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Aidan Randle-Conde | Université Libre de Bruxelles | Belgium

View Blog | Read Bio

Higgs skeptic

As the net closes in on the Higgs boson, and we get closer to discovery or complete elimination I suddenly realized that I’m running out of time on this particular blog post. You see, unlike most of my colleagues I don’t actually think that the Higgs boson exists, and that’s a shock to some! Why would someone who doesn’t think the Higgs exists work at CERN at a time when the Higgs boson is the focus of the media frenzy whenever CERN appears in the news?

Recent Higgs exclusion from ATLAS

Recent Higgs exclusion from ATLAS (P. MeridLiani, Physics in Collision 2011)

I’ve come across many physicists who almost unthinkingly assume the Higgs boson exists, or that it simply must exist because our theories say so, even going as far as to say at a lunch at the American Physical Society meeting “We’re going to discover the Higgs boson at CERN or Tevatron in the next couple of years, and that’s the most exciting thing at the moment.” What a dangerous attitude!

First of all, there are plenty of other exciting results which are coming out of other areas of particles physics. For example there’s the mysterious X(3872) and its friends from the world of charmonium physics which could overturn our understanding of the quark model. Or the recent tantalizing dark matter results which show us for the first time a glimpse of the dark sector, that makes up about 95% of the universe around us. Now, having a belief in the Higgs boson one way or the other doesn’t stop these results being fascinating or important, but having a “mass” hysteria about the Higgs boson could mean that we don’t give these discoveries the attention they deserve.

This also raises the question about public perception and news coverage- why have one story repeated over and over, instead of dozens of diverse stories in the news? A lot of this comes from the strategies adopted by the high energy physics community. Studies have been performed that ask the public what they like to hear about when they see physics in the news, and they usually want to know about our origins and the “big” questions. So it’s no surprise that we focus on the Higgs boson and keep hearing phrases like “Just after the big bang.”

Moving away from the media frenzy we come to the other reason to be wary. If the Higgs boson exists and nothing else is found at the LHC then the Standard Model will be vindicated and our worldview will not be shaken. We could declare victory, pop champagne corks and bask in the glory of one of the most successful scientific edifices in history. Unfortunately that’s what happened just over a century ago, when Lord Kelvin declared “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.” While he was busy finding his sixth decimal places, special relativity and quantum mechanics came along and overturned all of physics, in an unprecedented paradigm shift. Given the hints we have at the moment, from the dark sector, the muon’s gyromagnetic ratio and a few other areas we mustn’t get complacent, and we certainly shouldn’t expect to vindicate any particular model.

The Michelson-Morley interferometer

The Michelson-Morley interferometer

We’re certainly more prepared for a paradigm shift than we were in 1900, but we’re also falling into the same traps. Back then people were concerned the aether, a mysterious substance that made light behave itself. The problem went like this: light travels at the same speed, no matter how fast you travel when you measure it. Since light is a wave, and every wave we know about travels in some medium, there must be some medium that the light travels through. This medium was the aether and it filled all of space, with a uniform density. It was perfectly rigid to light, forcing light to always have the same speed, but perfectly transparent to matter, so that solid objects could pass through it without hindrance. It was a pretty good hypothesis for Victorian era physics, and about the best they could come up with. Unfortunately, what was needed was a totally new idea and a totally new framework on which to build the theories of the new century. We find ourselves in a similar situation today. The Higgs field is a triumph of quantum field theory, using the most advanced theories of our time and building on the success of decades of research. But then the Higgs field has similar properties to the aether, it’s a perfect, isotropic field filling the universe. It interacts with everything, but it’s surprisingly difficult to see, no matter how hard we look. If we don’t see the Higgs boson, but instead see something else then we could be in for another glorious revolution in physics, and the quantum field theories could seem like quaint approximations of a bygone era.

But the most important reason I don’t believe the Higgs boson exists is simply lack of evidence. There has not been a single scrap of evidence to suggest that the Higgs boson exists, and like Feynman says “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong” and at the end of the day, reality has the final say in whether our theory is correct or not. Until then we need to be agnostic about the Higgs boson, and not let it cloud our thinking.

