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 here on the morning of the announcement.
And yet, science thrives on observations that don’t match up with predictions. Dark energy and dark matter, two of the greatest discoveries in a century of astrophysics, were hit upon because of the yawning gap between prediction and observation. If the universe is a puzzle, 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.”