After the Higgs party, the harsh light of day

July 4, 2012

As I sit here still listening to the second presentation at CERN announcing the undeniable discovery of the Higgs boson, I have an incredible sense of sadness.

Not only has the Higgs boson been found — the missing piece of the Standard Model of particle physics that was around long before I even had an inkling of being a particle physicist — but it has been found to be the plain, vanilla Higgs. No need for exotic explanations or “new physics”. It’s just the Higgs that was always suspected, hiding in a mass range that could never quite be ruled out.

And that means that it’s essentially “game over” for particle physics — both theoretical and experimental — for the rest of our lifetimes.

Twenty years ago, driving around the Olympic Peninsula near Seattle, I bet my then-Ph.D. supervisor that the Higgs didn’t even exist. I’ve now lost that bet. (I think it was for a tub of clam chowder.) But I don’t think either of us expected, back then, that the end would be so clean, so harsh. I think most physicists thought that either the Higgs would be ruled out — meaning new physics was required to explain the Universe — or that it would prove to be somewhat exotic.

But the reports from CERN this evening shut that gate. Good news for Peter Higgs: he finally gets that well-deserved trip to Sweden.

But it leaves a somewhat eerie hole in what was, until this evening, the most interesting search on the planet.

I am already sad for the thousands of physicists who will shortly find the funding taps turned off — some forever. I have no idea where they will go, or what they will do.

Good luck. 😦

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