Friday, July 6, 2012

Is there a Hiccup with the Higgs?

Everybody writes about the discovery of the Higgs particle these days such that I decided not to join the crowd. But when yesterday the Badische Zeitung published a surprising cartoon and this morning I read about Stephen Hawking being a bad gambler I changed my mind.

Let us face it, the Higgs boson is Lust und Frust (lust and frustration) for the physics community. On the one hand its experimental evidence confirms the Standard Model filling out the missing link that gives to all other particles their mass. On the other hand physicists are frustrated that the experimental results at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN did so far not give any hint to modern physics like supersymmetry or string theory bound to explain, e.g., dark matter.

Hatzinger in the Badische Zeitung of July 6, 2012
Hatzinger’s Cartoon needs some translation. Es wurmt ihn offenbar, dass man wieder ein Teilchen von ihm entdeckt hat: It seems to bug him that they discovered another part of Him. Here Hatzinger makes a subtle allusion to the God particle. Higgs or rather Hicks is the onomatopoetic sound of drunk people in Germany.

Stephen Hawking at CERN in 2006
Stephen Hawking the twenty century genius likes to bet and to lose. On MSNBC's Cosmic Log you read: About 10 years ago, Gordon Kane, a theoretical physicist at the University of Michigan was discussing some of the issues while he and Hawking were together at a physics conference.

"Stephen interrupted, and said he would like to bet me that there was no Higgs boson," Kane recalled today. It took a while to work out the conditions of the $100 bet, and at one point things looked so dim for the search that Kane sent Hawking a check, according to The Detroit News.

But this week, when researchers at the LHC announced that a subatomic particle matching the Higgs boson's general description had been discovered, it was Hawking's turn to concede the bet. "It seems I have just lost $100," he told the BBC's Pallab Ghosh. The article continues:

For the Higgs boson, Hawking was hoping that there'd be a less orthodox and more elegant mechanism to explain how it is that some particles have mass while others don't. Finding the Standard Model Higgs boson, and nothing else, would be a disappointing outcome — as fellow physicist Stephen Wolfram pointed out in a blog posting today.

"If the decay and other interactions of this particle are as we expect, that will be strong evidence for the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, the theory that explains all our experiments so far," Hawking said. "This is an important result, and should earn Peter Higgs the Nobel Prize. But it is a pity, in a way, because the great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn't expect."

This was the case when in 1974 two physicists in the States Burton Richter at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and Samuel Chao Chung Ting at the Brookhaven National Laboratory simultaneously discovered the J/ψ particle, a quark compound of charm and anti-charm nobody had been waiting for. The discovery was one of these magic moments of glory in physics opening up a whole new physics that eventually ended in today’s Standard Model.

If it turns out that the particle revealed this week is a non-Standard Model Higgs boson, Hawking might still be able to hang onto his $100, and the cosmos will get that much more mysterious. But in any case, Kane is moving on to the next big thing: supersymmetry, the idea that every one of the subatomic particles we've detected to date has a weird twin we haven't yet been able to see. Such a concept could explain the nature of dark matter, which accounts for far more of the universe than the ordinary matter we see around us.

As strange as it sounds, Gordon Kane thinks it's possible to find evidence of supersymmetry — and he's willing to put his money where his mouth is."I'd love to have bets on supersymmetry," he told me, "but no one will take them."

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