Monday, July 02, 2012

François Englert: a hero of the Higgs mechanism, SUSY, and strings

According to an incognito ATLAS member who spoke to Nature, they have a discovery without any doubts. Pure elation that will culminate on Wednesday morning.

TRF recommends you to buy up to 180 Higgs shares per $6.99; you will be given $10 for each at the end of the year, thus making a $540 profit. A chance for John Ramsden to earn the money for his $500 bet against me.

François Englert of Brussels is one of the few (or two?) guys whose Nobel prize should be pretty much guaranteed once the discovery of the God particle becomes official, assuming he is very careful about his health.

In 1964, before all the well-known papers written by Peter Higgs were released, he published a paper with Robert Brout – who unfortunately died in May 2011 – in which the foundations of the Higgs/BEH/God mechanism were built.

He's actually the only guy whose position next to Peter Higgs should be a pretty much sure thing – I hope (and I believe based on the interactions with the kind of people who should matter) – although the later contributions by Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble were made independently.

There are of course other people tightly incorporated into this story – including Landau, Nambu, Andersson, and Weinberg who already got his prize mainly for the implementation of the God mechanism in the Standard Model (all these four men are already winners and the first one is dead) – but I don't want to review this complex history in this article again.

Instead, I want to look at one person and his position in the scheme of things.

I've shared a Santa Barbara office with Peter Higgs, I like him, I find him pleasant, charismatic, and fair when it comes to his description of his contributions to the God particle. I appreciate that he's actually the only one in the 1964 group who actively noticed and promoted the existence of the new particle itself and not just the other aspects of the God mechanism.

Well, I am not so sure whether the God particle is actually more important than the rest of the God mechanism, however, so I don't think that the previous sentence is necessarily too important.

Nevertheless, I would probably still say that the overall contributions of François Englert to high-energy physics exceeded those of Peter Higgs (and he is much more broad and educated in the advanced stuff) – and believe me, I have absolutely nothing against one-hit wonders (who are spiritual fathers of a rather significant percentage of the mankind's intellectual wealth). And I am actually inclined to believe that most of the active particle physicists would agree. The citation counts – around 5,000+ in both cases – are comparable. Englert wrote 87 papers listed in the SPIRES database, slightly more than 11 papers by Higgs.

Given these facts, you must find it somewhat incredible that while Google News counts 500+ hits for Peter Higgs in the recent 30 days, the same number for François Englert is 0 hits or 1 hit. You know, these numbers should be comparable.

It's kind of shocking. To say the least, it is another piece of evidence suggesting that a vast majority of the science journalists who are currently active are superficial slackers who just copy stuff from each other, including all the inaccuracies, distortions, intolerable oversimplifications, stupidities, and lies. This lousy culture is later imprinted into the whole population so as a species, we may perhaps boast that we're probably better than skunks but we still kind of suck and the inkspillers in the media are an important component of this fellatio.

This is not a scientific world. It is not being fairly informed about the progress in science and not even about the credits – even when it comes to the most important issues.

Englert's 2005 talk on Gravity, Geometry, and Group Theory (GGGT) at Yuvalfest. I was amused e.g. by his passionate defense of 11D supergravity against its boss M-theory around 39:30. Lots of exceptional groups, black hole entropy, and other cool stuff was discussed in the talk.

At any rate, I am confident that the physicists behind the Nobel committee are not that uninformed and Englert will share the physics Nobel prize for the theoretical foundations underlying the God mechanism. Let me assume it is so. In that case, Englert would join the triplet of the best string theorists among the physics Nobel prize winners, together with David Gross and Yoichiro Nambu. Aside from these three full-fledged string theorists, at least 4 other physics Nobel prize winners should be counted as members of a broader community of string theorists (all of them have taught the subject, for example, and wrote some papers referring to string theory), including Steven Weinberg, Murray Gell-Mann, Gerard 't Hooft, and George Smoot.

If you estimate the number of people in the world who are as close to string theory as those guys to be 2,000, it's easy to see that the probability for a string theorist in that group to get a physics Nobel prize is 0.35%. You should better not eliminate any of those people. ;-)

To compare, the remaining 7 billion people include about 200 physics Nobel prize winners: their chance is about 100,000 times lower than that of string theorists. This deviation by five orders of magnitude exists despite the fact that Nobel prizes are not being distributed for as important things as string theory because the discoveries that are rewarded are obliged to remotely resemble the dynamite. The Hawking radiation and string theory refuse to do so.

Let me return to François Englert. Aside from his 1,500+ citation paper with Brout, he wrote a couple of other well-known papers. For example, these seven papers gained over 100 citations. One of them is about the birth of the Universe, one of them is about monopoles, but all the others are about strings and supergravity. Aside from these subjects, i.e. cosmology, QFT, string theory, and SUGRA, Englert has worked – much like many people in the French-speaking theoretical physics community – on problems in statistical physics.

