Everyone’s getting excited about the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, but one prominent scientist wishes there was something more.
How did you react when you heard the Higgs boson news?
First, of course, I wondered if it was correct, and wanted to know all sorts of technical details. But once I was decently convinced, it was basically, “Wow, after all these years, it’s finally over. Pretty much what one expected.” I guess I’d held out a little hope that there might be something unexpected, because I don’t aesthetically like the Higgs mechanism too much. But we don’t get to pick our universe…
I read that you had a different reaction to learning about the existence of the J/psi particle in November 1974.
I was 15 years old then, and thinking back it was very exciting to me that something “off textbook” had been discovered, and nobody knew what it was. And I thought, “Just because I’m a 15-year-old kid doesn’t mean I won’t be able to figure it out.”
It’d be fun if something that unexpected was discovered in particle physics now – I think I’d enjoy taking a vacation from leading my company to try to figure out what it was, like I did when I was 15. Of course, partly because of what I’ve spent my life doing, we’ve got much better tools to do it these days.
What does this recent discovery mean to you as a physicist?
It’s very much in line with what we’ve expected for more than 30 years. I suppose the only surprise is that a theory that got constructed nearly 50 years [ago] didn’t need more embellishment – that nature hasn’t had more surprises for us.
You’ve described the Higgs mechanism as “a bit of a hack.” What do you mean by that?
It feels like something rather arbitrary that’s been inserted into the theory. It was originally introduced as a clever way to avoid some mathematical consistency issues in the theory.
The Higgs mechanism is trying to explain the origin of mass. It seems like something that fundamental should have a fundamental origin, rather than being associated with a sort of “bolt on” to the theory.
Now perhaps there’s some other way to look at the theory that makes the Higgs mechanism seem much more natural. But that’s not the way our current mathematical setup for the theory works.
Another issue is that the Higgs mechanism is supposed to explain mass, but it requires that the mass of every single kind of particle is introduced as a parameter to the underlying theory, which somehow means that it doesn’t feel like one’s “getting out” much more than one put in.
What are the practical applications of this discovery, if any?
Right now none. There’s only one particle accelerator in the world that can make Higgs particles, and it makes them at a tiny rate.
But if we could one day make a beam of Higgs particles, it would have some wild and perhaps ultimately useful properties. A weird feature is that because of how Higgs particles interact, one could use [them] as an “assay” or “distiller” for different types of quarks and other particles. Of course, most of these particles decay incredibly quickly, so it’s not as if there’d be lumps of such material to investigate (except maybe in a neutron star, but we don’t exactly have lots of those handy).
Nobody knows how to do [it] all yet, but it’s conceivable that one day there might be miniaturized particle accelerators, and if that were to happen, then all sorts of things might be possible.
What does this mean for the future of CERN? What’s left to be discovered with the particle accelerator?
In terms of new particles, the Standard Model would imply that we’re finished as far as the energy range of the current CERN accelerator.
Of course, we can’t know for sure that there’s nothing out there until we’ve looked, and theories have certainly been constructed that have all sorts of other particles that might be seen.
There’s also lots to be done in terms of studying detailed features of the Standard Model, starting with the detailed properties of the Higgs particle.
Some things are fairly easy to compute from the Standard Model, and it’s really just a question of checking them. Others are hard to compute, and the only way we can be sure what’s going to happen is to do an experiment. A notable example is quark-gluon plasmas, whose properties are relevant to the early universe, and perhaps to some violent spots in our current universe.
The challenge with experiments is to be able to detect the truly unexpected. But even though the current accelerator experiments at CERN are very complex, I think they have a decent chance of doing this … if our universe happens to have something unexpected out there for us.
Stephen Wolfram is a distinguished scientist, inventor, author, and business leader. He is the creator of Mathematica, the author of A New Kind of Science, the creator of Wolfram|Alpha, and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. As an academic, he made various contributions to particle physics, cosmology, and computer science, and played a founding role in the development of complexity theory.
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