The Higgs mechanism and superconductivity: A case study of formal analogies

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Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, ISSN: 1355-2198, Vol: 55, Page: 72-91

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Fraser, Doreen; Koberinski, Adam
Elsevier BV; Elsevier
Arts and Humanities; Physics and Astronomy
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Following the experimental discovery of the Higgs boson, physicists explained the discovery to the public by appealing to analogies with condensed matter physics. The historical root of these analogies is the analogies to models of superconductivity that inspired the introduction of spontaneous symmetry breaking (SSB) into particle physics in the early 1960s. We offer a historical and philosophical analysis of the analogies between the Higgs model of the electroweak (EW) interaction and the Ginsburg–Landau (GL) and Bardeen–Cooper–Schrieffer (BCS) models of superconductivity, respectively. The conclusion of our analysis is that both sets of analogies are purely formal in virtue of the fact that they are accompanied by substantial physical disanalogies. In particular, the formal analogies do not map the temporal, causal, or modal structures of SSB in superconductivity to temporal, causal, or modal structures in the Higgs model. These substantial physical disanalogies mean that analogies to models of superconductivity cannot supply the basis for the physical interpretation of EW SSB; however, an appreciation of the contrast between the physical interpretations of SSB in superconductivity and the Higgs model does help to clarify some foundational issues. Unlike SSB in superconductivity, SSB in the Higgs sector of the Standard Model (without the addition of new physics) is neither a temporal nor a causal process. We discuss the implications for the ‘eating’ metaphor for mass gain in the Higgs model. Furthermore, the distinction between the phenomenological GL model and the dynamical BCS model does not carry over to EW models, which clarifies the desiderata for the so-called ‘dynamical’ models of EW SSB (e.g., minimal technicolor). Finally, the development of the Higgs model is an illuminating case study for philosophers of science because it illustrates how purely formal analogies can play a fruitful heuristic role in physics.