Getting the superstring out of the 26-dimensional bosonic string theory is interesting and immensely intriguing – something that may clarify the role of the bosonic "toy model" in the actual fully consistent landscape of string theory – except I am not sure whether those things in the 1980s were quite right. More recently, Swanson and Hellerman were among those who tried to link string theories with different numbers of world sheet degrees of freedom in a more modern, controllable way and the chances that their time-independent interpolating solutions did it right was much higher. I am still not 100% sure whether I believe that it shows that the bosonic string theory is a part of the "real structure".

In 1997, Englert co-authored a paper about an interesting and geometrically cute topic, the intersection rules for \(p\)-branes. I could mention several such papers. Englert remained very active, even in very recent years.

But there's one paper that I already read as an undergrad: his construction of new seven-sphere compactifications of eleven-dimensional supergravity which preserve a smaller group than the obvious isometry group, \(SO(8)\). The solution is linked to octonions: the multiplication table is imprinted to the 3-form potential and its Hodge dual is encoded in the 4-form field strength. For a non-supersymmetric solution of a supersymmetric theory, it is a very cute one. There is one more solution like that in the paper. I've learned about these things a decade before I learned about the \(G_2\) holonomy manifolds – in which the octonionic structure also plays a role although the role is not equivalent to Englert's solution.

I have no problem with using the word "Higgs boson" and even "Higgs mechanism" etc. It is catchy, efficient, and it has a true core. But if someone omitted François Englert from the hypothetical Nobel prize that Peter Higgs will be getting, I would consider it a victory of the idiocratic, badly informed culture spread by the sloppy media and their undemanding consumers, culture that always prefers hype and group think over the truth. And that would be very bad because I do think that the physics Nobel prize is one of the last awards that haven't been discredited by stunning blunders such as Gores and Arafats.

And that's the memo.

When I am talking about the French-speaking people, let me mention that France's AREVA is one of the three competitors – besides Russians and Americans – who want to expand the Temelín nuclear power plant in Southern Czechia. The picture above is their sketch: pretty. Under huge security measures, the nuclear contest started today.


  1. So even Nature publishes anonymous things... It's Matts Strassler worst nightmare! :-)

  2. Does (super)string theory predict the existence of the Higgs boson?

  3. The Nobel prize for this mechanism has already been
    given to the person who first understood it, Nambu.

    Look at the Nobel citation for Nambu.

  4. "Given these facts, you must find it somewhat incredible that while Google News counts 500+ hits for Peter Higgs in the recent 30 days, the same number for François Englert is 0 hits or 1 hit."

    Yep, that' s why a give a damn about what Google News or other mass media say and open TRF (or other acceptable physics blogs) straight away as soon as my laptop has booted, if I want to know about physics news :-D

  5. Englert, Hagen, Higgs and Guralnik are, according Nature, confirmed to be in the CERN past tomorrow. No mention of authors of Technicolor. That is a hint, is it?

  6. Don't let Areva near anything radioactive... They've been building a reactor in Finland for the last seven years. The original claim was that it would take four years and it's been three years from completion ever since. They repeatedly fail to do even simple tasks the way they're supposed to, like pouring concrete...

    Incidentally, the cost overruns have brought the price tag over that of the LHC.

    Just copy/pasting some of the text

    "First to come to light were irregularities in foundation concrete,
    which caused work to slow on site for months. Later it was found that
    subcontractors had provided heavy forgings that were not up to project
    standards and which had to be re-cast. An apparent problem constructing
    the reactor's unique double-containment structure has also caused

    According to Professor Stephen Thomas, "Olkiluoto has become an example of all that can go wrong in economic terms with new reactors".[12] Areva
    and the utility involved "are in bitter dispute over who will bear the
    cost overruns and there is a real risk now that the utility will
    The project has also been criticized by the Finnish nuclear safety
    regulator, STUK, because "instructions have not been observed in the
    welding of pipes and the supervision of welding."[1] STUK has also noted that there have been delays in submitting proper paperwork."

  7. Yes, it does. At least with the combination of the empirical information that there exists the weak force, it does.

  8. Thanks, Nambu was a major ommission of mine when I mentioned the "long history". He should surely appear at a prominent place here.

  9. Exactly, he doesn't like those things. However, it seems pretty much impossible to regulate 6,000 people so that no one leaks an iota of their excitement. It could be possible if all of them were organized like an army and anyone who leaks anything would be shot dead. But because almost all people agree this is not how scientists mentioning the results of their work should be treated, CERN isn't like an army and such leaks are inevitable and frankly speaking, harmless if not beneficial, too.

  10. Dear Alejandro, I had to laugh: the idea that they could announce the discovery of technicolor tomorrow sounds like a hardcore joke. There haven't been infinitesimal glimpses why and how it should occur, and there have been all glimpses for a Higgs.

