Why I’m not excited about the Higgs boson

A friend at work (@obviouscorp) asked me why the Higgs boson was such a big deal. And as nearly as I can tell, the answer is “It’s not.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I think the discovery of a particle we have been hunting down for 50 years is a big deal. But I’m still not excited.


I happen to have a PhD in physics, but I left the field right after getting my degree almost 20 years ago. So I’m basically a layman at this point, but I do have a background in some of this stuff.

I’ve done a good amount of digging into articles, forums, etc., and I find that a lot of the information out there is confusing. This is my current understanding of what the Higgs actually is. It think it’s basically right, but there is a chance that I have some of it wrong. If anyone who is current on the research can help correct any misperceptions I have, that would be awesome.

Different kinds of mass

Roughly speaking, scientists are interested in the Higgs field because it helps explain where mass comes from. But the word “mass” can mean many things.

The term “inertial mass” is the idea of how hard it is to push something. If something is massive, you need to apply more force in order to move it.

The term “gravitational mass” is the idea of how strongly a piece of matter attracts other things with mass. If something is massive, it pulls you toward itself.

As it turns out, these two concepts of mass are identical. In other words, if something is twice as heavy in terms of “hard to push”, its gravity also pulls twice as hard.

The confusing molasses analogy

Many science writers talk about the Higgs field giving mass to particles by “slowing them down” like marbles traveling through molasses. This is obviously just a colorful metaphor, but I took this to mean that the Higgs field explained the concept of inertial mass, i.e., why massive things are hard to push.

If that were true, it would be super exciting, because it’s such a fundamental concept. But I couldn’t see how it could possibly be true, for a bunch of reasons.

As it turns out, that’s not what scientists are saying. To understand what scientists are actually saying, you have to know a little bit about our current view of the world of subatomic particles.

Mass, vs. other properties

As far as we know, the “stuff” in the world is made up of quarks and leptons. An electron is an example of a lepton. There are six leptons total (or 12, if you count anti-particles). There are also six kinds of quarks (or 12, if you count anti-quarks). Finally, there are four force mediating particles (e.g, photons, gluons, etc.).

All of these particles have properties, like “charge”. An electron has a -1 charge. An up quark has a +2/3 charge.

These properties tend to come in exact increments. For example, the spin of a particle can be 1/2, 1, -1/2, etc. Nothing in between.

Mass is different. The masses of particles have totally bizarre values. Photons have zero mass. Neutrinos (probably) have mass, but it is such a tiny, tiny amount of mass that we have trouble detecting their existence. Meanwhile, the top quark has as mass of 170GeV or so. That’s something like 100 billion times heavier than a neutrino.

So scientists look at that and say “why is mass so weird?”

Rest mass vs. energy

The masses of particles I referred to above is more properly called “rest mass”. We use that specific term because energy also counts toward “mass”. If an electron is at rest, it has .5 MeV of mass. But if it’s moving really fast, that electron has more mass because of the energy of its motion.

All kinds of energy contributes to mass. For example, let’s look at protons.

A proton is composed of two up quarks and a down quark. But if you add up the “rest mass” of two up quarks and a down quark, you end up with much, much less mass than the mass of a proton. That’s because 99% of the mass of a proton comes from the energy that binds all three quarks together. Weird, right? 99% of the mass is just energy. 1% comes from the rest mass of the stuff inside.

No more rest mass

Ok… with all that in mind, here’s my current understanding of what it means for the Higgs field to be the source of mass.

The Higgs field lets you replace the rest mass of particles with another energy term, which means that all particles are massless, and there is no such thing as “rest mass”. That makes our equations cleaner, and gets rid of a messy concept (rest mass).

That’s pretty fundamental, so I guess I understand why people are excited.

Why do you keep saying “Higgs field” instead of “Higgs boson”?

