Nobel in 2008, who suggested that the fault might lie not in the laws of physics but in how those laws play out in the real world. By a process called symmetry breaking, a situation that started out balanced can wind up unbalanced.
Imagine, for example, a pencil standing on its tip; it will eventually fall over and point only one way out of many possibilities. The mass of the boson can be thought of as the energy released when the pencil falls.
In 1964, three papers by the different physicists showed how this could work by envisioning a kind of cosmic molasses filling space. Particles trying to go through it would acquire mass.
The first to publish this idea were Dr. Englert and his colleague Robert Brout, who died in 2011. Dr. Englert was born in Etterbeek, Belgium, in 1932, and he studied engineering and physics at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, emerging with a Ph.D. in 1959. While a research associate at Cornell, he bonded with Dr. Brout, a professor there. When Dr. Englert returned to Belgium, Dr. Brout went with him.
While they were working on their paper, Dr. Higgs, a young theorist born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, was working on his own version of the theory.
His paper was rejected by the journal Physics Letters, which was published at CERN, as having no relevance to physics. So he rewrote it and sent it to a rival journal, Physical Review Letters. Along the way he added a paragraph at the end, noting that the theory predicted a new particle, a spinless creature of indeterminate mass, which would become famous as the Higgs boson.
That paper was accepted with the proviso that he mention Dr. Englert and Dr. Brout’s paper, which had beaten him into print by seven weeks.
Meanwhile, three other physicists — Tom Kibble of Imperial College, London; Carl Hagen of the University of Rochester; and Gerald Guralnik of Brown University — were writing their own paper. Just as they were about to send it in, mail that had been delayed by a postal strike came in, containing journals with the other two papers, the one by Dr. Higgs and the one by Dr. Englert and Dr. Brout.
The groups and their friends have been arguing ever since over exactly who did and said what. In 2004, Dr. Higgs, Dr. Brout and Dr. Englert won the Wolf Prize, considered an important forerunner of the Nobel. In 2010, all six physicists shared the Sakurai Prize of the American Physical Society, another big award. Dr. Brout might logically have shared the Nobel if he were alive today; the prize is not awarded posthumously.
The Higgs boson became a big deal after Steven Weinberg made it the linchpin in a 1967 paper that unified the electromagnetic and weak forces along the lines proposed by Dr. Glashow earlier, earning himself a share of the 1979 Nobel Prize.
Along the way, the Higgs boson achieved a presence in pop culture rare in abstract physics. To the eternal dismay of his colleagues, Leon Lederman, the former director of Fermilab, called it the “God particle” in his book of the same name, written with Dick Teresi. (He later said that he had wanted to call it the “goddamn particle.”) Journalists and the news media could not resist the nickname, however, and many particle physicists grudgingly admitted that the name had brought a dose of drama and public excitement to a field almost breathtakingly austere and abstract.
The July 4 announcement last year ended that tension. That day was also the first time that Dr. Higgs and Dr. Englert had ever met. Indeed, the newly discovered boson so far fits the theoretical predictions so well that physicists are a little dismayed. They were hoping for a surprise or two that would tell them how to improve on the Standard Model.
The award on Tuesday sets the stage for the Swedish academy to figure out someday how to recognize the 10,000 scientists who built the Large Hadron Collider and sifted 2,000 trillion subatomic fireballs for a few dozen traces of the precious godlike particle.
“We are of course thrilled — the first big discovery of the L.H.C., for which we built the giant machine and detectors,” said Maria Spiropulu, a professor at the California Institute of Technology and a member of one of the CERN teams that tracked the Higgs particle down. “For the experimentalists,” she added, “we are kind of used to being excluded from the Nobel.”
I have not seen this multi-media happening. I did work with Adam Curtis some years back on “Century of the Self,” a four-part BBC series based loosely on my PR! A Social History of Spin.
I thought some of you might find this either entertaining, annoying or inspired. Click “off” if you get tired.
New York Times
N.S.A. Gathers Data on Social Connections of U.S. Citizens
By JAMES RISEN and LAURA POITRAS
WASHINGTON — Since 2010, the National Security Agency has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with officials.
The spy agency began allowing the analysis of phone call and e-mail logs in November 2010 to examine Americans’ networks of associations for foreign intelligence purposes after N.S.A. officials lifted restrictions on the practice, according to documents provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor.
