From wraith to smoking duck

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I previously described the evolution of the Higgs Boson from Leon Lederman's "wraithlike presence throughout the universe that is keeping us from understanding the true nature of matter", perhaps bowdlerized by his editors from "the goddamn particle" to "the God particle", and onwards to Dennis Overbye's "kind of cosmic molasses [...] that would impart mass to formerly massless particles trying to move through it like a celebrity trying to get to the bar".

Yesterday, the high-energy euphoria at CERN seems to have excited some really exotic metaphorical resonances, combining the elementary building-blocks of cultural cognition in ways not normally seen on earth.

According to "It's a boson: Higgs quest bears new particle", Reuters 7/4/2012:

"The fact that both our teams have independently come to the same results is very powerful," Oliver Buchmueller, a senior physicist on one of the research teams, told Reuters.

"We know it is a new boson. But we still have to prove definitively that it is the one that Higgs predicted."

"If I were a betting man, I would bet that it is the Higgs. But we can't say that definitely yet. It is very much a smoking duck that walks and quacks like the Higgs. But we now have to open it up and look inside before we can say that it is indeed the Higgs."

There is some discussion here of a hypothetical "smoking duck" that walks and quacks like a hybrid with the "smoking gun" metaphor, but I don't believe that credible evidence of its natural formation has previously been reported.

[Tip of the hat to Jack Maloney, who notes that "When they 'open it up and look inside,' they'll need to take care that it's not instead a quacking gun."]



28 Comments

  1. Marc Leavitt said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 6:39 am

    In Manhattan, smoking ducks must leave the restaurant to indulge their habit.

  2. Ian Preston said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 7:11 am

    Is this a sighting in the wild from 2005?

    [(myl) Indeed it seems to be -- though this use is clearly a witticism, which makes its context a bit less natural, if that matters to us. For those for whom the books.google.co.uk link doesn't work:

    The reference is Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq, Random House 2004, and (witticism or not) Mr. Blix is referring to another episode of unusually high-energy metaphysics.]

  3. [links] Link salad experiences a post-cookout food coma | jlake.com said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 7:28 am

    [...] From wraith to smoking duck — Scientists and the language of the Higgs boson. I didn't realize that George W. Bush wrote PR copy for CERN these days. [...]

  4. RodMcGuire said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 9:18 am

    I've wondered why I haven't heard anybody pronounce the "Higgs boson" as "boshon" since the boson class of particles is named after Satyendra Nath Bose whose last name is pronounced "boʃu".

  5. Greg Morrow said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 10:06 am

    Possible collision with Bose electronics?

    In any case, in the particle physics realm, Bose-Einstein statistics and bosons are always pronounced with a /z/, never /ʃ/.

  6. D.O. said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 10:34 am

    The more I think about "a smoking duck that walks and quacks like the Higgs" the more my head spins. Which proves that it (the head) is not the Higgs. How can anyone believe in compositional semantics after examples like this.

  7. Eric P Smith said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    I’m not sure how you can open it up and look inside when it’s an elementary particle.

  8. Rube said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 10:48 am

    Colourless green ideas sleep furiously. Of what do they dream? A smoking duck that walks and quacks like the Higgs.

  9. Andy Averill said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 11:46 am

    I think we're all bosons on this bus…

  10. dazeystarr said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

    @Eric P Smith: To quote Phoebe Buffay, "[F]ifty years ago, you all thought the atom was the smallest thing, until you split it open, and this like, whole mess of crap came out."

  11. Glen Gordon said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

    I assume it's a ploy to promote more flow of grant money, no? Stephen Hawking opposed this line of theory but now he concedes defeat without a fight:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/video/2012/jul/05/stephen-hawking-higgs-boson-bet-video?newsfeed=true

    Hmm…

  12. Glen Gordon said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

    By the way, doesn't logic dictate that there can be no elementary particle since space and time is infinitely divisible? I know there have been attempts to quantize spacetime but I'm not keen on reifying theories into unchallenged doctrines. Therefore, there can be no fundamental anything in the universe. It goes on forever toward the fractal dimension.

  13. Ray Girvan said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    Oddly enough, there is a Smoking Duck: a regional/archaic name for the American Widgeon.

    1888 G. Trumbull Names & Portraits Birds 21 [The Widgeon is] known to voyageurs throughout the Fur Countries as Smoking-Duck. [Note.] Probably because its note was thought to resemble the puffing sound made while smoking.
    OED

    See also page 917, Key to North American Birds.

  14. Rubrick said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

    I'm pretty sure the smoking duck is a distant relative of the phoenix.

  15. Nick Lamb said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

    "doesn't logic dictate that there can be no elementary particle since space and time is infinitely divisible"

    Sure, in the same sense that logic dictates that there can be no odd numbers greater than five since four is prime.

  16. Rohan F said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 6:26 pm

    @Glen Gordon:

    "By the way, doesn't logic dictate that there can be no elementary particle since space and time is infinitely divisible?"

    Your premise and your conclusion are unrelated. Even if space and time are infinitely divisible (and because of quantum effects we don't know if that's true), it doesn't logically follow that an object within spacetime must have a substructure, even if it has dimension.

    "I know there have been attempts to quantize spacetime but I'm not keen on reifying theories into unchallenged doctrines."

    By the same token, you can't assume the incorrectness of a theoretical framework by proceeding from a single premise based in logic. Logic can only take you so far and particle physics does an awful lot of things that seem illogical on their face, but that's because we're used to the rules of the world of classical particle mechanics and that simply breaks down at certain scales.

