Denis Overbye gives Randall a big boost hours ahead of “hints” of Higgs boson
Total failure will mean “spectacular” success says Randall
Risks of energy escalation ignored – including creation of new galaxy
The CERN project of hunting for the Higgs boson has been escalated recently with the transition to using lead ions, which are a lot heavier than the protons previously smashed headon to see what bits and pieces result. This is the so-called ALICE experiment, which led to the report today on the progress of the hunt for the Higgs boson, whose field lends mass to the universe, if it exists. We are now told that there are “hints” in the form of “lumps” in the data that have the tantalizing prospect of turning out to mean that the Higgs has been sighted.
The day before we enjoyed the piece in the Times by Denis Overbye which consisted of a major boost for Lisa Randall, the Harvard physicist whose book is prominently displayed in bookstores and whose theories have a chance of being vidicated by the LHC also. This was Physicists Anxiously Await New Data on ‘God Particle’, by Dennis Overbye (Dec 11).
High noon is approaching for the biggest manhunt in the history of physics. At 8 a.m. Eastern time on Tuesday morning, scientists from CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, are scheduled to give a progress report on the search for the Higgs boson — infamously known as the “God particle” — whose discovery would vindicate the modern theory of how elementary particles get mass.
The report comes amid rumors that the two competing armies of scientists sifting debris from hundreds of trillions of proton collisions in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, or L.H.C., outside Geneva, have both finally seen hints of what might turn out be the elusive particle when more data is gathered next year.
Alternatively, the experimentalists say that a year from now they should have enough data to rule out the existence of the most popular version of the Higgs boson, sending theorists back to their blackboards in search of another explanation of why particles have mass.
So the whole world will be watching.
Among them will be Lisa Randall, a Harvard particle theorist and author of the new book “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World.” In an interview with Dennis Overbye of The Times, Dr. Randall provided this guide to the action for those of us in the bleachers.
Q. What is the Higgs and why is it important?
A. The name Higgs refers to at least four things. First of all, there is a Higgs mechanism, which is ultimately responsible for elementary particles’ masses. This is certainly one of the trickier aspects of particle physics to explain, but essentially something like a charge — not an electric charge — permeates the vacuum, the state with no particles.
These “charges” are associated with a Higgs field. As particles pass through this field they interact with the “charges,” and this interaction makes them act as if they had mass. Heavier particles do so more, and lighter particles do so less. The Higgs mechanism is essential to the masses of elementary particles.
The Higgs particle, or Higgs boson, is the vestige of the simplest proposed model of what created the Higgs field in the first place. Contrary to popular understanding, the Higgs field gives mass — not the Higgs boson. But a discovery of the Higgs boson would tell us that the Higgs mechanism is right and help us pin down the theory that underlies both the Higgs mechanism and the Standard Model.
In the simplest implementation of the Higgs mechanism, the experimental consequence is the Higgs boson. It is the particle that the experimentalists are now searching for.
Of course, Higgs is also the name of the person, Peter Higgs, who first developed the underlying theory (along with five others who will be in contention for the Nobel Prize if and when the Higgs particle is discovered.)
Q. How will we know it when we find it?
A. In the simplest implementation of the Higgs mechanism, we know precisely what the properties of the Higgs boson should be. That’s because of its connection to the Higgs mechanism, which tells us that its interactions with any particular particle are determined by that particular particle’s mass.
Knowing the interactions, we can calculate how often the Higgs boson should be produced and the ways in which it should decay. It can decay only into those particles that are light enough for energy to be conserved. Roughly speaking, the Higgs boson decays into the heaviest such particles the most often, since it interacts with them the most strongly.
What we don’t know, however, is the Higgs boson’s mass. The Higgs boson decays differently, depending on its mass, since a heavier Higgs boson can decay in ways that a light Higgs boson can’t. So when experimenters look for the Higgs boson, they look over a range of masses and employ a variety of search strategies.