The policy shift was intended to help the agency “discover and track” connections between intelligence targets overseas and people in the United States, according to an N.S.A. memorandum from January 2011. The agency was authorized to conduct “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata without having to check foreignness” of every e-mail address, phone number or other identifier, the document said. Because of concerns about infringing on the privacy of American citizens, the computer analysis of such data had previously been permitted only for foreigners.
The agency can augment the communications data with material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data, according to the documents. They do not indicate any restrictions on the use of such “enrichment” data, and several former senior Obama administration officials said the agency drew on it for both Americans and foreigners.
N.S.A. officials declined to say how many Americans have been caught up in the effort, including people involved in no wrongdoing. The documents do not describe what has resulted from the scrutiny, which links phone numbers and e-mails in a “contact chain” tied directly or indirectly to a person or organization overseas that is of foreign intelligence interest.
The new disclosures add to the growing body of knowledge in recent months about the N.S.A.’s access to and use of private information concerning Americans, prompting lawmakers in Washington to call for reining in the agency and President Obama to order an examination of its surveillance policies. Almost everything about the agency’s operations is hidden, and the decision to revise the limits concerning Americans was made in secret, without review by the nation’s intelligence court or any public debate. As far back as 2006, a Justice Department memo warned of the potential for the “misuse” of such information without adequate safeguards.
An agency spokeswoman, asked about the analyses of Americans’ data, said, “All data queries must include a foreign intelligence justification, period.”
“All of N.S.A.’s work has a foreign intelligence purpose,” the spokeswoman added. “Our activities are centered on counterterrorism, counterproliferation and cybersecurity.”
The legal underpinning of the policy change, she said, was a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that Americans could have no expectation of privacy about what numbers they had called. Based on that ruling, the Justice Department and the Pentagon decided that it was permissible to create contact chains using Americans’ “metadata,” which includes the timing, location and other details of calls and e-mails, but not their content. The agency is not required to seek warrants for the analyses from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
N.S.A. officials declined to identify which phone and e-mail databases are used to create the social network diagrams, and the documents provided by Mr. Snowden do not specify them. The agency did say that the large database of Americans’ domestic phone call records, which was revealed by Mr. Snowden in June and caused bipartisan alarm in Washington, was excluded. (N.S.A. officials have previously acknowledged that the agency has done limited analysis in that database, collected under provisions of the Patriot Act, exclusively for people who might be linked to terrorism suspects.)
But the agency has multiple collection programs and databases, the former officials said, adding that the social networking analyses relied on both domestic and international metadata. They spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the information was classified.
The concerns in the United States since Mr. Snowden’s revelations have largely focused on the scope of the agency’s collection of the private data of Americans and the potential for abuse. But the new documents provide a rare window into what the N.S.A. actually does with the information it gathers.
A series of agency PowerPoint presentations and memos describe how the N.S.A. has been able to develop software and other tools — one document cited a new generation of programs that “revolutionize” data collection and analysis — to unlock as many secrets about individuals as possible.
The spy agency, led by Gen. Keith B. Alexander, an unabashed advocate for more weapons in the hunt for information about the nation’s adversaries, clearly views its collections of metadata as one of its most powerful resources. N.S.A. analysts can exploit that information to develop a portrait of an individual, one that is perhaps more complete and predictive of behavior than could be obtained by listening to phone conversations or reading e-mails, experts say.
Phone and e-mail logs, for example, allow analysts to identify people’s friends and associates, detect where they were at a certain time, acquire clues to religious or political affiliations, and pick up sensitive information like regular calls to a psychiatrist’s office, late-night messages to an extramarital partner or exchanges with a fellow plotter.
“Metadata can be very revealing,” said Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University. “Knowing things like the number someone just dialed or the location of the person’s cellphone is going to allow them to assemble a picture of what someone is up to. It’s the digital equivalent of tailing a suspect.”
The N.S.A. had been pushing for more than a decade to obtain the rule change allowing the analysis of Americans’ phone and e-mail data. Intelligence officials had been frustrated that they had to stop when a contact chain hit a telephone number or e-mail address believed to be used by an American, even though it might yield valuable intelligence primarily concerning a foreigner who was overseas, according to documents previously disclosed by Mr. Snowden. N.S.A. officials also wanted to employ the agency’s advanced computer analysis tools to sift through its huge databases with much greater efficiency.
The agency had asked for the new power as early as 1999, the documents show, but had been initially rebuffed because it was not permitted under rules of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that were intended to protect the privacy of Americans.
A 2009 draft of an N.S.A. inspector general’s report suggests that contact chaining and analysis may have been done on Americans’ communications data under the Bush administration’s program of wiretapping without warrants, which began after the Sept. 11 attacks to detect terrorist activities and skirted the existing laws governing electronic surveillance.
