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Flip Tanedo | USLHC | USA

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The LHC on the Colbert Report

For those that missed it, Stephen Colbert did a small bit on the LHC on his show The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. (I’m not sure if the US/LHC bloggers at CERN can watch the clips online, but I suppose they’re all too busy getting ready for collisions …)

In the first clip Colbert pokes fun at CERN while providing a summary of it’s recent troubles. He then goes on to mention a recent paper by H. B. Nielsen and M. Ninomiya that has garnered some popular press and made some waves on the blogosphere, including a post by Regina. The paper proposes a rather crazy hypothesis that there could be some kind of “backwards causation” effect that prevents physicists from directly observing the Higgs. I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but there are a few reasons this is a somewhat silly proposal from otherwise very respectable physicist:

  1. Such a proposal has little (if any) experimental or theoretical motivation from current knowledge. The authors propose that recent problems with getting the LHC up and running might be due to such a backward causation. A more plausible answer is that the LHC will attain the highest energies ever created by humans: it’s natural to expect a few hiccups as we do something that has never been done in the history of our species.
  2. Causality is a very fundamental tenet in physics and one would need a really good reason to seriously consider why the Higgs should disobey causality on macroscopic scales while every other quantum field is well behaved.
  3. Finally, as a somewhat technical side note: the Standard Model actually has four Higgs bosons. Three of them “live” in the W and Z bosons, essentially giving those particles mass. We call these the Goldstone bosons that are “eaten” by the W and Z to give them longitudinal polarizations. We have directly observed these longitudinal polarizations and hence, in a sense, we have already discovered 3/4ths of the Higgs boson! [This is a somewhat technical point that assumes the Standard Model accurately describes electroweak symmetry breaking.]

To put this proposal into some context, the claim that nature conspires to prevent us from discovering Higgs might as well say that some sentient natural intelligence (“Skynet”) sends a robot (let’s call it a “Terminator”) back in time to futz with the LHC to prevent physicists from discovering electroweak symmetry breaking. It then goes on to do the same thing three more times in increasingly non-sensical plots that not even Batman can save. [Do I watch too many movies?]

Anyway, the best summary of how most physicists feel about this paper can be found in Alessandro Strumia’s tongue-in-cheek quote on Tommaso Dorigo’s blog,

“Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernencko: these three premiers of Soviet Union unexpectedly died around 1984, such that Gorbachev could lead the process that ended with the fall of Soviet Union, such that the US congress stopped funding the SSC, such that the Higgs was not discovered. According to the new theory of backwards causation, you should be proud of having destroyed communism.”

I should also mention that Colbert goes on to interview collider theorist Brian Cox about physics and science. I liked that they chatted a but about E=mc^2, even if it was so that Cox could promote his new popular physics book.

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