Higgs or no Higgs, should nul results get more respect?

With the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) coming on line tomorrow, 10 September 2008, many physicists are expecting the long-anticipated detection of the Higgs boson to follow soon after.

But what if they don’t find it?

This topic was part of an interesting dinner conversation with a high-school physics teacher who had come for my presentation at Cafe Scientifique Pittsburgh last night. We all agreed that nul results don’t get the respect they deserve.

For example, one view of the Michelson-Morley experiment is that it attempted to measure the motion of Earth through the supposedly all-pervasive luminiferous aether (or simply, the ether in common usage). The result was that the difference in speed of light beams in different directions was zero. But not exactly zero, since no measurement is free of error bars. The difference was some number plus or minus a margin of error that included zero.

We now know that the nul result supports the idea that the ether doesn’t exist.

Larry Sulak, an undergraduate classmate of mine at Carnegie Tech and who has had a distinguished career as an experimental physicist and professor, spent several years early in his career looking for decaying protons in a salt mine under Lake Erie. Had he found a finite lifetime of the proton, his work might well have made him a candidate for the Nobel Prize, since that measurement would have produced a decisive change in the understanding of the Standard Model of subatomic particle physics.

Instead, he did not detect any definitive evidence of proton decay. His work set a new lower limit for the lifetime of a proton, but did not rule out the possibility that the proton will never decay. Was this nul result any less worthy of recognition than a positive result? It was still an experimental tour de force and it still advanced our knowledge of the subatomic realm. But it didn’t produce a dramatic change in our understanding. Sorry, Larry, no Nobel!

That brings us to Peter Higgs, who may be a Nobel Laureate in waiting. He has produced the most widely accepted interpretation of why most particles have mass but photons do not.

In Higgs’ theory, there is an all-pervasive field in space. Unlike the ether, which was viewed as an actual physical substance that supported electromagnetic waves but did not interact mechanically with matter, the Higgs field does not have substance. Like other fields, it produces an observable phenomenon–in this case mass–by an exchange of particles called Higgs bosons.

If the LHC does indeed reveal Higgs bosons, and Peter Higgs is fortunate enough to live to see it, does anyone doubt that he would be a leading candidate for at least a share of the next Nobel Prize for Physics?

Another possibility is that the LHC will produce results that will give more definitive evidence supporting or debunking String Theory. Should John H. Schwarz, originator of String Theory, be any more worthy of the Nobel Prize if the theory is shown to have predictive power than if it is not? Up to now, he is probably not on the A-list for the award.

In other words, should the Nobel committee honor those whose work explores important questions and leads to other important work only if that result leads to a new avenue? Or should they be honored even if they have explored a blind alley and shown it to be so. As Edison put it when hundreds of candidate materials for electric light filaments proved unsatisfactory, each of those was a positive result because they eliminated a possibility that seemed viable until it was explored.

Fred Bortz
Author of Physics: Decade by Decade (Twentieth-Century Science set, Facts on File ages 15-adult, 2007)
the six-book Library of Subatomic Particles (Rosen Publishing, ages 12-15, 5th grade reading level, 2004)

13 thoughts on “Higgs or no Higgs, should nul results get more respect?”

  1. “As Edison put it when hundreds of candidate materials for electric light filaments proved unsatisfactory, each of those was a positive result because they eliminated a possibility that seemed viable until it was explored.”
    Of course, they do not give hundreds of Nobel Prizes because each of them carries little weight.
    The point is, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. While the latter holds considerable importance in the advancement of knowledge, the former is best categorized as inconclusive.
    Not detecting Higgs boson does not prove its existence one way or another. The null result gives a inconclusive conclusion, and thus, less important.

  2. There are three PRL papers from 1964 credited for the discovery of the Higgs field and boson. The papers were written by Higgs (H), Brout-Englert (BE), and Guralnik-Hagen-Kibble (GHK). I evaluate the merits of the papers in three ways.

    1) No errors
    2) Prediciting the boson and field
    3) Showing specifically how the Goldstone theorem is avoided

    H – meets conditions 1 and 2
    BE – meets none (can’t find mention of boson, error in how paper handles poles at top of 2nd page, assumes Goldstone is correct but does not show how it is avoided).
    GHK – meets 1, 2, 3

    So which one showed the most progress for the awards?

    Much gets lost over 45 years. However, all just won the APS Sakurai Prize for 2010 – so all are credited with progress.

  3. In Physics mass is innate and inseparable property of a particle. Therefore mass-less and mass-generating particles, like Higgs, cannot exist. Existence of Higgs, though conceptually untenable, was predicted mathematically to complete the Modern Standard Model and to overcome the earlier conceptual problem of mass-less elements encountered by mathematical theory. It, in a way, asks Nature to change to fit the mathematics. But mathematics is only a language of Physics, NOT Physics as such. Revelation of the non-existent Higgs boson will turn Physics into fiction. I am clear and confident that Higgs will not be found and Physics will stay as Physics. Just in case the Large Hadron Collider or Tevatron accelerater announces discovery of the Higgs, award of the Physics Nobel prize be stayed and thorough investigations be undertaken to trace and uncover the underlying observation or interpretation compromises. Physics Nobel Prize should ultimately go to those theoretical physicists who predict non-existence of the Higgs boson and thus protect Physics from unrealistic mathematics.

  4. This is in reply to Rati Ram Sharma, who is apparently pushing his own theory.

    Physics relies on evidence, yet you state absolutely before the evidence is in that the Higgs cannot exist. Many discoveries, including Planck’s quanta, anti-matter, quarks, and many relativisitic effects were predicted by mathematical analysis. If the evidence had shown them not to exist, then the theories would have been discredited.

    You apparently are unwilling to wait for the evidence, since you are already denying that it could possibly be other than what your preconceptions say. (“Revelation of the non-existent Higgs boson will turn Physics into fiction.”)

    Physics has thrived because of people whose minds remain open to the evidence. You, apparently, are not one of those people.

    Fred Bortz, author of Physics: Decade by Decade (Twentieth Century Science, Facts On File, 2007)

    P.S.: You also state that massless particles can’t exist. What about the photon?

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