Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What’s the Higgs Boson Worth?

It might seem like a simple thought; what’s the Higgs boson Worth?

That’s a tricky question and one that really doesn’t have an answer, but a man can postulate can’t he!?

In a way there are two answers. On the one hand there’s strict economic amount, measured in real dollars and cold hard Euros. The Large Hadron Collider, the massive particle accelerator buried under Switzerland and France, was built at great expense in part to hunt for the elusive particle. Enormous, house-sized detectors are monitoring trillions of particle collisions looking for signals of the fundamental particle that gives matter its mass. To do this, supercomputers spread out at eleven top tier research institutions across the world are diligently picking apart the terabytes of data produced by the colossal machine.

All of this infrastructure isn’t cheap. The total construction cost of the detector is about $4.4 billion, plus an additional $1.1 billion per year to keep it running. Like they say, a Higgs boson in the hand is worth two in the bush, or something.

But there’s another way to look at the price of these pesky particles, a way that cannot be measured in any real economic sense; how important the boson’s discovery is to science itself.

Robert Garisto, the Editor of Physical Review Letters, recounted a story of Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek of MIT and Janet Conrad, also a leading theorist at MIT, debating the implications of it’s possible non-discovery. Over dinner at a Swiss castle the two sparred playfully about how the standard model of physics perfectly predicts the existence of the Higgs boson, and how despite such a prediction, experiment always trumps theory. If experiment shows there isn’t one, than there really isn’t one. Wilczek maintained that it wasn’t a question of if the LHC would detect the particle, but just a matter of time, while Conrad held out that there was always the possibility that there wouldn’t.

The two placed a wager with odds ten to one that the boson was out there just waiting to be found. If it turned up, Wilczek would get ten “Nobel chocolate coins” but if all the searching yields nothing, Conrad would walk away with one hundred of them.

Looked at from one perspective, an independent observer might walk away with the conclusion that Wilczek and much of the rest of the physics community are extremely sure that their models are correct, and the Higgs boson will be found. To them, it’s a safe bet.

However another perspective is that the wager shows how valuable a non-discovery would actually be. An upset in physics like this would be ground-shaking, earth-shattering even, years of research overturned like a stack of cards. Ok, maybe not quite like that, but it would mean that physicists would have to go back to the drawing board, and re-figure much of the standard model. Bold new and creative ideas to explain the world around us would be needed.

In the early 1900s, physics went through just such a revolution, with the introduction of quantum theory and relativity. Who knows, if the LHC fails to find the Higgs, physics might just find itself standing before just such a transformation again.


  1. I liked the title, but the article didn't follow the actual stated thought.

    1> Cost is not the same as worth. Just because we are spending over $6B doesn't mean it is worth that (although it is probably worth more)

    2> I'd like to see an analysis of the value of other similar discoveries. How much was discovery of the electron worth? Electricity works even before we understood it, so how much was just the electron itself worth? How much was the discovery of some new heavy element worth? The methodology for these types of discussions would give us a good basis to understand the potential value of the Higgs discovery (or non-discovery)

    An important discussion - especially in these challenging economic times. Scientists may not want to put dollar values on basic science, but the politicians need guidance...

  2. The UFOs are from the sub quantum world which the SM had been trying to write off for a century. It is the inertial locking of space which needs to be understood and STR needs to be modified before LHC folks can read what they see. I had been conducting experiments and some information could be found on my site . You may not take me seriously for the time being; however, with 'time' things will change, as the need to explain the anomalies at LHC grow!

  3. >I liked the title, but the article didn't follow the actual stated thought.

    Yes it didn't. Without mass in the universe, I wouldn't exist so the worth is infinite :) The title intended whats the discovery worth? to which an answer might be: If we didn't know, we would want to find out, so it is worth the cost not more because the alternative of paying to find out would then be more attractive. :)

  4. In my theory, the Higgs particle will not be found. If it is found my theory is falsified immediately. The Higgs boson is postulated out of Einsteinian relativity.

    My take on dark energy and dark matter is, that they are miscalculations, stemming from our presumption that the speed of light is constant.

    What if the speed of light varies through time and space?

    That creates some interesting theory, at least I think so.

    Antimatter is the mind and consciousness of all living entities.

    You are your own universe.

    Reality is where the minds (antimatter) meets the physical universe.

    Interested? Then read my philosophical multiverse theory.

    Google crestroyer theory, and find it instantly.