The days of the Higgs bosons searches are coming to an end. If we find it there will be celebrations everywhere (and yes, I’ll join in, I’ll be very happy if it’s discovered!) If not then we’ll be back to the drawing board, and there will be a whole suite of new (and old) models that can keep us busy for decades. A few years ago I put my money where my mouth is. I bet a friend $20 that we would not find the Higgs by 2020, and he enthusiastically snapped up the deal. As the final months of the search sail by, I find myself asking, would I be happier with a Higgs discovery, or $20? Either I pay $20 and get a Higgs boson (a much more attractive proposition than the multi-billion dollar price tag that comes with the LHC!) or I take my $20 and spend it on a few coffees or beers as I ponder where physics will go next. I’m spoiled for choice!


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  • Joel Rice

    Veltman gave a bunch of reasons to question the Higgs mechanism, so maybe you will get your 20 bucks. He also pointed repeatedly at the question of why there are 3 generations of fermions. Accomodating particles is ok for quantitative theory but it would be nice to see an actual explanation of why particles must exist – definition rather than accomodation. Too bad we can’t just ‘enumerate quanta’ and see whether the Higgs is in the list.

  • Do you actually have an alternative Higgs-less model that makes any sense or an argument why the proofs that a Higgs sector has to exist are invalid? Because if you don’t, I agree it is very surprising that you could have become a PhD student in particle physics.

  • Frank


    I suppose that you will give back your PhD if the Higgs is not found.

  • Lubos, are you serious? There are plenty of Higgless scenarios, with technicolor being the most famous, and anything with either composite weak bosons or weak boson bound states. More recently, there have been quite a few developments concerning top quark condensates. The only reason we need a Higgs-like mechanism is to ensure that the couplings of weak bosons respect unitarity at high energy scatterings, and there are plenty of ways of doing this. As it stands, although technicolor is rather attractive as it fixes some other problems, it’s already been excluded up to very large mass scales. The only reason why very few people take technicolor seriously is because of data. And as Joel points out, there are some fairly prestigious Higgs skeptics around.

    The advantage of the Higgs mechanism is that it can be accommodated in the Standard Model Lagrangian, and since there’s no reason to believe the terms which would correspond to a Higgs field to be zero, we expect to see a spin-0 gauge boson in there. However, there’s a long list of phenomena we expect to see which we don’t, including pentaquarks and tetraquarks, magnetic monopoles, additional generations of fermions, Majorana neutrinoes and CP violation in the strong sector, and that’s to say nothing of supersymmetry or leptoquarks. Since there’s no way to demonstrate that these don’t exist without looking at data, we must gather data to come to a conclusion one way or the other. The same applies to the Higgs boson, and if you can’t see this then I don’t think you should be commenting on its search, as it shows a rather fundamental flaw in your thinking.

    What we’re doing at the LHC at the moment is gathering data to either discover the Higgs boson, or exclude it. The most responsible attitude under these circumstances is to remain dispassionate and agnostic about the existence of the Higgs boson, and as long as there are people who seem adamant that Higgs must definitely exist, I’m going to be more conservative and assume that it doesn’t exist until proven otherwise. (In any case, the exclusion plots which are presented assume the null hypothesis that the Higgs boson does not exist. The burden of proof is on those who claim a discovery!)

    There’s really no need for about my status as a scientist. As it happens I’m not a PhD student, I’m a Postdoctoral Researcher working on the ATLAS experiment at CERN. It’s all there in my bio.

  • Kea

    Thank you, thank you! Finally, a sensible professional physicist blogger! By the way Joel, there are many alternative ways to enumerate quanta without a Higgs. My favourite is the Bilson-Thompson braid set, because that has fundamental justifications from motivic quantum arithmetic and Machian principles from M theory. In other words, I think we do need to recover the Higgs mechanism, but since this clearly involves ‘non local’ physics (meaning adding to our understanding of mass) it does not require the existence of ‘effective bosons’.

  • Here is a Higgs-less approach to the data: WikiMechanics.org

  • inko1nsiderate

    Tread with care when presenting Higgsless models on the internet.

    When a lay person hears about how there may be no Higgs, they tend to imagine a scenario that precludes the existence of spontaneous symmetry breaking (your inclusion of a famous negative result doesn’t help), but when a professional means no Higgs they often mean either no Standard Model Higgs, or that there is some Higgsless model to describe spontaneous symmetry breaking.

    You say that the media puts unfair emphasis on the Higgs, but you don’t actually help the situation by glossing over some pretty important qualifications.

    You are particularly misleading when you say something like:

    “If we don’t see the Higgs boson, but instead see something else then we’ll be in for another glorious revolution in physics, and the quantum field theories will seem like quaint approximations of a bygone era.”

