Misleading Headlines and Tacky Physics, Oh My!

It’s been making the rounds on the blogosphere (despite having come out three months ago). It’s probably showed up on your Facebook feed. It’s the news that (apparently) one of the biggest discoveries of recent years may have been premature. It’s….

The Huffington Post writing a misleading headline to drum up clicks!

The article linked above is titled “Scientists Raise Doubts About Higgs Boson Discovery, Say It Could Be Another Particle”. And while that is indeed technically all true, it’s more than a little misleading.

When the various teams at the Large Hadron Collider announced their discovery of the Higgs, they didn’t say it was exactly the Higgs predicted by the Standard Model. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be: most of the options for extending the Standard Model, like supersymmetry, predict a Higgs boson with slightly different properties. Until the Higgs is measured more precisely, these slightly different versions won’t be ruled out.

Of course, “not ruled out” is not exactly newsworthy, which is the main problem with this article. The Huffington Post quotes a paper that argues, not that there is new evidence for an alternative to the Higgs, but simply that one particular alternative that the authors like hasn’t been ruled out yet.

Also, it’s probably the tackiest alternative out there.

The theory in question is called Technicolor, and if you’re imagining a certain coat then you may have an idea of how tacky we’re talking.

Any Higgs will do…

To describe technicolor, let’s take a brief aside and talk about the colors of quarks.

Rather than having one type of charge going from plus to minus like Electromagnetism, the Strong Nuclear Force has three types of charge, called red, green, and blue. Quarks are charged under the strong force, and can be red, green, or blue, while the antimatter partners of quarks have the equivalent of negative charges, anti-red, anti-green, and anti-blue. The strong force binds quarks together into protons and neutrons. The strong force is also charged under itself, which means that not only does it bind quarks together, it also binds itself together, so that it only acts at very very short range.

In combination, these two facts have one rather surprising consequence. A proton contains three quarks, but a proton’s mass is over a hundred times the total mass of three quarks. The same is true of neutrons.

The reason why is that most of the mass isn’t coming from the quarks, it’s coming from the strength of the strong force. Mass, contrary to what you might think, isn’t fundamental “stuff”. It’s just a handy way of talking about energy that isn’t due to something we can easily see. Particles have energy because they move, but they also have energy due to internal interactions, as well as interactions with other fields like the Higgs field. While a lone quark’s mass is due to its interaction with the Higgs field, the quarks inside a proton are also interacting with each other, gaining enormous amounts of energy from the strong force trapped within. That energy, largely invisible from an outside view, contributes most of what we see as the mass of the proton.

Technicolor asks the following: what if it’s not just protons and neutrons? What if the mass of everything, quarks and electrons and the W and Z bosons, was due not truly to the Higgs, but to another force, like the strong force but even stronger? The Higgs we think we saw at the LHC would not be fundamental, but merely a composite, made up of  two “techni-quarks” with “technicolor” charges. [Edited to remove confusion with Preon Theory]

It’s…an idea. But it’s never been a very popular one.

Part of the problem is that the simpler versions of technicolor have been ruled out, so theorists are having to invoke increasingly baroque models to try to make it work. But that, to some extent, is also true of supersymmetry.

A bigger problem is that technicolor is just kind of…tacky.

Technicolor doesn’t say anything deep about the way the universe works. It doesn’t propose new [types of] symmetries, and it doesn’t say anything about what happens at the very highest energies. It’s not really tied in to any of the other lines of speculation in physics, it doesn’t lead to a lot of discussion between researchers. It doesn’t require an end, a fundamental lowest level with truly fundamental particles. You could potentially keep adding new levels of technicolor, new things made up of other things made up of other things, ad infinitum.

And the fleas that bite ’em, presumably.

[Note: to clarify, technicolor theories don’t actually keep going like this, their extra particles don’t require another layer of technicolor to gain their masses. That would be an actual problem with the concept itself, not a reason it’s tacky. It’s tacky because, in a world where most physicists feel like we’ve really gotten down to the fundamental particles, adding new composite objects seems baroque and unnecessary, like adding epicycles. Fleas upon fleas as it were.]

In a word, it’s not sexy.

Does that mean it’s wrong? No, of course not. As the paper linked by Huffington Post points out, technicolor hasn’t been ruled out yet.

Does that mean I think people shouldn’t study it? Again, no. If you really find technicolor meaningful and interesting, go for it! Maybe you’ll be the kick it needs to prove itself!

But good grief, until you manage that, please don’t spread your tacky, un-sexy theory all over Facebook. A theory like technicolor should get press when it’s got a good reason, and “we haven’t been ruled out yet” is never, ever, a good reason.


[Edit: Esben on Facebook is more well-informed about technicolor than I am, and pointed out some issues with this post. Some of them are due to me conflating technicolor with another old and tacky theory, while some were places where my description was misleading. Corrections in bold.]


4 thoughts on “Misleading Headlines and Tacky Physics, Oh My!

  1. delton137

    This story was also covered on I Fucking Love Science (IFLS) as well (http://www.iflscience.com/physics/more-colorful-higgs)

    One of my issues with IFLS is their willingness to cover every story based on its headline value rather than the quality of the science. They published a “hot water freezes faster than cold” story based on a really sketchy arxiv paper which hasn’t made it though peer review. A cursory glance at the paper shows the authors to be confused and oversimplifying the complexities of water molecules and hydrogen bonding.

    As you recall I debunked a lot of the “hot water freezes faster than cold” claims on my blog. There is no reason to think that in identical containers (which is impossible) hot water would actually freeze before cold http://moreisdifferent.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/does-hot-water-freeze-faster-than-cold/.

    Maybe because the story is so embarrassing that is why the author choose to remain anonymous…


  2. JollyJoker

    “Mass, contrary to what you might think, isn’t fundamental “stuff”. It’s just a handy way of talking about energy that isn’t due to something we can easily see.”

    I liked this. E=mc^2 becomes a bit more “no, it’s just energy” when you realize binding energy / Higgs interactions / self-interactions are what we see as rest mass.



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