Built on Facts

Higgs Hates Us?

Supposedly there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and indeed just about every large organization from business to charity spends tremendous amount of time and money trying to get noticed by the public. You’d think therefore that it would be a good thing that particle physics gets the press it does. You’d think, but then you see news stories like this, from which we can get the gist by quoting the second paragraph:

…Then it will be time to test one of the most bizarre and revolutionary theories in science. I’m not talking about extra dimensions of space-time, dark matter or even black holes that eat the Earth. No, I’m talking about the notion that the troubled collider is being sabotaged by its own future. A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.

“Otherwise distinguished.” Well, I have to admit that’s a nice touch. Because this idea ain’t distinguished. In fact if I had to bed I’d say it wasn’t even serious. Physicist humor tends to run along these lines, and if the media latched onto it as though it were serious. I’m not entirely blaming the media, however. It’s not as though the various popularizers of high-energy physics haven’t done a thorough job of making the general public think physics consists entirely of acid-trip hippie speculations about superposed cats, strings, and some of the more bizarre interpretations of entanglement. (You know who you are.)

Which is doubly irritating because not only does high-energy physics not resemble its popular TV/book persona, most physics isn’t high-energy physics in the first place. Solid state, AMO, nuclear, and the various other sub-disciplines get almost no press despite comprising the great bulk of professional physicists. Oh well, some things just have to be lived with.

So with the caveat that the idea probably isn’t serious and that even if it were the media is probably getting it wrong, let’s take a look at the idea to assess its plausibility. It rests on two data points. 1) The LHC broke down in dramatic and expensive fashion. 2) Congress canceled the SSC in the 90s, which would have been America’s next-generation particle accelerator and would have done some of the same things as the LHC.

According to the so-called Standard Model that rules almost all physics, the Higgs is responsible for imbuing other elementary particles with mass…

This malign influence from the future, they argue, could explain why the United States Superconducting Supercollider, also designed to find the Higgs, was canceled in 1993 after billions of dollars had already been spent, an event so unlikely that Dr. Nielsen calls it an “anti-miracle.”

The standard model rules almost all physics? I’ve never used it, neither has anyone else in my (AMO) research group. The standard model is currently the most fundamental low-level description of the universe that we yet have, but most physics is in no sense reliant on it any more than you are reliant on knowledge of the internals of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing when you use cash. If the whole thing turns out to need major revision (as well it might), most physics will go on without a hiccup.

But the points again are two supposedly unlikely events. In reality, neither were at all unlikely. The LHC broke because engineers tried to cut too fine a compromise between the ability to redirect excess current and the ability to detect it in the first place. It wasn’t an arcane and unlikely glitch, it was a plain-and-simple major design flaw. Large projects tend to have them, and after repair they tend to work again. The Hubble Telescope is the canonical example here.

Ditto congress and the SSC. It was never unlikely that it would get canceled. Congress wanted a sacrificial lamb (with few constituents) to maintain the pretense of fiscal responsibility to the voters. It was the SSC or the Space Station, and nobody wanted to wreck NASA’s then-current raison d’etre and all its juicy contractor pork. Bye bye SSC.

The whole thing is like assuming you are Cosmically Forbidden to finish your TPS report because your computer crashed in the middle of it. Unless the LHC is repaired and then immediately attacked by zombie ghosts, I’m pretty sure we can work under the assumption that the universe doesn’t care what our physics experiments do.


  1. #1 Steinn Sigurdsson
    October 14, 2009

    This is a fairly old story, don’t know why NYT picked up on it now.

    The main conclusion to draw from it is that some physicists have a sense of humour, but no blogs for their outlet, unlike others


  2. #2 dean
    October 14, 2009

    I see another type of problem with stories like this one: I see it making it more difficult for people to call scam artists like chopra for his woo, when “pair of otherwise distinguished physicists” are attached to this story.

  3. #3 Zifnab
    October 14, 2009

    Unless the LHC is repaired and then immediately attacked by zombie ghosts,

    Oh shit, look what you’ve done. This is going to be NYT headlines for the next week.

  4. #4 Bob Hawkins
    October 14, 2009

    Besides, the theory subverts itself. If it is proven, by e.g. a zombie ghost attack, people will start deliberately using it for more-or-less nefarious purposes. I mean, the uses of a zombie ghost army are limitless, once you have a way to recruit the zombie ghosts.

