The possible discovery of the Higgs boson was announced on the Fourth of July. Confused nerds feigned excitement. I yawned and threw another sausage on the grill. The Higgs boson is inarguably an important idea in High Energy Physics. It is also a deeply ironic idea. The irony requires some understanding of modern physics’ history, personalities, and business.
Physics is the science of matter and energy. If your knowledge of physics comes from popular sources, you probably think that physicists only study abstruse entities such as the Higgs boson. But such arcana are only studied by one branch of physics, generally known as “High Energy Physics.” It is called “High Energy” because the interactions studied only happen at preposterously high energy levels far removed from anything we see in the universe, let alone everyday life. The Higgs boson was observed at around 125 billion electron volts. By contrast, a hydrogen bomb’s nuclear-fusion reaction releases energy of around 17 million electron volts per nucleus fused. The bomb reaction takes place at around 100,000 electron volts. Burning hydrogen chemically releases only a few electron volts of energy per hydrogen atom. Room-temperature molecular energies are around 1/40 electron volts. The photons in cell-phone radiation are something like 1/10,000 electron volts.
Physicists study the high-energy limit of physics because nature’s forces seem to unify and simplify there. There is a theory called “the Standard Model” which unifies three of nature’s four forces into one mathematical structure. The theory has been considered verified since 1973, when physicists at CERN discovered the W and Z bosons. The Higgs boson was the last unobserved piece of this theory; hence the excitement.
The way the High Energy guys tell the story, once their Standard Model is complete and unified with gravity, we understand everything and the rest is just chemistry. The High Energy branch of physics has dominated research since the 1950s. The High Energy guys have more theorists and money for their experiments than other branches of physics. Every physics department I’ve visited in the US has a proportion of High Energy Physicists ranging from a quarter to half of the total head count.
The “Higgs idea” was first proposed way back in 1962 by Philip W. Anderson. Higgs and others developed the more mathematically complete relativistic theory in 1964. Anderson isn’t a High Energy Physicist; his idea for the Anderson-Higgs boson came from his studies of lower-energy macroscopic matter’s properties.
It’s ironic that Anderson had the original idea and gets little credit for it. The greater irony is the fact that Anderson has been a critic of High Energy Physics’ hyper-reductionist approach. His famous essay “More Is Different” makes the argument that reductionism doesn’t get us far in understanding the universe. While the Standard Model is very good in the high-energy limit, it is generally useless in the study of lower-energy phenomena, some of which may be very interesting and relevant to human beings. We certainly know more about High Energy Physics’ ultra-microscopic world than we used to, but this hasn’t increased our physical understanding of the rest of the world.
Anderson won the Nobel Prize for one of the most beautiful results in the last 80 years: Anderson localization, which describes a mechanism for localizing electrons in solids. While the intellectually insecure general public goes bananas over the Anderson-Higgs boson’s discovery, few have noticed the sublimeness of Anderson localization. The UC Berkeley Physics Department hasn’t even shown Anderson the courtesy of purchasing his latest book for their library.
High Energy Physics has problems unknown to the public. There are more High Energy theorists than ever before, but there are very few experiments that can be done to motivate or verify new theories. The Anderson-Higgs boson was postulated almost 50 years ago; it took that long for the experimental physicists to build a machine capable of finding it. Critics such as Anderson have pointed out that theory without close coupling to observation and experimentation no longer follows the scientific method. While modern High Energy theory is fascinating mathematics, there is no way of telling if it is physically true without experimental results.
Experimental High Energy Physics has a different illness. A vast apparatus is required to do experiments at the relevant high energies. Individual High Energy experimental physicists no longer conduct experiments—they’re generally cogs in an enormous engineering project. When the newsworthy results are eventually published, the paper will have thousands of names on it. A 2008 paper by one of the two groups who detected the Anderson-Higgs boson had over 2,900 “coauthors.” Many physicists enter the field in hopes of intellectual glory and scientific achievement, but how much of that is left after you share it with a few thousand people?
The tub-thumpers and popularizers are caterwauling about the Higgs discovery’s potentially wondrous technological benefits. There will likely be none, ever. There were none after the far more momentous discovery of the W and Z bosons in 1973. For historical contrast, James Clerk Maxwell wrote down the unification theory between electricity and magnetism in 1862. Forty years later, humanity was in the electrical age.
The difference is obvious: Electromagnetism is a low-energy phenomenon, and technologies could be developed from it using ordinary matter. The things the High Energy Johnnies worry about require heroic efforts to see at all. While their studies are interesting in the abstract, they are technologically barren.
I don’t begrudge the High Energy Physicists their pittance of government largesse for their projects. I do begrudge them their human capital. Clever people decry the human talent allocated to the financial-services industry, but a High Energy Physicist’s life seems grim compared to one dedicated to mammon. High Energy theorists are mostly decoupled from experiment. The experimental guys labor in obscurity on enormous projects. Why not return to physics’ heroic roots, where individuals and small teams could make important contributions? Why not a little more respect and maybe a documentary or two for “Low Energy Physics”?
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