A good day for Peter Higgs — but for the rest of us, maybe not so much.
Reading the headlines today about the newly confirmed (more or less) Higgs boson and how it’s the “key to the universe,” I was reminded – because I’m a contrarian – of an old Bruce Springsteen lyric about the foolishness of adolescence: “I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car.”
The Higgs hoopla may be almost as adolescent and foolish. Scientists and their spokespeople and media hangers-on are calling the Higgs and its field the “Holy Grail” of physics. But does anyone ever truly find a Grail?
About a year ago, I happened to be speaking to a physicist who works on one of the big LHC detectors, and I asked him what he and his colleagues would do if they didn’t find the Higgs (as seemed very possible at the time). He said that not finding it would be more exciting, more interesting – because it would be a goad to new thinking and new types of experiment. By contrast, finding the Higgs (especially if it’s just as predicted) would settle most of the big issues, leaving thousands of theoretical and experimental particle physicists with (in their minds) relatively minor problems to solve. Science needs more challenges, more mystery, less complacency.
A different physicist made much the same point in the NYT today:
In an e-mail, Maria Spiropulu, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who works with the CMS team at CERN, wrote about the Higgs: “I personally do not want it to be standard model anything — I don’t want it to be simple or symmetric or as predicted. I want us all to have been dealt a complex hand that will send me (and all of us) in a (good) loop for a long time.”
Anyway, to the extent that this is seen as the ultimate confirmation of the so-called Standard Model of particles/forces, it should remind us (depressingly) that, according to current concepts in quantum cosmology, our universe is but one of many – an infinite number, for practical purposes. If so, then our “Standard” Model, even if correct, shouldn’t be the same as the “standard” models that pertain in most other universes, and our celebration over the Higgs is, in the grand scheme of things, strictly a local affair.
Finally, the fact that physicists invented a useful concept (the Higgs field and associated boson) and then built huge machines (Tevatron, then LHC) to find evidence for it, and then methodically looked and found that evidence – statistically convincing evidence – seems very impressive on its face; but is it not also a bit eerie? Remember Forbidden Planet? What if our reality is toying with us? What if it can real-ize any theory we dream up that is consistent with every other established or latent phenomenon? What if it effectively makes itself up as we go along?