why a missing higgs boson won’t derail physics

December 16, 2011

Few things in particle physics seem to be as elusive as the Higgs boson. After many years of smashing a lot of particles, we’ve been able to narrow its probable mass down to about 125 GeV, about five times less than predicted by a number of scientists at the beginning of the search. With CERN staying vague about whether it got even a smidgeon closer to finally finding the particle and its potential habitat getting smaller and smaller, so much so that at this point one starts to wonder if it’s actually too light to impart mass all by itself, maybe we should start considering a future without the boson as the linchpin of mass. What if it’s really not so much the definitive result of the standard model, but actually a placeholder for something far more complex? What if we have to look at the data collected by the LHC again, going over with a fine-tooth comb for anything anomalous or run new experiments which make sure that we detected every but of subatomic shrapnel blasting out of the high energy collision? Far from marking the LHC a failure, it would actually greatly boost its importance…

Here’s an important thing to keep in mind. An unfortunate truth with which scientists are often faced is that the public at large has been conditioned that every project has two possible outcomes. You set out to find or build something and you either succeed or fail. Projects are evaluated for how well they achieve a goal, not how the knowledge gained through attempting them can be applied elsewhere. Yet, in the research world, failure isn’t only an option, but sometimes, a very desirable one because the post-mortem of your attempt to prove a new hypothesis or test an old one can yield new ideas and new approaches. Patent offices are filled with all sorts of innovations that came from accidents, failures, or discarded efforts. Who cares if you didn’t prove that some plant in a distant rainforest can be used as an ingredient in a moisturizing skin cream if it turns out to have an aggressive effect against melanoma? Failure to create an artificial mind plagues the AI field, and yet we make complex signal processing algorithms and our questions have leaked over into fascinating new research into how the human brain actually works. We didn’t find the Higgs boson? Too bad, so sad. But now we have one very bizarre and complex mystery on the origins of mass and a few trillion data points to crunch.

All right, so if there’s no Higgs boson, what else could there be? Well, there’s a myriad of ideas out there and they range from the incredibly exotic, to hinting at some unification between quantum mechanics and our run of the mill standard model particles. In one scenario from a set of theories known as Technicolor Models, an interaction between W and Z bosons breaks symmetry and generates mass. This approach relies on what’s known as confinement, the idea that quarks are tied to each other by charges that prompt them to appear as jets of particles, clumping together into baryons and mesons, or ordinary particles and quark-anti-quark pairs in plain English. Since this symmetry breaks at around 250 GeV, roughly twice the new upper bound set for a wild Higgs to appear out of the particle showers, it would mean that we’ve already went below the point where the appearance of the said wild Higgs boson would falsify this hypothesis. It also gives us a new target area for further study should the Higgs fail to materialize completely, though how to evaluate confinement at such a small scale is something best left for a professional physicist to consider since the equations involved aren’t for the faint of heart to put it mildly, and the mechanics of the experiment are nothing to take lightly either.

But despite the fact that physics could jettison the Higgs if it fails to appear, one prominent tehologian across the pond adopted the search for the boson as his justification for belief in a deity, declaring that physics is filled with esoteric and exotic proposals like dark matter and dark energy, posits ideas that cannot be proven, and believes that the Higgs exists solely because it’s necessary to make their equations work. Of course our theologian in question, Alister McGrath, is woefully mistaken on all counts. If physicists really believed that the universe contains the Higgs boson in the same way theists believe in a deity, they wouldn’t build the LHC in a very complex and expensive attempt to prove whether it exists, and as pointed out above, there are other ways of making the standard model work on paper. Rather than simply looking to confirm their beliefs, scientists at the CERN labs are putting their theories to the test, and they’ll move on should they fail to summon the Higgs, rather than doing the same thing as McGrath; shrugging and declaring that some things just can’t be proven, but since the math works, then it must be correct and the Higgs boson must therefore exist because it makes the math work, using a textbook example of circular logic. Though explaining why they’re moving on would be an uphill fight against those stuck in a very black and white, I-want-to-believe kind of mindset…

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  • morganism

    I don’t know, those college kids using a magnetic field to test a nuetron gun, and having it bend the beam, was enough to put me off the particle zoo.

    I also like a researcher who pointed out the data points for the bottom quark , was actually just a line drawn at random thru the graph.