Q. What do we know about it so far?
A. Experimenters have already ruled out a large range of masses. The Higgs boson, if it exists, has to be heavier than 114.4 giga-electron volts (GeV), which are the units of mass that particle physicists use. By comparison, protons, the bedrock of ordinary matter, are about 1 giga-electron volt, and an electron is only half a million electron volts.
Based on recent searches by the L.H.C., the Higgs boson is also excluded between about 140 GeV and 500 GeV. This makes the most likely region for the Higgs mass to be between about 115 and 140 GeV, which is the range Tuesday’s results should focus on, although in principle heavier Higgs boson masses are in contention too.
I don’t want to shatter hopes, but don’t count on Tuesday’s results being definitive. This is the toughest range of masses for the L.H.C., and detection is tricky for this range. I suspect they will have enough evidence not to exclude the Higgs, but too little to fully pin it down without next year’s data.
Q. What difference does its mass make?
A. Actually, as far as matter’s properties go, it doesn’t really make a great deal of difference. As long as the Higgs mechanism is in place, elementary particles that we know about will have the masses that they do.
But no one thinks the Higgs is the final word about what underlies the Standard Model of particle physics, the theory that describes the most basic elements of matter and the forces through which they interact. Even if the Higgs boson is discovered, the question will still remain of why masses are what they are.
According to quantum field theory — the theory that combines quantum mechanics and special relativity — masses would be expected to be ten thousand trillion times bigger. Without some deeper ingredient, a fudge of that size would be required to make it all hang together. No particle physicist believes that.
We all expect a richer theory underlying the Standard Model. That’s one reason the mass matters to us. Some theories only accommodate a particular range of masses. Knowing the mass will give us insight into what that deeper underlying theory is.
Q. Is the L.H.C. a flop if we don’t find the Higgs boson?
A. The great irony is that not finding a Higgs boson would be spectacular from the point of view of particle physics, pointing to something more interesting than the simple Higgs model. Future investigations could reveal that the particle playing the role of the Higgs has interactions aside from the ones we know have to be there for particles to acquire mass.
The other possibility is that the answer is not the simple, fundamental particle that the Large Hadron Collider currently is looking for. It could be a more complicated object or part of a more complex sector that would take longer to find.
Q. Does this have anything to do with neutrinos — specifically, the ones that were recently reported as having traveled faster than light on a journey that originated at CERN?
A. Neutrinos have tiny masses. The Higgs mechanism is probably partially responsible for those, too. Just nothing that encourages them to go faster than light (which they most likely don’t).
Q. In 1993, the U.S. Congress canceled a larger American collider, the superconducting super collider, which would have been bigger than the CERN machine. Would it have found the Higgs particle years ago?
A. Yes, if it had gone according to schedule. And it would have been able to find things that weren’t a simple Higgs boson, too. The L.H.C. can do such searches as well, but with its lower energy the work is more challenging and will require more time.
Meanwhile the only note of dissent in applauding this great project and the energy escalation at the LHC which according to conCERNed skeptics (and according to the papers CERN scientists have written about in the past, and other papers by Chinese physicists) is at the site of Lifeboat.com, where Professor Otto Rossler has been issuing a stream of increasingly alarmist posts, based on his own theoretical analysis of the possibilities.
Here is his latest one today (Dec 14):
As CERN Accepts the Worst Reproach of History, the Latter Sticks to Their Advisor
Posted by Otto E. Rössler in categories: existential risks, particle physics
Professor Hermann Nicolai is the only public voice on the planet defending CERN against my scientific results, with his 3-year-old, long-refuted counterclaims on the Internet that he refuses to take back. His denial of dialog (only the day before yesterday again) enables CERN to do the same and continue. In view of the severity of the accusation accepted by CERN (“attempted panbiocide”), I dare publicly compare my responsible colleague Nicolai with a Himmler playing a musical instrument in a concentration camp.
I shall take the comparison back as soon as he exculpates himself. I apologize that I see no other way to get him to respond to my given proof of the danger consciously incurred by CERN.
