Sunday, July 31, 2011

Higgs To Be Confirmed, Or Not

A headline in Christian Science Monitor confidently states:

The God Particle Existence To Be Confirmed by 2012

This refers to the elusive Higgs Boson, whose existence is predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. The term "God Particle" was coined by physicist Leon Lederman in the 1990's while seeking funding for the Superconducting Supercollider. When that project was cancelled by the Clinton administration, it was a huge setback for US science. Physicists had to find work in other fields, like cosmology.

Since SSC was cancelled, the Large Hadron Collider has been built in Europe. Though the headline predicts a discovery, so far LHC has found no Higgs. The phase space it could inhabit has grown smaller. By 2012 LHC may have found no Higgs at all.

In big ticket projects, there is a great danger of overconfidence. Scientists must justify their funding by predicting what they will discover. Gravity Probe B was designed to find evidence of relativistic frame dragging. Though the data proved difficult to separate fr noise, Grav Probe 's operators concluded that they had confirmed relativity. There is great pressure to skew the results toward a preselected discovery.

Since the SSC was cancelled, many physicists moved into studies of the Universe. In the late 1990's they claimed discovery of a repulsive "dark energy" causing the universe to accelerate. Following the habits of Physics, they developed a "standard model" for cosmology. Results of other experiments, such as WMAP, were interpreted as confirming the model. As in the Higgs search, there is great danger of overconfidence. Future experiments may confirm that "standard models" are wrong.

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