“I Think We Have It”: Is the Higgs Boson a Disappointment?

There are, it seems, two ways to look at the discovery of the Higgs particle—or, at least, of a Higgs-like particle—announced on Wednesday in Switzerland. One is as the crowning achievement of modern physics and a triumphal moment for science. The other is as a bit of a disappointment.

Very early on Wednesday morning, officials at the Large Hadron Collider (which I wrote about in 2007) announced that they’d found the elusive Higgs, which has been sought for nearly half a century. “I think we have it,” Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director general of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, observed laconically. In the U.S., where physicists had gathered at 3 A.M. to watch a live feed of the announcement from Geneva, the news was greeted with cheers and champagne. “You knew you had to be there,” Amit Lath, a Rutgers professor of physics who attended a viewing party at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, said.

The Higgs boson was first postulated by the Scottish physicist Peter Higgs back in 1964, and its existence is essential to what’s known as the Standard Model of particle physics, which describes how most—but, importantly, not all—of the observed forces in the universe operate. The Higgs boson, or, to be slightly more precise, the Higgs field, is, it’s theorized, what lends mass to fundamental particles like quarks, which otherwise would be massless. (The field, often described as a sort of “cosmic molasses,” exerts a subatomic “drag” on everything that passes through it.) The Higgs is the very last piece of the Standard Model to be confirmed, and was spotted independently by groups working at two of the Large Hadron Collider’s enormous detectors. According to the first group, at what’s known as the Atlas detector, the Higgs has a mass of 126 billion electron volts; according to the second, working at the C.M.S. detector, its mass is 125.3 electron volts.

Indisputably, the discovery of the Higgs is an extraordinary accomplishment, a testament to the strength of modern physics both as a theoretical and as a practical enterprise. But here’s also where the note of disappointment creeps in.

The Standard Model has several holes in it, which have only become more troubling the more that’s been learned. To account for these gaps, all sorts of “new physics” have been proposed, complete with new dimensions, new particles (or “sparticles”), and mini black holes. Many, perhaps most, high-energy physicists were hoping that the Large Hadron Collider would provide evidence in support of one (or more) of these new theories. If the Higgs turns out to be just what it looks like—the particle predicted by the Standard Model—then it will leave unresolved all of the questions that trouble the model. In an interview with the BBC, Stephen Hawking described the discovery of the Higgs as Nobel Prize-worthy, but also, “a pity in a way, because the great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn’t expect.” Adam Mann described the problem this way recently on Wired.com: “The Higgs boson is starting to look just a little too ordinary.”

In an e-mail to the Times, Maria Spiropulu, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who works with the C.M.S. team, said that she was still hoping to be surprised by the Higgs: “I personally do not want it to be standard model anything,” she wrote. “I don’t want it to be simple or symmetric or as predicted. I want us all to have been dealt a complex hand that will send me (and all of us) in a (good) loop for a long time.”

Originally posted on the New Yorker.

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