In 2006, months after the wiretapping program was disclosed by The New York Times, the N.S.A.’s acting general counsel wrote a letter to a senior Justice Department official, which was also leaked by Mr. Snowden, formally asking for permission to perform the analysis on American phone and e-mail data. A Justice Department memo to the attorney general noted that the “misuse” of such information “could raise serious concerns,” and said the N.S.A. promised to impose safeguards, including regular audits, on the metadata program. In 2008, the Bush administration gave its approval.
A new policy that year, detailed in “Defense Supplemental Procedures Governing Communications Metadata Analysis,” authorized by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, said that since the Supreme Court had ruled that metadata was not constitutionally protected, N.S.A. analysts could use such information “without regard to the nationality or location of the communicants,” according to an internal N.S.A. description of the policy.
After that decision, which was previously reported by The Guardian, the N.S.A. performed the social network graphing in a pilot project for 1 ½ years “to great benefit,” according to the 2011 memo. It was put in place in November 2010 in “Sigint Management Directive 424” (sigint refers to signals intelligence).
In the 2011 memo explaining the shift, N.S.A. analysts were told that they could trace the contacts of Americans as long as they cited a foreign intelligence justification. That could include anything from ties to terrorism, weapons proliferation or international drug smuggling to spying on conversations of foreign politicians, business figures or activists.
Analysts were warned to follow existing “minimization rules,” which prohibit the N.S.A. from sharing with other agencies names and other details of Americans whose communications are collected, unless they are necessary to understand foreign intelligence reports or there is evidence of a crime. The agency is required to obtain a warrant from the intelligence court to target a “U.S. person” — a citizen or legal resident — for actual eavesdropping.
The N.S.A. documents show that one of the main tools used for chaining phone numbers and e-mail addresses has the code name Mainway. It is a repository into which vast amounts of data flow daily from the agency’s fiber-optic cables, corporate partners and foreign computer networks that have been hacked.
The documents show that significant amounts of information from the United States go into Mainway. An internal N.S.A. bulletin, for example, noted that in 2011 Mainway was taking in 700 million phone records per day. In August 2011, it began receiving an additional 1.1 billion cellphone records daily from an unnamed American service provider under Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which allows for the collection of the data of Americans if at least one end of the communication is believed to be foreign.
The overall volume of metadata collected by the N.S.A. is reflected in the agency’s secret 2013 budget request to Congress. The budget document, disclosed by Mr. Snowden, shows that the agency is pouring money and manpower into creating a metadata repository capable of taking in 20 billion “record events” daily and making them available to N.S.A. analysts within 60 minutes.
The spending includes support for the “Enterprise Knowledge System,” which has a $394 million multiyear budget and is designed to “rapidly discover and correlate complex relationships and patterns across diverse data sources on a massive scale,” according to a 2008 document. The data is automatically computed to speed queries and discover new targets for surveillance.
A top-secret document titled “Better Person Centric Analysis” describes how the agency looks for 94 “entity types,” including phone numbers, e-mail addresses and IP addresses. In addition, the N.S.A. correlates 164 “relationship types” to build social networks and what the agency calls “community of interest” profiles, using queries like “travelsWith, hasFather, sentForumMessage, employs.”
A 2009 PowerPoint presentation provided more examples of data sources available in the “enrichment” process, including location-based services like GPS and TomTom, online social networks, billing records and bank codes for transactions in the United States and overseas.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday, General Alexander was asked if the agency ever collected or planned to collect bulk records about Americans’ locations based on cellphone tower data. He replied that it was not doing so as part of the call log program authorized by the Patriot Act, but said a fuller response would be classified.
If the N.S.A. does not immediately use the phone and e-mail logging data of an American, it can be stored for later use, at least under certain circumstances, according to several documents.
One 2011 memo, for example, said that after a court ruling narrowed the scope of the agency’s collection, the data in question was “being buffered for possible ingest” later. A year earlier, an internal briefing paper from the N.S.A. Office of Legal Counsel showed that the agency was allowed to collect and retain raw traffic, which includes both metadata and content, about “U.S. persons” for up to five years online and for an additional 10 years offline for “historical searches.”
James Risen reported from Washington and New York. Laura Poitras, a freelance journalist, reported from Berlin.
Le Bon talks about how “the crowd” thinks with its spinal cord and responds to primal appeals. One of my undergraduate students just passed this on to me. The perfect union between publicity, commerce and scatology. Enjoy!