On July 4, the physics community responded with jubilation to an announcement that had been anticipated for 50 years: the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Just as half of the country was ecstatic in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected—supposedly heralding the end of “business as usual” in Washington—the Higgs breakthrough appeared to herald a new era in particle physics, one that could bring us closer to a possible unified theory describing all of the fundamental forces of nature.
Unfortunately, in both cases, reality has intervened. Obama discovered that being elected and governing a divided and partisan country are two different things. In physics, too, we are uncomfortably close to what many of us would consider the nightmare scenario. The initial buzz of the Higgs discovery has faded, and now we face a monstrous hangover: What happens next?
Briefly, the Higgs is an elementary particle predicted 50 years ago during the development of the standard model of particle physics. The standard model beautifully describes three of the four fundamental forces in nature and is one of the most remarkable theoretical constructions in the history of science. Specifically, the Higgs was predicted in order to provide a natural mechanism to explain what now appears to be an amazing cosmic accident: the fact that some particles have mass and others don’t. (For a thorough explanation, listen to my conversation with Blogging Heads’ Robert Wright.)
Before the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland was turned on, there were five possibilities for what might be revealed: 1) No Higgs and nothing else, 2) a Higgs with unexpected properties and nothing else, 3) lots of other stuff but no Higgs, 4) a Higgs and lots of other stuff, and 5) a single Higgs with the properties predicted in the standard model.
Many might imagine that physicists were rooting for door No. 5 because we like to be vindicated. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The discovery of the Higgs validates the prediction of the standard model, and with that much of the theoretical underpinning of modern fundamental physics and cosmology. But now we are completely baffled about the origins of the standard model itself. I, for one, was rooting for no Higgs at all, because that would have meant our fundamental ideas were on the wrong track. Nothing can be more exciting than finding that we have to start from scratch and discover a whole new reality hidden.
While the Higgs discovery was announced in July, the announcement was based on preliminary data. In Kyoto in November, the LHC teams reported on six more months’ worth of data, giving us more clues as to what we really have on our hands. If the LHC reveals the a standard model Higgs and nothing else—that is what we have seen in the data reported in Kyoto—we will confront some major problems. That would mean we have no empirical clues as to what theoretical ideas we should next explore in hopes of answering long-standing questions, including perhaps what caused the Big Bang itself. We won’t know where to focus next. Will the next great discovery be just around the corner, to be made at a successor machine in Geneva or elsewhere? Or do we have to build an implausibly large accelerator perhaps the size of the solar system?
It was hard enough to convince the governments of the world to spend money pushing the edges of knowledge even when we had a pretty good idea what we were looking for, as was the case with the Higgs. In the current world, with shrinking budgets for everything (except maybe weapons and debt repayments), it is hard to imagine any government willing to fund the next generation of research when the outcome may be only that we need to work harder still and pay yet more money to uncover the secrets of the universe.
Indeed, because of the unfortunate way in which we fund big science projects in this country, it is almost impossible to preserve funding for long-term, large-scale projects that are relatively esoteric. For example, the Superconducting Supercollider, which was being built in Texas in the 1980s and early ’90s and which would have been a much grander and more powerful machine than the LHC, was killed, even though it had been approved by three consecutive presidents in their budgets.
One is virtually guaranteed to have some kind of economic recession every decade or two, and if a grand science endeavor takes that long to complete, it is easy pickings for a Congress intent on cutting budgets without offending constituencies with influential lobbyists. Scientists, you may be surprised to learn, are not power players in Washington. We don’t vote as a block, and in economic hard times, it is pretty challenging to convince people to fund projects that don’t promise direct technological spinoffs but rather might answer fundamental questions about the universe. Over much of the last decade in this country, the funding of particle physics, for example, has not even kept up with inflation. This, in spite of the fact that perhaps one-half of the current U.S. GDP might be due to investments in curiosity-driven fundamental research a generation or two ago.
It is too early to settle on a tale of doom and gloom, just as it is not yet time to give up on the hope of Obama changing the status quo in Washington. The LHC will run for several more years, and there is still a good chance that it will uncover new clues that can guide us. But fortune favors the prepared mind, and that sometimes means preparing for the worst.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.