Rumours of imminent split as physicists declare Higgs particle “boring”

Daily Mail offers ray of hope to the couple.

Maybe it was just a summer romance. After all those public appearances together back in July, physicists are now getting bored with the Higgs boson.

This week we’ve had the first announcement of new results since that “we’re madly in love” moment. The relationship between physics and the Higgs looked “nearly perfect” according to Scientific American. The Higgs was “exciting”, according to the Guardian. There were even hints of "exotic" goings on.

However, close friends of the couple, who gathered this week at the Hadron Collider Physics symposium in Kyoto, Japan, say that physics is just not that into the Higgs boson any more. New Scientist says the particle is no fun: it’s “maddeningly well-behaved”.

The Guardian goes further, reporting that physics is finding its former sweetheart the “most boring” a Higgs particle could be. Clearly, physics was hoping for a kooky, Zooey Deschanel kind of a boson. But, as the Guardian puts it, “there is nothing peculiar about the particle's behaviour.”

It turns out the Higgs doesn’t have any hidden depths. There are no tantalising secrets to tease out. The boson has nothing to say about the universe that physics didn’t already know. Spending time together is turning out to be a chore for physics.

The relationship won’t have been helped by physics tomcatting around looking for something new. Physics now claims other particles were always going to be far more interesting than the “plain-old” Higgs (Scientific American again).

The big hope was for a hook-up with “supersymmetric” particles. These, though, have been playing hard to get. Searches for supersymmetry have drawn a blank, leaving physics with no prospects other than enduring a long-term relationship with the Higgs boson. As physicist Jon Butterworth observes, it’s “a bit disappointing”.

The one ray of hope comes from the Daily Mail, which somehow interpreted the supersymmetry results as “dramatic particle reshaping that could push back the frontiers of physics”. In Mail World, there’s clearly no relationship so broken that radical surgery can’t fix it.

 

The Higgs boson is “maddeningly well-behaved”.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”