This is attacked by the usual suspects (who seem to be assigned or have taken upon themselves the duty of jeering at Rossler and picking apart his theorem) and supported in his conCERN only by a couple of people, notably Robert Houston, who states that:
Robert Houston on December 14, 2011 9:37 pm
The Earth has never faced a menace so great as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The number of potential victims is 140 times the 50 million who perished in World War II — about 11 million of whom were executed by Himmler, according to Wikipedia.
The criminal negligence of CERN in failing to hold any safety conference or safety review since 2008, or even to discuss the concerns of its critics, makes its operation of the LHC an act of reckless endangerment threatening all mankind and future generations. This cabal of arrogant, mad scientists should be closed down by civilized nations — and by NATO if necessary — before it unleashes destructive black holes and strangelets that could annihilate the world.
We thought it was worth backing up Houston and clarifying the situation by adding the following:
Professor Rossler’s note of desperation, and Robert Houston’s measure of the size of the risk that CERN is undertaking, reflects their estimate of the credibility of the papers and pronouncements of those who have analyzed the situation, including the scientists of CERN. Are the conCERNed skeptics hysterical and wrong in their evaluation of the crisis, or are they right and reasonable?
The answer to this question is that they seem to be only too justified in their anxiety. One reason is that in the case of Houston it is the papers and pronouncement of the scientists at CERN that form the bulk of his references. In other words, he is accepting the authority of CERN physicists and pointing out that if you read them thoroughly you will find statements and calculations in their public papers and reports that predict precisely the dire consequences that conCERNed critics fear.
Professor Rossler has his own analysis estimating a high risk that the conseuqnces will be frightful, which some here have tried to pick holes in as far as details are concerned, but have not demonstrated that his overall view is any more flawed than the predictions of CERN have proved so far.
The search for the Higgs boson which is the main outcome of the CERN LHC energy escalation is so far rather fruitless, though we were told yesterday that there were “hints” in “lumps” observed in the data which may yet prove out.
The significant observations that others should take into account are those emanating from Lisa Randall, the personable Harvard physicist whose career would be boosted to the stratosphere if the Higgs appeared, but also, she say, if it doesn’t appear, since that result would be equally “spectacular”, as she informed Denis Overbye of the New York Times (published on Monday).
One things has become fairly clear to outside observers. The theories which they hope that the LHC may prove or at least support are possibly just as much fantasy as Professor Rossler’s, possibly more so. There is nothing to choose between them until more data comes through. They are all fantasies of concrete interpretation of mathematics which seems beautiful (Higg’s mathematics, mainly.)
On the other hand, if the fantasies of the critics turn out to be correct, the result will be very ugly. Given that possibility, it is indeed deplorable that CERN should be so irresponsible as not to proceed more cautiously. The supposedly alarmist cries of Rossler and Houston are in fact perfectly justified by the insider statements made at CERN, as well as the complete lack of any basis to prefer their safety assurances and the theories of even their best thinkers over those of outsiders. In fact, the safety record of CERN already suggest that they can’t keep it together even on the simple engineering level, since they have blown up their own machine twice before getting it to run properly.
The difference here is that we cannot repair the Earth once it is swallowed up by a black hole, a strangelet or — and this is a possibility reckoned by one theorist — the Higgs boson itself, which might create a new galaxy right in the heart of Geneva.
The CERN cheerleaders here who throw brickbats at Rossler and those who know his conCERN is justified are not better than the defenders of the castle in Monty Python’s movie who throw dead cows over the parapets at the righteous King Arthur in search of the Holy Grail.
One wonders whether any of them have wives and children, or are they just willing to sacrifice them along with the population of the planet just to see what happens?
The posts on Lifeboat have been discussing the topic of the safety of the LHC for many months now, without Rossler being discouraged by the lack of response or any aid in accessing influential politicians or other responsible citizens who might have the power to intervene.
But his mounting conviction of the high risk of planetary catastrophe is reflected by his high rate of posting his complaint and argument in various forms, which recently rose to a peak of two in one day.
Given that the danger posed now includes the formation of a new galaxy, we are keeping our fingers crossed, which apparently happens to be the only safety strategy of CERN itself.