In the standard model, all fields are mediated by force-carrying particles. The electromagnetic force is mediated by photons, and the strong force is mediated by gluons. It’s kind of complicated, but the force and the particle are kind of the same thing.

When you talk about stuff that comes out of particle accelerators, you tend to talk about the particles (Higgs boson). When you talk about how they affect things in the world, you tend to talk about fields or forces (the Higgs field).

But it’s all the same thing.

Why I’m not excited

Ok. So we found something that looks like the Higgs boson, which gives more weight to this theory that the Higgs field is the source of the rest mass of fundamental particles.

We still have the question of why the masses of particles are so different from one another. Before, we said “we have no idea what mass is, and why the values are so weird.” Now, we say “rest mass comes from the Higgs field, and we have no idea why the coupling constants are so weird.” (coupling constant is just a fancy way of saying “how much each kind of particle is affected by the Higgs field”)

Now the normal answer to the question of why the coupling constants got to be the way they are is “spontaneous symmetry breaking”, which is a fancy way of saying “it happened a long time ago, and was basically random”.

I guess that’s progress, but it’s not super satisfying.

Another way to read the news is something like this: “Our model for how the universe works is still basically correct”.

I guess that’s news, but I would have been more excited by the opposite result.


The story behind the new Notespark icon

Ryan Hicks (from Adobe’s XD team) designed the new Notespark icon for us.

He did a writeup of what the design challenges were and how he approached the problem. Check it out!


Announcing our new startup — Phile

For those people who have been following me since the days when I used to keep this blog up to date… I thought you might want to know that I’ve started a new startup called Phile, which launched a public beta earlier today.

There are lots of ways to think about Phile, but in many ways, it’s a synthesis of everything I learned in working on Dreamweaver, Contribute, Flex, and other products during my tenure at Adobe and Macromedia.

Phile is a service that lets anyone create a website to gather information about any topic in a social and structured way. It’s kind of like a Yelp-builder for any topic. You get to customize the site using a tooling interface that makes it feel kind of like FileMaker or HyperCard.

The best way to explain what it is is to show you a screencast:


There is also an article that you can find here:


Phile has been a labor of love for me and Mike for over a year. I’d love for you to try it out and tell me what you think. And if you think it’s interesting, I’d love to have you help me spread the word.




Apple vs. Lean Startups

apple_vs_leanRecently, Andrew Chen has been mulling over the differences between Apple’s approach to product design and (a) the typical corporate approach and (b) the “lean startups” approach. In a recent post, he proposed the idea of a “minimal desirable product” to try to blend Apple’s approach and the lean startups approach.

I kind of agree with him, but his formulation makes my head hurt.

Apple’s design strategy is to work behind closed doors to build kick ass products that blow you away. They make design choices (like killing sub-par projects) that would make other companies cringe. By working behind closed doors, they are counting on their own design and vision instead of letting the market do the design. Sometimes, they succeed (iPhone) and sometimes they fail (AppleTV so far). When they get it right, they build stuff that is so desirable that people cannot believe their eyes.

The lean startups approach is to build the minimal thing that can possibly sell, get it out there, and then to iterate quickly. The lean startups philosophy says that no central planner can ever outsmart the market, so it’s dangerous to try to design behind closed doors. Instead of wasting time trying to build the perfect product, lean startups get it out there quickly and spend their time listening to the market and iterating.

Both approaches make sense. And it makes sense to ask what one approach might learn from the other. However, the middle ground between Apple’s approach of building the “most desirable product” and the lean startups approach of building a “minimal product” is not to build a “minimal desirable product.” That formulation doesn’t even make sense. So I should only somewhat kick ass? Or minimally kick ass? Could the iPhone have been “desirable” without animation? Probably. Would it have been as successful? Probably not.

Why is “minimal” important?

Building minimal products is important because product teams are notoriously bad at building good products.

Featuritis: Given more resources, a team will typically add more features instead of polishing the features they already have, on the theory that more features = more market share. “Hey! We have more time so let’s make our microwave play CDs. People like to listen to music while cooking, right?”

