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Could Nobel Prize for “God Particle” Be Last Gasp for Particle Physics?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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“Here at last!” With this unusual but understandable exuberance, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced today that it has awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics to François Englert and Peter Higgs. Almost a half century ago, Englert and Higgs independently proposed the existence of a particle—which came to be known as the Higgs boson–that helps confer mass to other particles. The Higgs boson was finally discovered last year by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research.

Computer simulation of particle traces from an LHC collision in which a Higgs Boson is produced.

The Higgs has long inspired mixed reactions. As I reported last year, some observers fear that the Higgs boson may represent the last gasp of particle physics. I quoted physicist-journalist Adrian Cho noting in Science that “even as physicists celebrate, the discovery raises worries among some that there may remain no new physics that can be discovered with the atom-smasher.” Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg told Cho: “My nightmare, and it’s not just me, but a lot of us [in particle physics], is that the LHC discovers the Higgs boson and nothing else… That would be like closing a door.”

Most other coverage of today’s Nobel Prize announcement will no doubt be celebratory and upbeat about the future of particle physics. So surely no one will mind if I reprise the glum perspective of the Higgs I have offered in previous posts.

The Higgs has long been a mixed blessing for particle physics. In the early 1990s, when physicists were pleading—ultimately in vain–with Congress not to cancel the Superconducting Supercollider, which was sucking up tax dollars faster than a black hole, the Nobel laureate Leon Lederman christened the Higgs “the God particle.” This is scientific hype at its most outrageous. If the Higgs is the “God Particle,” what should we call an even more fundamental particle, like a string? The Godhead Particle? The Mother of God Particle?

Lederman himself confessed that “the Goddamn Particle” might have been a better name for the Higgs, given how hard it had been to detect “and the expense it is causing.” A more fundamental problem is that discovering the Higgs would be a modest, even anti-climactic achievement, relative to the grand ambitions of theoretical physics. The Higgs would serve merely as the capstone of the Standard Model of particle physics, which describes the workings of electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. The Standard Model, because it excludes gravity, is an incomplete account of reality; it is like a theory of human nature that excludes sex. As physicist Michio Kaku put it in 2011, the Standard Model is “rather ugly” and “a theory that only a mother could love.”

Our best theory of gravity is still general relativity, which does not mesh mathematically with the quantum field theories that comprise the Standard Model. Over the past few decades, theorists have become increasingly obsessed with finding a unified theory, a “theory of everything” that wraps all of nature’s forces into one tidy package. Hearing all the hoopla about the Higgs, the public might understandably assume that it represents a crucial step toward a unified theory–and perhaps at least tentative confirmation of the existence of strings, branes, hyperspaces, multiverses and all the other fantastical eidolons that Kaku, Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene and other unification enthusiasts tout in their bestsellers.

But the Higgs doesn’t take us any closer to a unified theory than climbing a tree would take me to the Moon. String theory, loop-space theory and other popular candidates for a unified theory postulate phenomena far too minuscule to be detected by any existing or even conceivable (except in a sci-fi way) experiment. Obtaining the kind of evidence of a string or loop that we have for, say, the top quark would require building an accelerator as big as the Milky Way.

Kaku asserted that finding the Higgs “is not enough. What is needed is a genuine theory of everything, which can simply and beautifully unify all the forces of the universe into a single coherent whole—a goal sought by Einstein for the last 30 years of his life.” He insisted that we are at “the beginning, not the end of physics. The adventure continues.” Maybe. But I’m not hopeful. Whether or not physicists find the Goddamn Particle, the quest for unification, which has given physics its glitter over the past half century, looks increasingly like a dead end.

Almost 10 years ago, I put my money where my mouth is. The Long Now Foundation, a nonprofit that encourages long-term thinking, asked a bunch of people to make bets about trends in science, technology and other realms of culture. I bet Kaku $1,000 that by the year 2020, “no one will have won a Nobel Prize for work on superstring theory, membrane theory or some other unified theory describing all the forces of nature.” (Lee “loop space” Smolin was my original counter-bettor but backed out at the last minute, the big chicken.)