    Yet in the comments clearly mean to say you advocate for a Higgsless model like Technicolor (to wit: a model that actually is compatible with field theory). Finding experimental evidence for Technicolor would be great, but it is hardly the kind of revolution you sensationally describe in the above quotation. The quotation you have makes it sound like we’ll find a piece of data that is wholly incompatible with field theories, but as far as I understand it the serious Higgsless models are still compatible with QFT.

    Surely you could have gotten your point across without resorting to such grave misrepresentation.

    “Until then we need to be agnostic about the Higgs boson, and not let it cloud our thinking.”

    Certainly, but you also shouldn’t let your personal misgivings about the theory cloud your thinking either. I’d like to remind you that the Higgs search is about a Standard Model Higgs. The constraints that Atlas and CMS have placed on the SM Higgs can become more or less applicable if you look other models of the Higgs. You can get these non-SM Higgs pretty easy, and they can be found in MSSM, UMSSM, NMSSM, and also Two Higgs Doublet models (2HDM) just to name a few. I’d like to take the time to also point out that while MSSM isn’t looking so pretty, but we run into the same issue as with the Higgs: the MSSM constraints do not apply with the same strength in all cases of UMSSM and NMSSM models. If SUSY isn’t dead, then the Higgs isn’t dead, and either way without evidence for a particular Higgsless model it’d still be too early to declare there is no Higgs.

    Anyway, there is a LOT of room left for a boson with a non-zero vev to hide.

  • Kelly

    Excellent article, focus groups are bad, I am so sick being retold the history of physics every time I read an article or a book. Lay people are far smarter than it is supposed, they are also fickle and quick to get bored or offended if talked down to, some things focus groups can’t show. Please Do Not Write Any More Rap Songs About Physics. Thank you. That is all.

  • mk

    There is no ‘god particle’ because space can be divided infinitely. Infinity and boundaries are complimentary. It would be more important to figure out the pattern of division.. He already did: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0dKOqAqfhE

  • Dear Aidan, technicolor, first of all, should be counted as a Higgs sector – and I was carefully talking about the Higgs sector and not another terminology that could suggest an overly simplified single-Higgs model etc. – and it leads to the prediction of new Higgs-like scalar particles like technipions. Second of all, it’s pretty much excluded.

    The problem with the top-quark condensate is that at the level of effective field theory at the electroweak scale, it is exactly equivalent to a model with a Higgs.


    The equivalence is manifest for a large N and for a finite N, one may still map the parameter spaces onto each other and sees that there are no differences in the models’ predictions.

    Frank, yes, I will. If there’s a proof that there doesn’t exist any Higgs boson below a TeV, you may remind me to return my PhD. But more generally, physics is not just about guesses and lucky accidents. Physics is primarily about knowing rational quantitative reasons for the expectations. Physics is about the consistent understanding of the real observed phenomena, not about being lucky about guesses concerning unobserved phenomena. This is what I am missing in Aidan’s attitude.

    Physics isn’t a lottery.

  • Inko, I think you’ve misunderstood me here. The way I see it is this, there are still many questions that need to be answered in particle physics that go far beyond what the Higgs boson can explain. For sure we need something to explain spontaneous symmetry breaking, and the Higgs boson is a very good candidate for that. But it still doesn’t address a myriad of other issues, including the reconciliation of quantum field theory with general relativity, the source of baryogenesis and leptogenesis and the remaining sources of CP violation. I’m just saying that whatever answers we get from the LHC in the coming years could make the Standard Model look like a rather small subset of some much grander system (in the same way that the view of the atom with its protons, neutrons and electrons now looks like a tiny subset of the particles allowed in the Standard Model.)

    Suppose we discover the Higgs boson and measure its properties and it’s all consistent with the Standard Model predictions. If that’s the case and we clear up the few remaining questions (eg exclusion of Majorana neutinoes, more precise convergence of the unitary triangle to a single apex) then technically the Standard Model has fulfilled all its predictions and is an accurate model of reality. To me, that scenario appears to miss the bigger picture and is a bit empty, even if it seems to be the simplest and most probable scenario for solving the spontaneous symmetry breaking problem.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that there’s nothing particularly new or exciting in a Higgs only model. Higgs plus other particles do lead to some fairly exciting results (I searched for the charged Higgs boson at ATLAS, a smoking gun for SUSY and unambiguous evidence for new physics. Unsurprisingly we set a limit rather than made a discovery.) So let’s keep an open mind and consider alternatives to the Higgs boson. The new things we discover in the coming years could be almost trivial to fit into the Standard Model, or they could open up new symmetries and concepts we’ve not considered before. (I’ve often thought that reconciling quantum field theory with general relatively could lead to some amazing new effects, with quanta corresponding to Christoffel symbols, a rethinking of parity in non-trivially curved space, have hyper-spinors that looks like stress-energy tensors etc.)