Listening to customers is hard: You must listen to your customers to understand what their problems are, but you absolutely cannot trust them to tell you how to design a solution for it. They’ll tell you that your product should automatically scan their inbox, and when you build exactly what they told you to build, they’ll hate it.

Killer features are counterintuitive: When we were working on Dreamweaver, we got some things really right and some things really wrong. Round trip HTML was really important. Layout Table view wasn’t popular, and we spent a lot of time on it. It’s really hard to distinguish between killer features and phantom killer features that look good on paper but don’t end up being killer features after all.

You may have the wrong market in mind: When doing design in a closed room, you have a specific market in mind. Meanwhile, your product idea may be best suited to a slightly different market. Spending months and months refining and adding to a product with the first market hypothesis in mind may actually put you behind the eight ball in pivoting to your actual market.

Minimal products means quicker iteration: This is an obvious statement, but this is one of the most important benefits of building a minimal product. Large products with lots of features are like battleships, and while there is a time and place for battleships, they are hard to steer. Smaller, more nimble products may outrun you.

Why is “minimal” dangerous?

Starting with a minimal product and iterating have a lot of advantages, but this approach also has a few disadvantages.

The MVP -> iterate process may not lead to joy: When you play with a well designed product, you are filled with a sense of joy. The whole mindset around minimal+iterate may lead to that sense of joy, but more likely than not, it leads to prioritizing function over design. Capability over joy.

Minimal products may not be a good test of the market: Sometimes, doing something minimal is the best way to dip your toe into a market. And sometimes, you may get a false negative because the thing you build “minimally” tells you that the market isn’t there.

You may end up cutting corners you wish you hadn’t Best summarized here.

Proper minimal design: Build half a product, not a half-assed product

This advice, of course, is from 37 Signals. It seems like just yesterday that these guys were the supposed gurus on building great products and now it’s other people who are the gurus. We should take everyone’s advice with a grain of salt, of course, but in this case, I think the 37 Signals guys have it right.

Focusing on design is not right for every lean startup. It really depends on the market you’re going after and the problem you’re trying to solve. But if you do need to focus on design, then I think it’s even more important to focus on the core essence of what you have and discard everything else. Be ruthless in cutting functionality to boil your product down to its core essence (no cut and paste in iPhone, right?) but then hone and polish and rethink the crap out what’s left until it elicits joy. And then follow the lean startup model to find customer fit.

Making a small product is hard (“I would have written less if I had more time”) but polishing a small product is easier than polishing a big product with a bunch of extraneous features. And when you get it right, you will have a thing of beauty.


State of the design economy?

Mike and I have had our heads down for most of the year working on our next project (which we are INCREDIBLY excited about, but not yet ready to talk about publicly).

We’re at the point where we need design help, and we need help with everything: branding / identity, usability / UX, CSS / HTML production, etc. As a side effect of looking for great designers, we’ve gotten an interesting look into the state of the design economy.

For UX and identity, we started by looking for the designers we really want to work with (mostly high end) and going down the list. These guys are busy! Every firm we’ve contacted is working at capacity, and if anything, they are looking to staff up in order to deal with the workload. Even though that makes our job harder, I like the fact that these guys are busy.

For CSS / HTML production, we went the opposite route. Because of the nature of our product, we will probably need to work with multiple designers of this type and we put out an open call for submissions on Craigslist. After posting last night (at around 9pm) I found my inbox filled with seventy responses. Some of them were terrible, but some of them were great.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a Craigslist job listing, so I don’t have a good baseline. Is getting 70 responses overnight for a design gig typical? And what’s the best explanation for the disparity between how busy theUX and branding guys were vs. the HTML / CSS guys? Is it the difference between looking at high end firms vs. doing a craigslist ad? (probably). Or is it that these two design disciplines have different economics?