The worst thing that could possibly have happened to particle physics

Last week scientists at CERN sort-of-confirmed that they had discovered the Higgs Boson. The Higgs has been the holy grail of particle physics for some time, and the LHC was widely expected to discover it, albeit maybe a bit quicker than actually happened. Back in my days as an undergraduate physics major I remember a friend wearing t-shirt about the LHC that said “Higgs Inside” in the style of the old Intel logo (which might be the nerdiest shirt ever). After multiple shutdowns and delays, the LHC did indeed find the Higgs Boson, and my understanding is that it was more or less right where we expected it. This is being widely celebrated in the media, incorrectly in my view. While it is a triumph for the Standard Model, the fact that the Higgs is right where we expected it is a catastrophe for particle physics. As The Economist puts it,

Unlike the structure of DNA, which came as a surprise, the Higgs is a long-expected guest. It was predicted in 1964 by Peter Higgs, a British physicist who was trying to fix a niggle in quantum theory, and independently, in various guises, by five other researchers. And if the Higgs—or something similar—did not exist, then a lot of what physicists think they know about the universe would be wrong.

That last bit is crucial; every major advance in physics for over a century has been driven by surprises, from the non-existence of the ether to the apparent failure of conservation of energy in beta decay. Surprise findings and failures of our existing models force us to revise our theories. That’s especially important now, since the next really big frontier for particle physics is string theory. The anecdotal consensus is that testing that it will require a particle collider the size of the solar system to test any of the various predictions from all the various string theories out there. If we don’t see any surprises soon, we might have a very long wait.

Some of this may be a case of subliminal sour grapes – I decided to quit physics a while ago, and so am obviously predisposed to find reasons to convince myself that that was a good thing. But think about it this way: finding the Higgs right where we expect it was a big deal, right? We’re excited? Imagine how exciting it must have been to learn that energy and mass are fundamentally equivalent. There’s just no comparison with past discoveries. In fact, this is nothing close to the excitement stirred up by the (apparent but mistaken) finding that neutrinos were going faster than light. That would have been thrilling. The Higgs is much less so.

[Edited because for some reason The Economist is trying to paste in the whole story I grabbed that quote from]


4 thoughts on “The worst thing that could possibly have happened to particle physics”

  1. I agree, but we still need encouragement along the way. I think there will be plenty to surprise us with exoplanets, relativity + quantum (unified theories), dark matter, etc… In 20-50 years, I bet there will be a good kick in the teeth to the physics and paradigms we have established thus far 🙂 (kind of looking forward to it)

    1. Even as much as I’m a skeptical jackass, little would excite me more. Come on, universe, prove me wrong.

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