Saturday, October 17, 2009

Does the Higgs Boson particle have a secret mission?

Why do we have no evidence for the existence of the Higgs Boson particle? Why have several experimental quests for the Higgs Boson particle ended in expensive failure, most notably the recent failure at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)?

(Update November 2009: a second failure involved a bird and a baguette [Register, Guardian]. You couldn't make it up.)

If you want a crazy idea, ask a physicist. Holger Bech Nielsen and the Japanese physicist Masao Ninomiya suggest a novel hypothesis that sounds like science fiction. Their idea is that the Higgs boson particle goes backwards in time to erase evidence of its existence, including retrospectively sabotaging the experiment that would produce it. It is called the God particle, after all.

And for their second crazy idea, Nielsen and Ninomiya have suggested a way to test the hypothesis, based on a random procedure that looks like a rejected Derren Brown script.

Underlying these crazy ideas there is perhaps a serious criticism of the research methodology behind the Large Hadron Collider. According to Cern's director of communications James Gillies, the experiment is "a bit like firing knitting needles from across the Atlantic and getting them to collide half way" [BBC News, 16 October 2009]. But does this ballistic metaphor, which Newton would have understood, make any sense in terms of the latest thinking about subatomic physics? Is this extremely expensive experiment capable of producing any meaningful results? How long is a piece of string theory?

For details and commentary, see New York Times, New Scientist, Register, Reuters, Dorigo and (highly recommended) Discover. And see my previous post: CERN and conspiracy theories.

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