    I also find the influence of the electroweak fit rather intriguing. The favored region is roughly 114-140GeV, but if the Higgs boson appears above 200GeV then it looks like that Standard Model isn’t the end of the story after all!

    Thanks for your comment!

  • Hi Lubos. While technicolor and top condensates both have mechanisms that act in similar ways to the Higgs boson (spontaneous symmetry breaking is required by any useful theory) that doesn’t mean that it’s the same thing. They’re both still Higgless (although I imagine one could incorporate a Higgs boson into either theory with the right gauge fields, and indeed this is done explicitly in some top quark condensate models.)

    And if scientists handed in their PhDs when proved wrong then there would be a lot fewer scientists and a lot more unfalsifiable models! If the Higgs boson is discovered I’d be delighted and of course, I’d change my views in light of new evidence. And I’d still be $20 poorer.

  • A QCD guy

    The statement that technicolor is pretty much excluded is nonsense and stems from the same thinking than used to initially discredit the idea: sticking to the little we know and applying perturbative ideas where they ought to not be applied. Non-perturbative calculations for possible technicolor candidate theories have barely begun to emerge and they already highlight the flaws in many of the naive arguments.

    As far as the clash of definition between a Higgs and a very broad definition of an extended Higgs sector: Try convincing the tax payers that the exaggerated simplified sales pitch they were told for years is not right. Or just ask the plasma physics and fusion guys for their experience.

    There is danger beyond clouded judgement here and this is the loss of the small amount of credibility we have with the general public and a corresponding loss of funding. My personal experience is that being honest and straight out telling people prospects and pitfalls gets you further in the long run.

    And btw: I my field there are many many Higgs sceptics.

    A QCD guy

  • Brian

    I find it ironic that you think the Higgs Boson doesn’t exist but you believe dark matter does. The entire theory of dark matter is only funny math created too fill one of the many giant holes in the current belief. Mordern physics in SOME areas has gone from comically absurd to sadly dishonest.

  • Dear QCD guy, the reason why the technicolor theories are excluded doesn’t depend on any perturbative approximations. Indeed, that could be bad because technicolor only plays its role when it’s strongly coupled. To see a paper with 1,000+ citations that excludes technicolor, check e.g.


    I won’t comment on your “arguments” involving taxpayers because taxpayers have no idea about this cutting-edge science and an honest scientist doesn’t give a damn about taxpayers. I write what I write because it is true, not because it would allow me to extract more money from someone. The same rule should apply to everyone who calls himself a scientist, whatever is the source of his money.

    The fact that there are many Higgs skeptics in your “field” is correlated with the fact that there are not too many people who understand particle physics at the energy frontier in your “field”.

  • Hi Brian, I don’t consider it ironic at all given that we have hints of dark matter from Cresst and CDMS, as well as the seasonal variations seen by DAMA and Cogent. There is also a big difference between thinking that some kind of dark sector exists, and thinking that a specific boson whose properties can be precisely predicted in advance exists.

  • dequantization

    dearest all higgsies:

    I am really sorry! keep higgsing your most useful and valuable time until you see twilights of higgsiness enter the higgsiless state.

    At 7TeV collision energy and incredibly squeezed bunches giving rise to unbelievable record luminosity and high probability of particle ocollisions, we still are light years far from evidence of SUSY or finding traces for higgs. If there are no clouds, would it rain? It is time to conclude with moutains of evidence (over 12 months of CERN record collision energy density) that the Standard Model does not fit our real world. The new physics era has already started and many theories must be dropped to continue looking for what outcome of experiments really tell us thru detector data. If we don’t, we are behaving irresponsibly, immaturelly, and unscientifically. It would look like my mother died 7 wks ago (she did), and i amd skeptic still not believing or giving up. She was my angel !!! how many more decades do we need to believe it is over?

