Photo by Heidi Schellman, Higgs by Particle Zoo
A science essay in Tuesday's New York Times made big waves in the physics blogosphere. Science essay, you ask? I think the editors decided to use that label as a sort of implicit disclaimer, letting readers know, right up front, to not expect a trim, carefully-researched report of a new scientific breakthrough, something that the author, Dennis Overbye, an MIT-educated science journalism vet and deputy editor of the Times science section, can do with his eyes closed. "The Collider, the Particle, and a Theory About Fate" goes out on a limb—a really long limb—and discusses a fringe idea a couple of theoretical physicists posed to explain why the LHC has been plagued with troubles: the Higgs doesn't want to be found.
To quote Overbye:
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.
I'm stumped already. If the Higgs mechanism is correct, if matter gets mass by interacting with the omnipresent Higgs field, the boson already exists. Wouldn't it be the detection, not the creation, that was so abhorrent? But this question aside, the basic idea is that finding the Higgs would be so catastrophic, the equivalent "of the universe being hit by a bus," that the event actually reaches a long finger back down the corridor of time and shorts out a superconducting magnet, or (gulp) prods European politicians into cutting the LHC's funding.
The "otherwise distinguished physicists" in question are Holger Bech Nielsen of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan. They're both respected string theorists, which makes them either serious physicists or the usual suspects, depending on your philosophical persuasion. If you'd like to dive right into this, you can read one of the papers on the arXiv.
I'm surprised to see a fringe paper from the arXiv, and the arXiv in general, make it into the New York Times, though it should be clear that Overbye's not reporting on this as breaking news or important research—he lays it out right up top that this is a pretty out-there notion. As a science journalist on the physics beat, Overbye must be a frequent tourist to the arXiv, a place I think of as the gritty black-market of physics research, where publication and revision happens fast and loose, far from the watchful eye of peer reviewers. True, most papers are completely legitimate and later surface in the journals, but the arXiv has its fair share of dark alleys and unsavory inhabitants. I'm surprised that Overbye would want to lead his unsuspecting readers right into this less-than-wholesome place. And while I enjoyed the trip, I think INFN research scientist Tommaso Dorigo, a CDF alum preparing to hunt the Higgs with CMS, is a somewhat more seasoned and able guide. While Overbye playfully presents the idea as "bizzare and revolutionary," Dorigo immediately derides it as "respectable physicists gone crackpotty." (Also, his blog post has about two years on Overbye's article.) He dissects one of Nielsen and Ninomiya's papers nearly paragraph by paragraph until he arrives at this gem:
The experiment proposed in the present article is to give the "foresight", so to speak, a chance of avoiding having to close LHC by some funding or other bad luck accident, as it happened to SSC, by instead playing a game of pulling a card from a well mixed stack about the running of the LHC.
As far as I understand it, the proposal is to officially decide whether to go forward with the LHC based on the result of drawing from a pack of cards. The vast majority of cards would read something like "run the LHC," while a very small fraction would instruct CERN to run the machine at settings too low to find the Higgs, and one would say "shut down LHC." If the highly improbable card were drawn, it would be a sign that something in the future was preventing the LHC from running, an argument to follow the instructions on the card. (I'm assuming they'd have to get the people in charge of the LHC to officially decide to act on the outcome of the game, otherwsie this "foresight" influence just wouldn't happen.) In addition, the physicists argue, playing the card game would be a lot safer than just letting things play out. In the latter case, they say, failure by "natural causes" would be far costlier than implementing this simple game. They add, more ominously, who knows how violently the future discovery of the Higgs would affect the past?
This is about where I get off the Magical Mystery Bus and wave Messrs. Nielsen and Ninomiya goodbye.
The internets seemed to feel largely the same way. The article's comments page alone makes for fascinating reading. A lot of folks on the blogs have been saying that Overbye was wrong to write about this kind of thing, especially in such a mainstream, visible place. At Quantum Diaries, a blogger was quick to call it a "bad week for science journalism," while a Science Blogger bemoaned the "bad publicity" for the LHC and reprimanded Overbye for citing something from the free-for-all arXiv. While I do have to agree with his assertion that the media tends to concentrate on the loopy, romantic, science-fiction-friendly details of a science that has much more to offer,I don't think Overbye have his knuckles rapped for being indulging in a little thought-experiment. He keeps the tone light right through, and the article's final sentence reads like a punchline, coloring the rest of the piece as a sort of intellectual joke, not serious science reporting.
Maybe the bigger oversight, as this ScienceBlogger points out, is not bringing up an equally playful (yet, I find, somewhat more believable) idea based on the multiple universe interpretation of quantum mechanics: if finding the Higgs could somehow, preposterously destroy the universe, the only universes we would experience would be ones where the LHC failed to start up or got its funding unceremoniously slashed, like the doomed SSC.
Really, the LHC should thank Overbye for doing them an extraordinary service— he's provided the crackpots with a—to them—practically water-tight proof that the LHC can't possibly destroy the universe after all.