Kaku and I each put up $1,000 in advance, which the Long Now Foundation keeps in escrow. If civilization–or more importantly, the Long Now Foundation–still exists in 2020, it will give $2,000 to a charity designated by me (the Nature Conservancy) or Kaku (National Peace Action). In defending my bet, I stated:

“The dream of a unified theory, which some evangelists call a ‘theory of everything,’ will never be entirely abandoned. But I predict that over the next twenty years, fewer smart young physicists will be attracted to an endeavor that has vanishingly little hope of an empirical payoff. Most physicists will come to accept that nature might not share our passion for unity. Physicists have already produced theories–Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, general relativity, nonlinear dynamics–that work extraordinarily well in certain domains, and there is no reason why there should be a single theory that accounts for all the forces of nature. The quest for a unified theory will come to be seen not as a branch of science, which tells us about the real world, but as a kind of mathematical theology.”

I added, however—and this is both mawkish tripe and the truth–that “I would be delighted to lose this bet.”

Image and caption copyright: CERN, Image credit: Lucas Taylor.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. M Tucker 12:40 pm 10/8/2013

    While it may turn out that the LHC will not discover any else that it new this does not spell the “last gasp for particle physics.” The particle physicists have much to keep them busy. They still need a good theory to explain the curious behavior of neutrinos and there is of course dark matter to deal with. Why does the Standard Model include three generations of particles when only the first generation is necessary to construct all matter in the universe? No, particle physics has not reached an end but a unification of the Standard Model with gravity might not be possible or it might take new physics to make it possible. I have a feeling you will win your bet John as long as civilization or the Long Now Foundation still exist; although it would be fun if you lost.

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  2. 2. RSchmidt 1:09 pm 10/8/2013

    I don’t really see the point of being pessimistic about our chances of finding a unified theory. Sure, it is a difficult problem. And yes, we don’t know the answer yet (what a surprise), which I guess is why we are looking. At this point we have no reason to think this is impossible, so why the pessimism? Do you get points for guessing outcomes, other than your rather pointless bet? Do you get some smug satisfaction from doubting the abilities of the scientific community? Instead of trying to call the race before it is over, why not find enjoyment in the process? Regardless of whether or not we find a unifying theory, we will discover something new about the universe and for me, that is reason for optimism.

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  3. 3. curiouswavefunction 4:57 pm 10/8/2013

    “Last gasp for particle physics” sounds suspiciously like one of those doom-and-gloom scenarios postulated for physics at the end of the nineteenth century.

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  4. 4. geojellyroll 6:59 pm 10/8/2013

    Not at all. This is akin to walking across the country and now knowing that you are walking in the right direction. Resources are channeled based on more knowledge and on less speculation.

    The real issue is if there is a finite amount of knowledge that is possible to know. We modern humans have a false bravado that anything is possible if we put our minds to it…actually that is wrong. Something may be possible only if it is within the properties of matter and energy.

    Way out in left field speculation (call me whacko)…sometime in the next few decades or millenia we are going to have some understanding of existence not through our physics but through information provided by ET intelligences. This won’t be through radio astronomy but through some type of quantum entanglement info hiway that links a quadrillion or so intelligences around the universe.

    Re String theory. My reaction is often ‘so what’. We have no means of verifying String theory pronouncements…except through meathematics which is a circular logic. Some branch of String theory today may explain everything but we couldnt confirm it. String theory is more a mathematical than scientific endevour. Noble but so is music and poetry in seeking ‘The Truth’.

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  5. 5. RSchmidt 9:44 pm 10/8/2013

    @geojellyroll, whacko

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  6. 6. nicholasjh1 2:02 pm 10/9/2013

    It could be that the unified theory is based on forces or particles we can not measure. – we already know there are particles that we are unable to detect directly (such as higgs which we can only detect by destroying it.) and some neutrinos which pop in and out of or detection, not because they disapear, but because the transform to something we can’t detect. There is no reason to believe that there isn’t a whole host of things that we are unable to detect.

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  7. 7. John Duffield 3:30 pm 10/9/2013

    John: you aren’t pessimistic enough. Not nearly.

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  8. 8. Von Stupidtz 4:15 pm 10/9/2013

    Betsman you are. Does the news make you feel better?