    So to prevent ever-more frequent attempts to make the abhorrent Higgs, it’s not enough for the universe to prevent creation of the Higgs. The universe must also cover its tracks. If the theory is true, it cannot be proven.

    I suspect that the thing which the universe really abhors is not the Higgs, but whatever parapsychology would discover if the universe allowed it to make any progress.

  5. #5 Janicot
    October 14, 2009

    Is this a variation of Niven’s Law(s)? (The one from Larry Niven’s essay — “The Theory and Practice of Time Travel”)

    If the universe of discourse permits the possibility of time travel and of changing the past, then no time machine will be invented in that universe.

    Essentially — Any process capable of changing the past will do so until it manages to stabilize things by preventing further changes — almost certainly by time travel never being invented in the first place.

    He called it all the way back near 1968.

  6. #6 Josh
    October 14, 2009

    Am I the only one trying to wrap my head around “zombie ghosts”? Aren’t zombie reincarnated dead bodies, while ghosts are disembodied souls? So if you combine a soulless dead body with a disembodied soul, what have you got? Is it a regular person again?

  7. #7 tcmJOE
    October 14, 2009

    Thanks–I needed someone else to confirm my feelings of WTF.

    OTOH, when I saw the article it made me think of an awesome way to rub salt in someone’s wounds. Here’s how I see it:
    “Hey, how was your date with Christine last night?”
    “Pure disaster, man.”
    “Ha, that’s what I thought. In another universe you hooked up with her, but the laws of space and time found that concept so abhorrent that it went back in time and caused you to make a complete fool of yourself in front of her.”
    [Cue violent attack]

    They also mention Sean Carroll in the NYT article. I’m sort of curious what he actually thinks about it.

  8. #8 Joshua Zelinsky
    October 15, 2009

    Cosmic Variance has one seems to be a more charitable take describing the idea as “undeniably crazy — but not crackpot.” See http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2009/10/14/spooky-signals-from-the-future-telling-us-to-cancel-the-lhc/

  9. #9 steve
    October 15, 2009

    Matt, it would be best to understand the paper before attacking it on arguments that miss the point entirely. It’s as if I refuted the notion of vibrating strings in 10 dimensions entirely on the basis of that word-description without any idea of what the model really is mathematically.

    I had the same feeling of crackpot physics when I first read the NYTimes article, but I have to say I get that feeling reading most popular articles about “respectable” ideas like multiverses, higher dimensions, branes and so on. My inclination is just to frown and move along as I’m not really going to understand what it’s all about from a popular article, so I can’t really comment.

    Sean’s post at cosmic variance on the other hand is a good expository of what that paper is really about.

  10. #10 Alex
    October 15, 2009

    The most important question is why didn’t the Higgs particle go back in time and interfere with Peter Higgs to stop him even thinking of the Higgs particle in the first place?

  11. #11 Uncle Al
    October 15, 2009

    Bill Gates is not reduced to a smoking crater a thousand times/day, or even once/year. That the universe as a whole or its contents as subsets have an opinion is irrelevant. None of it singlely or collectively can do anything abstract about snit.

  12. #12 Jack Hamilton
    October 16, 2009

    I think it’s more likely that the LHC designers fell prey to the temptation to use thiotimoline in their failsafe circuits. The literature makes it clear that, despite its obvious potential benefits, the use of thiotimoline is apt to lead to unfortunate consequences.

    See, for example, “Debugging Using Resublimated Thiotimoline” in IEEE Design and Test of Computers, vol. 18, no. 6, pp. 80, Nov./Dec. 2001.

    Unfortunately, a followup article, “Yet Another Thiotimoline Application,” IEEE Design and Test of Computers, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 80, Mar./Apr. 2002, is not available at my subscription level, but I feel sure that its results are equally discouraging.

    The classic description, “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” from 1948, does not appear to have been followed up – probably because of the scarcity of the material – until Barr (1977).

  13. #13 Andrew
    November 17, 2009

    Time travel IS possible. Well, at least in one direction, and for a limited journey. 🙂

    If you want to look into the “past” you need an astronomer or archeologist.

    If you want to reach the future, you need something like a time capsule, which is exactly the kind of project I’m helping out…


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