Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Supersymmetry, the Higgs boson, the LHC, and all that

Lately there has been a big kerfluffle (technical term of art, there) in the blog-o-sphere about what the high energy physics experimentalists are finding, or not finding, at the LHC. See, for example, posts here and here, which reference newspaper articles and the like. Someone asked me what I thought about this the other day, and I thought it might be worth a post.

For non-experts (and in high energy matters, that's about the right level for me to be talking anyway), the main issues can be summarized as follows. There is a theoretical picture, the Standard Model of particle physics, that does an extremely good job (perhaps an unreasonably good job) of describing what appear to be the fundamental building blocks of matter (the quarks and leptons) and their interactions. Unfortunately, the Standard Model has several problems. First, it's not at all clear why many of the parameters in the model (e.g., the masses of the particles) have the values that they do. This may only be a problem with our world view, meaning the precise values of parameters may come essentially from random chance, in which case we'll just have to deal with it. However, it's hard to know that for sure. Moreover, there is an elegant (to some) theoretical idea called the Higgs mechanism that is thought to explain at the same time why particles have mass at all, and how the electroweak interaction has the strength and symmetry that it does. Unfortunately, that mechanism predicts at least one particle which hasn't been seen yet, the Higgs boson. Second, we know that the Standard Model is incomplete, because it doesn't cover gravitational interactions. Attempts to develop a truly complete "theory of everything" have, over the last couple of decades, become increasingly exotic, encompassing ideas like supersymmetry (which would require every particle to have a "superpartner" with the other kind of quantum statistics), extra dimensions (perhaps the universe really has more than 3 spatial dimensions), and flavors of string theory, multiverses, and whatnot. There is zero experimental evidence for any of those concepts so far, and a number of people are concerned that some of the ideas aren't even testable (or falsifiable) in the conventional science sense.

So, the LHC has been running for a while now, the detectors are working well, and data is coming in, and so far, no exotic stuff has been seen. No supersymmetric partners, no Higgs boson over the range of parameters examined, etc. Now, this is not scientifically unreasonable or worrisome. There are many possible scales for supersymmetric partners and we've only looked at a small fraction (though this verges into the issue of falsifiability - will theorists always claim that the superpartners are hiding out there just beyond the edge of what's measurable?). The experts running the LHC experiments knew ahead of time that the most likely mass range for the Higgs would require a *lot* of data before any strong statement can be made. Fine.

So what's the big deal? Why all the attention? It's partly because the LHC is expensive, but mostly it's because the hype surrounding the LHC and the proposed physics exotica has been absolutely out of control for years. If the CERN press office hadn't put out a steady stream of news releases promising that extra dimensions and superpartners and mini black holes and so forth were just around the corner, the reaction out there wouldn't be nearly so strong. The news backlash isn't rational scientifically, but it makes complete sense sociologically. In the mean time, the right thing to do is to sit back and wait patiently while the data comes in and is analyzed. The truth will out - that's the point of science. What will really be interesting from the history and philosophy of science perspective will be the reactions down the line to what is found.


sylow said...

I think high energy physicists are done once and for all now. EU is almost bankrupt and it has 20 million unemployed people. Wasting billions of euros on this nonsense was more than enough and nobody will fund this type of theological science research with one more penny.. Which unemployed folk cares about Higgs??

Anonymous said...

If LHC does NOT find any evidence for Higgs then that would be really really really interesting...and in my opinion, shocking! It's too bad that the general public would not understand the value of that null result :)