Elusive Higgs Boson Still Hiding From Physicists

Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider have narrowed the range of energies at which they might find the Higgs boson, a particle predicted to give all others their mass. Science historian Amir Aczel discusses whether the particle might not exist, and how math sometimes leads physicists astray.

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IRA FLATOW, host: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. Back in 2008, the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking shocked the world of physics by betting fellow physicists 50 pounds - that would be about 100 bucks at that time - that the Higgs Boson, dubbed the God particle, would not be found when scientists cranked up the Large Hadron Collider to look for it.

Well, if the findings coming out of a meeting of scientists in Mumbai hold up, Hawking may have taken a giant step toward winning that bet. Physicists said that for a large portion of the places that they thought they'd find the Higgs, it was nowhere to be found. So if it's there, the Higgs is still hiding and running out of places to hide in, leaving us just a few more places to look.

But what if it doesn't exist at all? Is it possible that all the mathematics and the theories that have led the physicists astray, are they wrong? And is this particle really just a figment of our mathematical imagination? And if so, then what?

Here to be quizzed about those questions and to answer for his own prediction about finding the Higgs is Amir Aczel. He is author of the forthcoming book "A Strange Wilderness: The Lives of Great Mathematicians." He's also a research fellow of the history of science at Boston University. He joins us from WBUR. Welcome back, Amir.

AMIR ACZEL: Great talking to you, Ira, good to be on the show.

FLATOW: I've got to call you on your prediction. Last time on the show, it sounded - you sounded like the Higgs was a shoo-in, they just had to sift through the data and they'd find it. What do you say now?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: What happened?

ACZEL: Should have listened to Hawking.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Did he win his bet, do you think, or will he?

ACZEL: I - well, you asked me to take a bet. I will bet that he will win, yes.

FLATOW: And now tell us what actually is going on there.

ACZEL: Well, I'll tell you why, because the news is about 145 to 466 G-V. These are places to hide, for everybody (ph). So they're energy levels. But they've actually explored the earlier, the lower range, from 114, which below that has been excluded by LEPP, by the previous CERN accelerator.

From 114 to 145 has been explored by lots of previous accelerators that have the energy to get there, and so if you look at the data from CERN, as I have, you see that there's nothing significant there. But I'll hold my word on that until they actually come out with the last bit of information on that search.

FLATOW: Well, the prediction that there was this God particle, which would serve as a basis for all the kind of matter we have or having mass, that was a mathematical prediction to begin with, was it not?

ACZEL: Absolutely. Pure mathematics - and that's the problem with theoretical physics, it's that physics is not mathematics. In math, you prove something, you have a theorem, and its truthfulness, its validity, is irrelevant. You know, it doesn't need the world. It's just a mathematical construction that is proven, while physicists try to look for different pieces of mathematics that will help them.

Einstein, of course, was the greatest there. You know, he could take mathematics and make it fit into reality, and the same with, you know, Dirac, for example, with wedding quantum theory with Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity and then using it to predict antimatter, which is a fantastic prediction.

So there you use mathematics, and you get predictions about the real world, but if the Higgs search fails, that means that the mathematics of the Higgs, which is certain mathematics of broken symmetries and group theory in mathematics, is not exactly right, and we have to search for other theories. And there are other theories, by the way, that go beyond the standard model of particle physics.

FLATOW: I think Hawking was quoted back then - and I've heard other physicists say now - that they're rooting not to find the Higgs Boson. They'd like to just say hey, you know, let's keep the search up for something.

ACZEL: Right, and when you talk to people at CERN, they all say, well, nature is so beautiful, it will find other things for us - to show us other things. So they've been hedging their bets from the beginning. But it's no secret that the Large Hadron Collider was built mostly to look for the Higgs.

And a positive result is much more powerful than the negative result. You know, some people say, well, if there's no Higgs, we'll be happy too. Well, not quite as happy.

FLATOW: There are other theories they might - other mathematics they might fall back on to describe...

ACZEL: Well, one of the Technicolor, which is a theory that was put forward by Steven Weinberg, and also some other physicists explored it further. And that's a more complicated theory, at higher energies, where you break that symmetry which is necessary for creating mass in the universe in other ways, without the Higgs mechanisms.

FLATOW: When did mathematics become so entwined with the physical world? It wasn't always like that, was it?

ACZEL: Well, the ancient Greeks invented pure mathematics and, you know, present those great theorems and their proofs. And then Galileo actually changed everything. Galileo said the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. And from my point of view, that started it all.

Then physicists - well, Newton of course created or invented or discovered calculus to fit, you know, his physical laws, you know, gravitational theory. So we - since Galileo, we've been very close with mathematics and physics. But the point is that you don't always hit the right mathematical theory.

So while mathematics explains physics very well, you have to find the right one and the right theory, and that's where it takes maybe art rather than science or mathematics. You know, you have to have the imagination, as Einstein did, and sort of have a feel for what's the right theory.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones, 1-800-989-8255. John(ph) in Davis, hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JOHN: Hi, Ira, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

JOHN: We met once at Fermilab a few years ago. I just wanted to comment on the fact that - well, I've been personally looking for the Higgs Boson myself for almost 20 years now, and I would say - so the Large Hadron Collider and the Tevatron at Fermilab are doing great work, and both are capable of discovering the particle. Neither has enough data yet to say anything about a Higgs which exists, let's say, at 120 GEV, the energy level that Amir referred to before.