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  9. 9. Andrei Kirilyuk 2:31 pm 10/10/2013

    It’s a “self-consistent” situation (and impasse) in today’s official science (just additionally confirmed by this Nobel Prize), in reality from all sides.

    Because if the genuine theory of everything with the necessary properties does appear (, then … it’s not true and is but another piece of “crackpot science”, by the axiomatic definition of interested bureaucratic machine (including its scientists and journalists). And since the change in question cannot be small in principle, after all the efforts, one deals here with a quite stable and carefully maintained impasse.

    In that way everyone preserves his subjectively preferred game, vain honors and top prizes (nothing to do with objective reality), John Horgan wins all his bets, fellow journalists and other idle storytellers “successfully” earn their living by endless discussions of breeding purely abstract (thus eternal) “possibilities”, and huge experimental factories give “prestigious” (and senseless) job to so many young and old people…

    Still, taking into account the great hope of the “mawkish tripe” at the end, .

    As to the “theory of everything” in science, it’s easy to see that it’s either objective, consistent scientific knowledge AND (automatically) the true theory of everything (even far beyond “physics” as such), or else just an illusion of objective knowledge about reality. It’s a rigorous statement and I hope you can guess why.

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  10. 10. SoftLanding 6:28 am 10/14/2013


    ” “Last gasp for particle physics” sounds suspiciously like one of those doom-and-gloom scenarios postulated for physics at the end of the nineteenth century.”

    Because “Last gasp for particle physics” sounds “suspiciously like” one of those “doom-and-gloom” scenarios at the end of the nineteenth century does not, of course, mean it is incorrect.

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  11. 11. gs_chandy 10:21 am 12/18/2013

    Every ‘answer’ to any question generates a whole number of further questions: that is the nature of the universe and of our (human) knowledge about it. (I seem to recall that your question in the title of your piece was asked about physics/science as a whole about a century ago – and was found to be ‘off-track’ from what really happened).

    I am not now able to follow/articulate the implications of the Higgs boson for particle physics – but I am pretty certain that the answer to your question has to be “NO!” Nothing else makes sense.


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  12. 12. dburress 11:20 pm 04/14/2014

    What really drives Horgan’s iconoclasm is his disbelief in the unity of science. Most scientist feel otherwise, and probably always will. In particular, any new theory that unifies or covers all (or major parts of) two inconsistent old theories that worked well in separate domains, will be always be seen as a great achievement. Unification is the revealed preference of working scientists. Moreover it could hardly be otherwise: scientists have to believe they are working with a consistent theory, even if they are at the edge of a theory’s domain.
    Therefore I find myself wondering how Horgan thinks about margins between theories in the fractured universe he believes in. What happens when we focus our experiments on the edge where two theories meet and contradict? If experiments confirm one but not the other theory then we have’t really located the edge. Otherwise the experiments lead to new phenomena. Does Horgan seriously believe there are new physical phenomena that can’t be theorized?
    It won’t do to say that two theories contradict each other yet have no common margin. If the theories can’t confront each other,no one would say they contradict each other. Quantum mechanics can’t possible contradict Keynesian economics.
    Horgan would probably respond that experiments at certain boundaries are not doable. That seems like an extremely rash long-term prediction about science, but actually it a safe bet that can never be disconfirmed in general. It is much like the God in the Gaps argument: since there will always be margins we don’t yet know how to experiment on, Horgan can always claim he is right. And maybe he is, but good science always proceeds on the assumption he is wrong.
    I imagine Horgan is right however about the inability of physicists to find a good gravitational quantum field theory by 2020, and that was also a pretty good bet in 2000. But I’d rely on the fact that it is an exceedingly hard problem that has been on the agenda since the 1920′s. Using the maximum likelihood assumption that we are at the midway point of the process, it might take another hundred years to solve it. I think a good theory will eventually be found–good in the sense that it makes new and testable predictions, not good in the sense it obeys every arbitrary aesthetic concern. E.g. it will very likely contain unobservable entities and may well even include the anthropic principle. But scientists will get used to all that if the theory is consistent and makes predictions.

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