    Now, I will repeat how i find this new physics and why?. Surprisingly to many, hearing that particles only exist outside atoms NOT inside, is tantalizing and does not reflect reality. In fact, it does, because no experiment has ever proved or seen particles inside atoms. Atoms are plasma-fluidic with continuous matter, no discretness exists inside, even as we 100% proved the quantizations of energy levels which are very accurate, because they are two different things. Atomic matter is plasma-fluidic in continuum, no disjoints, or layers exist, but this matter has density profile, and starts with very low densities at the out atomic regions which represent the electronic charged fields. fluidic densities continues to augment smoothly but nonlinearly until it reaches a very ultra-high density at the nuclear center. At that location, plasma-fluidic matter behaves like solid particles because of the ultra high density of fluidic matter we call neucleons (proton-neutron, etc). New physics will show matter has a density profile that is the pricipal generator of space, mass, charge, etc not the higgs boson.

    How then are particles born? instantaneously when atoms are subjected to surrounding scalar or vector fields (electrical, magnetic, stress, strain, thermal, pressures including vaccum, etc) and any other forces that could cause deflections, deformations, perturbations of the outside and inside of the matter. Depending on which forces or fields surround matter, particles are released at the speed of Enstein’s light. all types of quarks, leptons, muons, gluons, hadrons, etc are formed based on surrounding fields and interactions or interfacings with enveloped matter.

    I repeat my famous rain-cloud example: clouds do not have raindrops inside them, not matter where you reach around the globe. however, if surrounding winds or cold streams, or whatever, come close or englobe the clouds, then raindrops start falling from the clouds which seconds ago did not have any!!! ? cloud particles of steam have come together under stringent conditions forcing formation of particles (raindropts) and fall off when their mass reaches critical mass ! very simple. same like in matter (atoms, quarks, hadrons…)

    Hopefully, that helps for now.
    fluidic and BIG higs skeptic

  • A QCD guy

    It is plainout not true that technicolor in general is excluded from electroweak precision tests. One maybe could argue that only small islands of parameter space survive but the same holds truefor SUSY in some sense. Just browsing through the first 50 citations to above paper this has been questioned in many places. I purposefully picked a random reference I did not previously know (unlike the paper you linked; thank you for making me find this introductory review) Here is an example statement from its discussion on the elektroweak constraints (http://arxiv.org/abs/1104.1255):

    “(…) it is clear that TC models can be constrained, via precision measurements, only model by model and the effects of possible new sectors must be properly included.”

    In the same publication at least one model passing the precision tests is presented but there seem to be multiple possibilities if one just relaxes ones own prejudice a little and goes beyond QCD-like theories with SU(N) gauge groups.

    In fact my comment regarding non-perturbative physics was related to issues like the complications of getting reliable estimates for S in some technicolor scenarios, to relate it specifically to the paper you cited. This is not unknown to the authors above either: “The computation of the S parameter in TC theories requires the knowledge of nonperturbative dynamics making difficult the precise knowledge of the contribution to S.”

    However my most important argument was actually about scientific honesty: something you seem to have no interest in as you say. It is also good to know that you do not give a damn about taxpayers.

    PS: I work in a place where we have both, a large Atlas group and people doing BSM theory for the LHC. Also, multiple of my collaborators are involved in calculations directly relevant to extracting electroweak constraints from experimental data. If you have more references you want to discuss bring them on. Should I happen to not understand them, I might just bring it up in our bi-weekly (mostly BSM theory) journal club. Should I still be to dense to understand them, I can discuss them over a beer with people doing non-perturbative technicolor calculations and they will surely convince me that expert knowledge such as yours excludes their models =)

    PPS: I could not resist and walked into a colleagues office whom I would consider the local expert on electroweak BSM constraints. Off the top of his head he gave me three more examples that can bypass all current limits.

  • Lawrence Gage

    That no experiment has ever observed particles inside atoms is a fascinating observation. We only *suppose* they exist inside atoms because we *suppose* that any whole is simply a conglomeration (or heap) of parts. Might it be said that we similarly we suppose that atoms exist inside organisms?


  • Mitchell Porter

    Everyone’s so excited about your Higgs skepticism… but I want to hear more about the X(3872). Are there new ideas about it?

  • Hey Lawrence. Don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of evidence that inside atoms we have smaller particles (protons, neutrons and electrons) and that insides the protons and neutrons we have quarks and gluons. One the best understood systems in all of science is the hydrogen atom, and that definitely has particles inside it!

    Mitchell, since I love the X(3872) so much I’ve written a whole post about it! Enjoy!

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  • Evan