University of Texas at Austin

Monday, April 6, 2009

Eureka! I didn’t find it

Steven Weinberg

Steven Weinberg

Scientists search for new knowledge. They want to find out how things work—from inside cells to the edge of the universe.

So they’re disappointed when they don’t find what they expected or nothing at all, when nature throws them a curve when they expected a fastball.

Not necessarily.

Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize physicist at The University of Texas at Austin, hopes that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) strikes out.

Basically, he said, what’s the fun in finding what you’re looking for? It’s finding the unexpected that excites scientists.

He and three other all-star physicists were on NPR’s Science Friday April 3, talking about what is known and not known about the origins of the universe. They also participated in the Origins Symposium at Arizona State University.

Listen to or download the podcast of the session at http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/200904031. The exchange starts at 18:17.

Also on the panel were Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State, Brian Greene of Columbia University and Michael Turner of the University of Chicago.

Part of the conversation was about the LHC and the search for the Higgs particle, which many physicists think is the particle responsible for imparting mass to all things. The problem is that no one has detected a Higgs. Finding it would help answer a lot of questions about how the universe works. That task is at the top of the LHC’s to-do list.

Science Friday host Ira Flatow posed this question to Weinberg, which led to a discussion between Weinberg, Krauss and Turner about what scientists really want.

FLATOW: Steven, do you think we’ll be more upset if we find it or more upset if we don’t find it (the Higgs particle)?

WEINBERG: Well, I think it’ll be a lot more exciting if we don’t find it.

(Soundbite of laughter.)

WEINBERG: Some of us are dreading that what the LHC will find is a single, electrically neutral Higgs boson where it’s expected with a mass of, oh let’s say, 130 or 150 times the mass of the proton, and nothing else. I think that would be the worst possible outcome. A much better outcome would be if they didn’t find it at all.

FLATOW: Why? If they’re going to look for it, why is that…?

WEINBERG: Then we have to go to the theoretical drawing boards. I mean, there are theories that manage to explain masses and explain why the different interactions don’t have the same properties, so-called broken symmetries.

There are theories that don’t have a Higgs boson in them, and those theories might turn out to be right, although they have problems. They’re not as popular as the theories in which the Higgs boson appears. But it would be exciting to be sent off in a new direction, but it would be really boring just to find the Higgs boson.

(Soundbite of laughter.)

FLATOW: Lawrence, I want to move back to you all in a second. Why – this is something I haven’t heard from…

KRAUSS: Well no, but I mean, I think it’s the biggest misconception about science is that somehow scientists are happy understanding things. In fact, if you’re a theorist, you’re happiest when you don’t understand things because there’s a lot more to understand about nature.

And in fact, that’s the other thing that I think Michael (Turner) was referring to. Nature surprises us, and that’s the great thing. I mean, if we didn’t, if nature wasn’t more imaginative than we were, we could just sit in closed rooms and just come up with theories of everything.

But in fact, nature surprises us, and every time we put a new window on the universe, almost every time, it’s surprised us. Dark energy just came out of nowhere, and so that’s what makes science exciting, is in fact, the search – is not understanding. And for many people, that’s uncomfortable. For a scientist, that’s the best. To be perplexed is the best state of mind to be in.

TURNER: Just to add to what Lawrence said. I think Steven is saying that particularly illustrates it because the Higgs particle finishes his story, his unification of the electromagnetic and the weak force.

And so here we have Steve Weinberg, instead of saying oh, all I want for Christmas is the Higgs from the LHC…

(Soundbite of laughter.)

TURNER: …what he really wants is clues about where to go next and new puzzles, and I think that’s what scientists are all about.

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1 Comment to "Eureka! I didn’t find it"

1.  Anthony says

That was a good article, thanks for posting it!
Arizona Dui

July 2, 2009

 

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