And though until we find it, it's still just a mathematical construct, there's every reason to believe that we very well might in the next few years, but it's going to take a lot more data and a lot more work. I wouldn't count the Higgs theory out quite yet.

But even if we do find it, it may not be a single particle. It could be the first of a number of Higgs Bosons waiting there to be discovered. So it's a really exciting time right now.

FLATOW: Amir, got a comment?

ACZEL: Right, the hurricane actually gives us a very good way to explain the hunt for the Higgs, how it works statistically. So I think all the listeners have probably seen those maps on television and newspapers that show the path of the hurricane.

Now, the hurricane path has a band around it, like a little cone. Now, if you can imagine not this being a cone but a band around it, and that's a probability band or what statisticians call the confidence band, and that works at 95 percent.

Now, if you look at the data from CERN that's coming out right now, they're always - you'll see those bands. You can find them online. The bands of uncertainty at 95 percent, and at that level of probability, at 95 percent, if you believe CERN, and there's no reason not to believe them, the Higgs has been excluded from 145 to 466 G-V.

And if you look at the data itself, themselves, you see that there are jumps outside, as if the hurricane in a picture comes out of this prediction band, outside either to the right or to the left, but it only happens one time in 20, which is what you expect for a 95 percent probability band.

So nothing - at 95 percent, I think they've concluded that the Higgs doesn't -well, it's not there, but there's still a five percent chance that it does exist. So a negative result is always much more problematic than a positive result. A positive result in particle physics requires what's called five sigma, which is a probability of 99.99997 percent sureness, which is fantastic.

I mean, all other areas of statistics, you don't require such great confidence. So a positive result tells you that the Higgs exists, if they do that, if they find that, with a probability that is fantastic, 99.99997 percent, while a negative result just says, well, you know, we don't have enough evidence to conclude that it exists.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, John, take care. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. So they're going to be continuing to sift through the data. I mean, there are a lot of scientists there at that Mumbai conference. Are they all going away now happy or sad, do you think?

ACZEL: Well, it's hard to say. But the point is that the more data you collect, those bands change. That's the key to the search for the Higgs. So when you get more and more data, those bands shrink, and you can get higher and higher probability, that's how they can aim for a five sigma.

FLATOW: I've run out of time, so I'm going to bunch my questions together, Amir. Is it possible that the Large Hadron Collider just isn't capable of finding the Higgs, and the scientists are going to say we need a bigger one?

ACZEL: Well, that's always the case, and you talk to particle physicists, they say we need bigger and bigger accelerators. But the point is that at seven TV, which is what they're running at now, seven trillion electron volts, they're searching for particles that are in, say, half-a-trillion electron volts is the max at 466 G-V.

And so they have a lot of energy there, but of course scientists will always want bigger accelerators, and there could be a possibility that there's a desert of particles there, there's nothing there until you reach very high energy levels, and that's quite a possibility.

FLATOW: And I made you come on last time and give us your prediction. Are you going to go out on a limb for us on this one and say it's finished, or...

ACZEL: Yeah, I'll vote with Hawking. I'll do that here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: It's hard to vote against him. There are people he - he did have other bets, didn't he? I'm trying to remember what they were. He lost one. He lost one. I can't remember what it was. But he does like to bet about these things.

ACZEL: Right, and every time he bets, it causes this big, you know, media thing. You know, Higgs, Peter Higgs got very upset that Hawking was betting against him, and so he tried to argue, and then he said that, you know, arguing with Hawking is like criticizing Princess Diana.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: That's how big that is, huh? I guess if you're in the world of physics, this is like betting against Diana or, you know, or saying a Beatles song is going to be a flop or something like that, a sort of thing like that. So what's your new book that you're working on? Tell us about - the history of mathematics?

ACZEL: Right, yeah, it's about the life stories of mathematicians, you know, get all these people, including some in physics, you know, the people who worked, you know, with group theory and so on.

FLATOW: Can you be a physicist without being a mathematician these days?

ACZEL: That's hard. It's hard. You require a lot of mathematics. Experimentalists don't use much mathematics, and there are other areas in physics where - but in theoretical physics it's - when you talk to theoretical physicists, and they write on the board, and then you compare it with what pure mathematicians do - I have friends in both camps - and you see the same writings, you know, differential geometry and, you know, all these topology, you know, the Calabi-Yau manifold, which...

FLATOW: My hair is hurting. My hair is hurting. Thank you for coming on and talking with us.

ACZEL: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend.

ACZEL: You too, thanks.

FLATOW: Amir Aczel is the author of the forthcoming book, "A Strange Wilderness: The Lives of the Great Mathematicians." And being an historic writer myself, I can't wait to read this one. He's also a research fellow at the - of the history of science at Boston University.

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