Oxford, United Kingdom – The sighting of the Boson, possibly the Higgs Boson, by scientists experimenting with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, has received an extraordinary amount of media coverage, particularly for a difficult, if fundamental topic in particle physics that most people do not understand.
These reports are good news for science, which deserves more and better quality coverage than it typically gets. However, while there has been a burst of information about sub-atomic particles, the Standard Model, five sigma benchmark or dark matter, some fairly obvious pieces of information that would be of interest to the general public seem to be rather hard to find.
In the coverage of any major news, it is always interesting to note what is left out or overlooked, and whether there is any pattern or particular reason for such differences. The reasons need not be some kind of nefarious conspiracy – they might just reflect historical or political realities. But they usually tell us something about our societies, priorities and power structures.
For instance, many reports on the probable sighting of the Higgs Boson, a theoretical proposition that existed until now only in the minds of physicists, mention that the prediction of this sub-atomic particle was proposed by six theoreticians in 1964, including Professor Higgs of Britain.
So who were the other five? Most reports make no mention of them at all. After some hunting around it transpires that they were François Englert, the late Robert Brout, Gerald Guralnik, CR Hagen, and Tom Kibble. Brout, though born in New York, was Belgian – as is Englert. Guralnik and Hagen are American, and Kibble is British (though born in Madras, India).
If the six of them are acknowledged to have proposed the theory, surely the names of all six should be mentioned every time? It’s unclear – at least to non-scientists – why the particle is named only after Higgs. This is no disrespect to Professor Higgs. There might be a perfectly good reason, but it would be nice to know what it is.
It has been reported that what has been sighted is certainly a Boson, and probably a Higgs Boson. The word “Boson” is often written as “boson”, as though it is an everyday word that all of us should be familiar with. But of course that is not the case. Bosons are also from the exotic world of particle physics – and they are named after someone too. Most reports over the past several months, building up to the excitement of the possibility of sighting the Higgs Boson, neglected to explain how Bosons got their name.
In fact, the worldwide publicity over the imminent proof of “the god particle” may be a good occasion to remember Satyendra Nath Bose (no relation, as far as I know) – the Indian physicist and mathematician after whom “Bosons” were named. SN Bose (1894-1974) was a Bengali from Calcutta. The physics of his discovery and its impact on science is better explained by others. However, I was intrigued to find that Professor Bose also played the esraj, the beautiful string instrument from Bengal and one that is fast becoming extinct – perhaps another important reason to remember him and draw inspiration.
Ironically, this does not seem to be the only time that this Indian scientist and his fundamental contribution have been overlooked. Indeed, SN Bose appears to have had a hard time getting his original paper – on a different derivative of Planck’s Law – published at all, back in the 1920s. So he sent it to Einstein, who was persuaded of its importance, translated it into German and got it published in Zeitschrift fur Physik (“Planck’s Law and Light Quantum Hypothesis” [PDF], for those really keen).
Perhaps it is naïve to assume that theoretical physics is an area of knowledge in which truly important contributions would be more easily recognised, regardless of the politics and power structures of the day. One wonders how many other fundamental theoretical contributions by those outside some magic circle of influence have gone unnoticed because the authors did not send their papers off to the Einstein of their times, or the recipient did not help bring them to the light of day.
The collaboration between Bose and Einstein and the latter’s generalisation of Bose’s method gave rise to what is known as “Bose-Einstein statistics” and “Bose-Einstein condensation”. Subsequent developments by Fermi led to the categorising of fundamental particles – Bosons after Bose, Fermions after Fermi. In 2001, the Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to Eric Cornell, Wolfgang Ketterle and Carl Wieman “for the achievement of Bose-Einstein condensation in dilute gases of alkali atoms, and for early fundamental studies of the properties of the condensates”.
There are calls now to award the Nobel to those who predicted the Higgs Boson.
The excitement generated by the hunt for the Higgs Boson using the Large Hadron Collider is a great opportunity to disseminate news about fundamental theoretical and experimental advances in science to the general public. But we need to be told more, and to be given a fuller picture, including what Bosons are and who discovered them, the contributions of all the physicists who predicted the existence of the Higgs Boson, and why these advances are critical to our understanding of the universe.
Ours is an era of rapid scientific and technological inventions. But great moments such as finding the experimental proof of the Higgs Boson are still rare. Now that the researchers in Geneva believe that they have finally achieved a darshan [“divine sighting”] of “the god particle”, could the scientists please seize the moment to communicate to the rest of us a fully comprehensive account of those behind one of science’s most important discoveries.
Sarmila Bose is Senior Research Associate, Centre for International Studies, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.