Particle Physics

06
Aug

Bittersweet Victory: Physics After the Higgs

When I see those victorious Olympic athletes all bedecked on the podium, beaming their gold-medal smiles and crying their gold-medal tears, I can’t help thinking: Now what?

And now that the coming-out party for the Higgs (or the Higgs-like boson, if you must) is over—the bubbly popped, the headlines receded—are physicists asking themselves the same question?

Certainly, physicists are not crying into their champagne. The discovery of a new boson right where the Higgs should be is a scientific tour-de-force. “It confirms, as it completes, the Standard Model of fundamental physics,” Frank Wilczek wrote dark energy and dark matter are odd-shaped pieces that puckishly refuse to be wedged into place and, in their refusal, open up the possibility that the puzzle is actually richer and more complex than we ever anticipated. The Higgs, on the other hand, snaps right into place with a satisfying “Eureka!”

But if the puzzle of the Standard Model is now complete, where does that leave physics?

“There’s this huge looming question: The Standard Model works impeccably, but it leaves a lot of things unexplained,” says David Kaiser, a physicist and science historian at MIT. The Standard Model does not account for gravity, for instance, and it provides no explanation for why the physical constants take the particular values that they do. Like the periodic table of the elements, the Standard Model is an utterly faithful census of the ingredients that make up our universe. But while we know the elegant atomic underpinnings of the motley periodic table, we are still seeking the deeper laws that are expressed in the Standard Model.

“I always felt the best possible thing for the LHC would be to not see the Higgs,” says Peter Woit, a theorist at Columbia University. That would have cracked the Standard Model wide open, perhaps giving scientists a glimpse of the deeper physics underlying it. In this sense, says Woit, “The Standard Model is a victim of its own success.” Though it fails to answer some fundamental questions about out universe, it is so impervious to experimental contradiction—so perfect in its predictions—that physicists may soon find themselves at an impasse.

“If this is really the Higgs, then we have completed the Standard Model,” says physicist Peter Fisher of MIT. “We have created this model that describes exquisitely the world around us. We could legitimately say that, as a field of endeavor, we’ve done all there is to be done, and ask: Is this a place to stop and reassess?”

Physicists do have some guesses at what may lie beyond the Standard Model. There’s supersymmetry, for one, which suggests that elementary particles have mirror-image “superpartners” that differ in spin. Yet, to the surprise of some physicists, even the LHC has been unable to turn up any evidence of these superpartners. That suggests that, if superpartners are out there, they don’t possess the neat mirror-image symmetry we expected. Instead, the mirror that divides “us” from “them” may be warped.

“With the Higgs, you knew exactly what to look for,” says Woit. But the mirror of supersymmetry, if it exists, “could be warped in any arbitrary way,” leaving physicists to pursue an almost limitless game of hide-and-seek. And what if the superpartners—or other hints of new physics—are hiding where the LHC can’t find them?

But the story of the Higgs isn’t over yet. Over the coming months, physicists on the CMS and ATLAS teams will look to see whether this thing they have found decays in the ways they expect. Perhaps the new boson will turn out to be not so “vanilla” after all. Historically, it is often the “one last measurement to nail it down” that ends up taking physics in a new direction, Kaiser points out.

To Nobel prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek, finding the new boson is just the beginning. “Having won this glorious battle, I’m psyched up for complete victory. We need to see some of the new particles that low-energy supersymmetry predicts. I think that will eventually happen at the LHC.”

“There is also room for gratuitous, but not perverse, speculation about the Higgs being a ‘portal’ into hidden sectors—hypothetical worlds of particles that have neither strong nor weak nor electromagnetic interactions,” adds Wilczek.

Yet Steve Ahlen, a Boston University physicist who helped build the ATLAS detector, thinks that the story of the quest for the Higgs has a somewhat different moral: “The most impressive thing about the success of the LHC, CMS and ATLAS is that thousands of people from all over the world, supported by tax dollars from many hundreds of millions of people, achieved success without the promise of fortune, power or fame, but for the simple joy of observing the beautiful world we live in. I think there is an important lesson to be learned from that.”

Tell us what you think on Twitter, Facebook, or email.

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Kate Becker

    In a parallel universe, Kate Becker is senior researcher for NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW and a blogger for Inside NOVA. In this universe, she is your host here at The Nature of Reality, and it is her mission to blow your mind with physics. Kate studied physics at Oberlin College and astronomy at Cornell University. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

    • Thomas

      I don’t mean to badmouth your search for the next big question in particle physics. Your tour of the remaining problems was interesting. But as a former physicist who cut his teeth at the intersection of biophysics and laser optics, one thing does annoy me a little. You sound as if particle physics was all there is to physics, as if all physics was about investigating the four fundamental forces and the particles that mediate them.

      This premise is misleading. From solid-state physics to quantum computing to atom lasers (to stop after just three), physics has lots of strange and exciting sub-fields. And to most of them, it makes no difference what lies beyond the standard model of particle physics. Sure, the Hicks Boson is exciting. But it’s not everything that physics is about. Let’s keep things in perspective here.

    • Thomas

      Grrr, I mean “Higgs” (the physicist) of course, not “HIcks” (the economist). Always with the thinkos. . . .

    • http://www.theoryofsomething.com/ G.D.

      I fully agree with the doubters of the Standard Model.

      Be the first to check out theoryofsomething.com ! There are no bosons at all. Mass and Gravity is fully explained in the ToS.
      And it is not a crackpot theory – its hands-on and supported.
      Even good old F=ma is derived for the first time. Have a look!

    • http://www.facebook.com/sign3 Manuel Morales

      I have found it surprising that no one in the media has ask the folks at CERN if they knew “exactly” which type of collision (direct or indirect) caused the effects that they used as evidence for the Higgs boson discovery? If they did they would find out that by scientific terms this “discovery” is actually a speculation:

      Assumed Higgs Boson Discovery Proves Einstein Right
      http://gsjournal.net/Science-Journals/Essays/View/4259

    • http://www.facebook.com/terrence.a.davis1 Terrence Andrew Davis

      All you can do now is ask God? God says…

      —-

      hundred oxen.

      35:10 So the service was prepared, and the priests stood in their
      place, and the Levites in their courses, according to the king’s
      commandment.

      35:11 And they killed the passover, and the priests sprinkled the
      blood from their hands, and the Levites flayed them.

      35:12 And they removed the burnt offerings, that they might give
      according to the divisions of the families of the people, to offer
      unto the LORD, as it is written in the book of Moses. And so did they
      with the oxen.

      35:13 And they roasted the passover with fire according to the
      ordinance: but the other holy offerings sod they in pots, and in
      caldrons, and in pans, and divided them speedily among all the people.

      —-

      They should put a sod roof on an accelerator.
      One time God quoted the Jericho wall story. :-)

    • matthew

      I would have to agree with Thomas on this one. Impasse? Really? I know in condensed matter physics, we have a huge amount of question still remaining. I see no impasse that lies ahead for us; Only job security.

    • Sign3

      Due to the recent report that physicists at CERN had made an omission error in obtaining their “evidence” for their “discovery”, it now appears that they have made their speculation of what the collision effects mean based on speculation (unknown types of collisions). See report:

      http://gsjournal.net/Science-Journals/Essays/View/4259

      This being the case, it appears that science is trying to become the new religion… empirical evidence based on speculation. Don’t we have enough religions as it is without science trying to become one as well?