Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The future LHC is preventing the present LHC from working?

So this is a pretty old story from the New York Times about two physicists, Holger B. Neilsen and Masao Ninomiya, who believe that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland is causing itself to malfunction from the future (cue The Twilight Zone theme).  I read it a few weeks ago when a friend posted it on facebook, and a number of people blogged about it, including PZ.  

I know how bad scientific reporting is today.  I thought that perhaps the story was misrepresenting the hypotheses in their papers, so I decided to read one of them myself (found here from arxiv.org).  I'm not a physicist;  I haven't even taken a course since AP Physics in high school, so I didn't expect to understand all of it.  But I could get a general idea of what they thought was going on.  And after reading their paper, it seems the the NY Times article doesn't being to explain how crazy this theory actually is.

I initially expected their theory to suggest that sub-atomic particles affect each other in some complex way that amounts to backwards causation.   But their not just talking about backwards causation at the sub-atomic level.  They're suggesting that the Higgs is actually causing macroscopic changes, such as the malfunction of the LHC, or even the decision by Congress to stop funding the SSC (Superconducting Super Collider), which was another particle accelerator that potentially could have detected the Higgs boson, if completed:

... the great Higgs-particle-producing accelerator SSC, in spite of the tunnel being a quarter built, was canceled by Congress! Such a cancellation after a huge investment is already in itself an unusual event that should not happen too often. We might take this event as experimental evidence for our model in which an accelerator with the luminosity and beam energy of the SSC will not be built.
Since the LHC has a performance approaching the SSC, it suggests that also the LHC may be in danger of being closed under mysterious circumstances.

I'm not familiar with any current theories of physics suggesting that fundamental particles directly affect the decisions of a governing body.  Noe that they aren't just suggesting that the outcome (closing the SSC) is consistent with their theory, they're actually presenting this as evidence of the theory!  And why exactly does the closing of the LHC have to be mysterious?  Is that really a concern of the Higgs boson?  They continue:

Even though some unusual political or natural catastrophe causing the closure of the LHC would be strong evidence for the validity of a model of our type with an effect from the future, it would still be debatable whether the closure was not due to some other cause other than our SI -effects.

No, it wouldn't be debatable, it would be almost a sure thing that it was due to something other than your crazy theory.  Anyone debating that an infinitesimally small particle from the future is the most likely cause of a political decision to close the LHC would be considered delusional, unless they hold a degree is physics.

They go on to suggest a way to avert the catastophe they've postulated:

If a card drawing game or a quantum random number generator causes the closure of the LHC in spite of the fact that it was assigned a small probability of the order of, say 10−7, then the closure would appear to very clear evidence for our model. In other words, if our model was true we would obtain a very clear evidence using such a card-drawing game or random number generator.

A drawn card or a random number causing a restriction on the LHC could be much milder than a closure caused by other means due to the effect of our model. The latter could, in addition, result in the LHC machine being badly used, or cause other effects such as the total closure of CERN, a political crisis, or the loss of many human lives in the case of a natural catastrophe.
Thus, the cheapest way of closing the main part of the LHC may be to demonstrate the effect via the card-drawing game.

Why would the Higgs boson make sure to close the LHC in the way we want it to, by playing a card game with you?  Add in an alarmist rant about the loss of human life without any real evidence or rationale, and we have a pretty standard physics paper*.

The rest of the paper concerns how to set-up the card-drawing or random number game, including how to determine the probability distribution of the cards used.  It seems to me that if the Higgs boson will really stop the LHC from detecting the particle, it shouldn't matter how low the probability is; it will be shut down no matter what.  But they've determined a probability based on the power of the collider.

Being a layman when it comes to modern particle physics, it's perfectly possible that I'm greatly mistaken, and their theory is a respectable, if not a likely, one.  But nothing I've read in their paper suggests to me that this is nothing but wild conjecture.  If any physicists out there can enlighten me about why I should take this seriously, please do!

* I'm being facetious of course, most physicists are doing and publishing real science.  However, I do notice that physics tends to produce more papers that seem like total BS.  I'm not sure if it's because there are more physicists who prefer idle speculation over science, or if it's due to my own ignorance.

Thanks to Justin for the New York Times article.


  1. What I want to know is if the Higgs boson follows the time-travel rules of Terminator, Back to the Future, or Time Rider?

  2. They didn't mention it in the paper I read, although it wouldn't have surprised me.