  17. The Higgs Boson and smoking ducks | richard bowker said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

    [...] discovery of the Higgs Boson appears to have been too much for the English language as we know it to cope with: "If I were a betting man, I would bet that it is the Higgs. But we can't say that [...]

  18. David Morris said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

    RodMcGuire said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 9:18 am

    I've wondered why I haven't heard anybody pronounce the "Higgs boson" as "boshon" since the boson class of particles is named after Satyendra Nath Bose whose last name is pronounced "boʃu".

    Not necessarily. The proton is named after William Prout, whose name was pronounced /praʊt/, but we don't say /praʊtɒn/. Some eponymous words take on a life of their own. Sir George Everest pronounced his name /iːvrist/.

    (First post after reading for about a month. ESL teacher and MA Linguistics student from Sydney, Australia.)

  19. maidhc said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

    There's also a wine called Smoking Loon.

  20. Jacob said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 1:28 am

    @David Morris Good point and I don't want to appear to detract from it. However, I'm relatively certain (as is seemingly every dictionary) that proton originates with πρῶτον.

  21. J Lee said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 10:12 am

    the sad part about the blix excerpt is that the administration actually did need to try to satisfy the public's desire for a smoking gun that was patently unnecessary in a preemption scenario, and in doing so gave generations of journalists and educators the excuse to paint them as liars, warmongers, literally among the worst individuals ever. but then the public wouldnt have been so skeptical without people like hans blix

  22. Glen Gordon said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

    "By the same token, you can't assume the incorrectness of a theoretical framework by proceeding from a single premise based in logic."

    So… don't use logic unless I use two or more premises. Hmm…

    Can you at least humour me and explain how it's conclusively 100% proven that spacetime has a fractal "limit" where beyond there is "nothing". How does a boundary between somethingness and nothingness exist if "nothing" shouldn't exist in the first place? Should we not ask the question and if not, why?

    Because if we understand this as a paradox, it seems to me that quantizing spacetime is wholly divorced from reality and pure untestable theory.

  23. Glen Gordon said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

    I should maybe add that what I'm questioning is not contradicting the tried-and-true theory so far. We may understand quantized spacetime as an *abstract* feature of the current theory and not necessarily of reality. And if my logical paradox is correct, it shouldn't be realistically possible for a limit to spacetime on any scale anyway. In other words, quantized spacetime is a kind of limitation of our own knowledge, not of spacetime. We cannot yet peer beyond. Coming back to the Higgs boson then, the quest for the ultimate particle seems fruitless and neverending, although we will inevitably discover much of value in this research regardless.

  24. Rohan F said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

    @Glen Gordon

    "So… don't use logic unless I use two or more premises. Hmm…"

    I'm not sure whether you're deliberately misinterpreting what I said, but my point was that logic alone, without an understanding of the research in particle physics and the structure of the theoretical frameworks themselves, is insufficient here. And as I said, the premise in your logical deduction was unrelated anyway, which makes the deduction an example of the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent.

    "Can you at least humour me and explain how it's conclusively 100% proven that spacetime has a fractal "limit" where beyond there is "nothing"."

    Such a thing has not been proven, nor did I say that it had. But whether or not spacetime itself has a fractal limit, particles embedded within spacetime certainly may. That's why your premise was faulty: it doesn't matter, in one sense, whether spacetime is quantised or not.

    Aside from which, all we know is that *based on current evidence* certain particles are elementary and are not composed of smaller units. But that doesn't mean we should have to suffix every instance of the word "elementary" with "as far as we know". Any good scientist will take that as assumed – any scientific datum is subject to revision or change.

    "How does a boundary between somethingness and nothingness exist if "nothing" shouldn't exist in the first place?"

    I'm not sure I understand what you mean by this. Can you explain further?

  25. David Morris said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 9:20 pm

    @Jacob

    Thanks for that. Derivation from Greek makes much more sense. I stand by my second comment about eponymous words having a life (and pronunciation) of their own, though (and it sounds like you'd agree with me that far).

  26. Glen Gordon said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    "Can you at least humour me and explain how it's conclusively 100% proven that spacetime has a fractal "limit" where beyond there is "nothing"."

    "Such a thing has not been proven, nor did I say that it had."

    Thank you for this grace. So therefore, even *if* we've discovered the Higgs boson (despite the educated reservation of a prominent physicist like Stephen Hawking), my point is that there's nothing logical about assuming that this is somehow even close to the long-sought-after "elementary" and "indivisible" particle. My point is that the ancient Zeno's Paradox certainly remains relevant today and very relevant to this discussion.

    The danger here is in mistaking science as a tool for understanding the very nature of existence itself or of its spacetime substrate which effectively amounts to mysterious "aether". The Higgs boson tells us nothing about that and it doesn't require a degree to notice hype when one sees it.

    That's all I'm saying. Don't have a cow, people.

  27. Glen Gordon said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

    Rohan: "Aside from which, all we know is that *based on current evidence* certain particles are elementary and are not composed of smaller units."

    Yes and it must be understood as a limitation, not a solid fact. There's nothing saying that a Higgs boson, if existent, isn't itself composed of subquantum particles which are in turn composed of smaller particles, etc. Then from that reasonable perspective this "discovery" of the Higgs boson is uncertain on multiple levels.

  28. Best of Language Blog Roundup 2012 | Wordnik said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 10:06 am

    [...] other theoretical physicists know, but at least we got lots of Higgs boson metaphors, including the smoking duck [...]

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