Does the Higgs boson actually exist?

I have to admit to wondering the same thing Nick talks about here.  Do any of these subatomic particles actually exist?  At least in the way we conventionally define “exist”?  We’re talking about entities that are sometimes a wave, sometimes a point particle and, as far as we can observe, behave randomly within certain probabilities.

Of course, it’s also hard to argue that the standard model hasn’t been productive.  It is an enormously successful theory.  So thinking of these entities as particles has been productive.  But it seems like a case might be made that we’re leaning on an interpretive crutch that might not be as helpful as it once was.

That said, not all particle physicists consider subatomic particle to be actual particles anymore.  Physicists like Vic Stenger still insist that there is a particle there, but others like Sean Carroll argue that there are only fields and their interactions.  So, many in the quantum physics community might already be thinking along the lines Nick is talking about.

And contrary to Nick’s comments, all of the popular interpretations of quantum mechanics give up some cherished notion of reality, so it’s not entirely clear that this is a community unwilling to give things up to understand what is happening.  What’s lacking is compelling evidence to cinch any of these interpretations as the correct one.

Still, I agree with Nick that it’s important from time to time to back up and reconsider the actual empirical data that we have and question our assumptions.  Assumptions like whether these basic elements of matter really are particles in any meaningful sense.

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10 Responses to Does the Higgs boson actually exist?

  1. keithnoback says:

    I’m not sure why the mild outrage. All identities are conventional. Reduction doesn’t make that so, it just explains how it is so for familiar objects. We’re not really lying to ourselves about protons anymore than we’re lying to ourselves about the glass of water. Why should we be shocked to find that our understanding of unfamiliar phenomena turns out to be conventional too?

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    • I know what you mean. I think Nick makes a good point, but I agree the rant (self-labelled) is probably overkill.

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      • I think that’s his “character” choice, more than anything.

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      • I am a little confused on what his overall point was.

        A few comments: I really disagree with nearly everything he said in the video.

        The use of fields ( that is what he seems to be referring to in the video-thought the question he asks at the end doesn’t have to do with fields ) is in no way related to the ideas shown on the three tombstones shown in the video. In addition, the idea of fields isn’t made up out of nowhere to gives us a picture of reality that warms our hearts! Quantum Field Theory is simply the result of combining Special Relativity and QM and fields being a necessary mathematical structures to do business in that realm.

        If we are incorrectly holding on to a field picture, we are incorrectly holding on to the theories of QM and SR as well. That could turn out to be true and there is nothing really bad about that. We could be completely misinterpreting the pieces of the puzzle that we currently hold; the end picture may look like nothing we could imagine now. Being mad about it and calling it bad science is a little odd though. I find it similar to saying Newton did bad science because he was ignorant to a better theory of gravity. There are good reasons to use fields. Are fields the true nature of what we call particles? Probably not. Does using QFT make us bad scientists….?

        Regardless of what the media says, the higgs giving mass to everyday fermions is second fiddle to why we need the higgs in the first place. We need massive W and Z gauge bosons! The higgs was a mathematical leap to force this condition on a theory that produced massless ones. I rarely see anybody speak of this and it hurts me.

        Lastly, the Higgs “candidate” claim is due to the fact that distinguishing the particle detected as spin 0 particle in the predicted higgs decay channels is the lowest pickings statistically. To be clear, it is an interaction that is most favorable to occur. Finding the other characteristics of the particle through interactions that have really low occurrence rates takes more collisions events. Some of these interactions are extremely rare!

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        • I should say, “respectfully” disagree. I like Nick’s videos and give him praise for doing them well. I wasn’t trying to pile on negative criticism with any malice.

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        • Thanks for your thoughts. You seem to know a lot about it. I think Nick’s point was that we might be constraining ourselves by holding onto the particle paradigm, that it might ultimately turn out to be like regarding electricity as a fluid, or thinking of light as waves of aether, a metaphor that might be useful to a point, but could ultimately hinder progress. As I discussed in the post, it’s probably a good idea to back up and reconsider how we think about these things, but Nick probably overstated his case with the rant.

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  2. Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong says:

    Thanks for the Nick’s video.

    SelfAwarePatterns: “Physicists like Vic Stenger still insist that there is a particle there, but others like Sean Carroll argue that there are only fields and their interactions. So, many in the quantum physics community might already be thinking along the lines Nick is talking about.”

    No, I think that the difference between Stenger and Carroll is not big. The issue goes way beyond that. The key issues are two:
    One, is this 126 Gev boson a Higgs boson?
    Two, is Higgs mechanism correct?

    Up to this point, both answers are ‘negative’. See, the recent (last month) statements from Nigel Lockyer (Fermilab director) and Pauline Gagnon (a physicist at CERN) at http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/string-theory-and-the-no-alternatives-argument/comment-page-1/#comment-4726 . And, I have bet my bottom dollar there that the Higgs mechanism is wrong.

    SelfAwarePatterns: “… that it’s important from time to time to back up and reconsider the actual empirical data that … whether these basic elements of matter really are particles in any meaningful sense.”

    For Heaven’s sake, Jester (Résonaances, 23 July 2014, http://resonaances.blogspot.com/2014/07/higgs-recap.html ) just said, “Indeed, it would require a tremendous conspiracy to reconcile the current data with the Higgs width larger than 1.3 the standard model one.”

    Now, many have agreed with me that Popperianism is wrong and must go. See, http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/clarifying-sam-harriss-clarification/comment-page-1/#comment-5156 .

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    • Thanks for your thoughts. I’m not familiar enough with the technical details to really hold an opinion on the Higgs.

      But I do disagree on falsifiability (which I think is what you mean by Popperianism). It all comes back to question: if we hold a theory, and that theory is wrong, how will we ever discover that it’s wrong? Falsifiability is simply the ability to do that. A theory that is not falsifiable may or may not be right, but we have no way to know it. Given the small proportion of theories that have historically been correct, as a skeptic, I tend to doubt that they’re right until or unless they can be tested.

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  3. Steve Morris says:

    Haven’t watched the video, but my understanding is that there are quantum fields and that bosons, etc are “excitations” of the quantum fields. These things have real effects. Call them particles or not, that’s just a word.

    Liked by 1 person

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