    But of course, all of us may be wrong and technicolor champions may be right. I would bet 100:1 against that but I could still lose. A few days ago, some of those technicolor folks published a paper claiming that the 125 GeV God particle could actually be a techni-dilaton in walking technicolor:

    No comments.

  11. Hi,

    the Intrade bet is a bit more tricky as a discovery is only accepted if it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Nevertheless, that should probably happen before the end of the year.

    However, Intrade has some downsides, it charges monthly fees, and it is difficult for a non-US to transfer money. So I just bet 10 dollars when the probability was very low just for fun with the rest of the money i still had on my account...

    the issue with Intrade is also that your money is stuck there until the bet is done..

  12. Darn, I`ve often told my most embarassing uncle to be more careful and avoid being at the LHC ... LOL :-D

  13. Darn, I`ve often told my most embarassing uncle to be more careful and avoid being at the LHC ... LOL :-D

  14. Darn, I`ve often told my most embarassing uncle to be more careful and avoid being at the LHC ... LOL :-D

  15. Darn, I`ve often told my most embarassing uncle to be more careful and avoid being pinched at the LHC ... LOL :-D

  16. Thanks Dr. Motl. I've just begun reading about string theory and was impressed with it's ability to encompass gravity but didn't see anything about the mass boson. They are not the same thing are they?

  17. Thanks, Mr Lewis, and very true, the mass boson and gravity are very different things. Exactly the confusion of gravity and the Higgs boson is one inevitable - and maybe even deliberate - side effect of the exaggerated comments that "Higgs is what gives everyone its mass".

    First of all, all of mass and all of energy (which are the same thing due to Einstein's formula E=mc^2) - and even pressure - are inducing gravitational fields in their environments. The gravitational field is all about the curved spacetime, as we have known since the 1915 Einstein insights of "general relativity", and the geometry of the spacetime is described by a field known as the metric tensor - a prescription to measure the length of each line segment located anywhere.

    Now, energy and mass may come in many forms. Every particle may be accelerated to a high energy. What the Higgs boson really affects is the energy/mass that most elemenentary particles, especially the W-boson, Z-boson, leptons, and quarks - have at rest i.e. if they're not moving at all. They would have m=0 if there were no Higgs field.

    But most of the rest mass in our bodies is due to proton and neutron masses and most of the proton and neutron mass has nothing to do with the Higgs field, either. Most of the proton's mass actually comes from the kinetic energy of quarks and gluons inside the proton, their interactions, virtual quark-antiquark pairs, and the gluons and potential energy caused by gluons. Those words are not quite independent from each other. But it has nothing to do with the Higgs field.

    So from a broader perspective, the Higgs field is just one of the many players that affect the energy of some collection of objects. But all other particles and forces in Nature are actually doing the same if we stay at this general level. Every particle modifies what energy some other (or the same) particles can have in various states etc. So the Higgs boson isn't really qualitatively different from the rest.

    The metric tensor - the spacetime geometry - is much closer to being "qualitatively different" from the rest. But even the spacetime geometry is fundamentally an object of the same sort as other particles and fields.

  18. englert was there at the CERN seminars

  19. Of course, he's the 2nd top guy. Also, Guralnik and I guess Hagen was there. But Kibble was omitted, it seemed to me. Were his contributions to the paper by 3 authors really tiny? Or is there some plot I am missing?

  20. The 2005 talk was quite fun to watch :-), even though certain parts were a not negligible amount over my head ... :-/
    Maybe I got something wrong yesterday (it was damn late again) but I thought he wanted to talk about 11D SUGRA only as an example (after the first half) and then the slides were full of 2-branes and 5-branes etc ... that made me chuckle :-D

  21. Kibble might not have been well enough to travel. He is 80 after all. They all looked geriatric ( says I who am 72 ;)).

  22. This post is interesting given this blog topic of Englert...if the Nobel has been awarded for the mechanism, than Englert cannot win as he and Brout did not have the boson. Higgs and GHK have the boson - so you still have 4. The closer you get to the Goldstone theorem and the avoidance the more it goes to GHK who showed explicitly how it fails...not stating that it "may" fail (as did PH).

  23. "If the Nobel has been awarded for the mechanism, than Englert cannot win as he and Brout did not have the boson."

    The logic behind this sentence is completely broken. If the Nobel prize were awarded for the mechanism, and I indeed think that this is the right description of the general discovery, then it is not important whether a paper discussed a particular part of the mechanism such as the boson.

    Even your very comment presents GHK as a "followup" of Goldstone's work so with this optics, it would be doubly paradoxical if they had a prize for the followup of work by someone who doesn't have a Nobel himself. Quite generally, you overstate the "narrowness" of the required justification of the prize. Check e.g. the 2008 prize

    which was the closest one to the Higgs mechanism prize (except for the 1979 prize). First of all, Cabibbo could have been separated from KM so it's not true that if some people are often pronounced together, their Nobel fates have to be correlated, and indeed, I think that Nambu deserved a Nobel prize more than Cabibbo.