Higgs or no Higgs, should nul results get more respect?

With the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) coming on line tomorrow, 10 September 2008, many physicists are expecting the long-anticipated detection of the Higgs boson to follow soon after.

But what if they don’t find it?

This topic was part of an interesting dinner conversation with a high-school physics teacher who had come for my presentation at Cafe Scientifique Pittsburgh last night. We all agreed that nul results don’t get the respect they deserve.

For example, one view of the Michelson-Morley experiment is that it attempted to measure the motion of Earth through the supposedly all-pervasive luminiferous aether (or simply, the ether in common usage). The result was that the difference in speed of light beams in different directions was zero. But not exactly zero, since no measurement is free of error bars. The difference was some number plus or minus a margin of error that included zero.

We now know that the nul result supports the idea that the ether doesn’t exist.

Larry Sulak, an undergraduate classmate of mine at Carnegie Tech and who has had a distinguished career as an experimental physicist and professor, spent several years early in his career looking for decaying protons in a salt mine under Lake Erie. Had he found a finite lifetime of the proton, his work might well have made him a candidate for the Nobel Prize, since that measurement would have produced a decisive change in the understanding of the Standard Model of subatomic particle physics.

Instead, he did not detect any definitive evidence of proton decay. His work set a new lower limit for the lifetime of a proton, but did not rule out the possibility that the proton will never decay. Was this nul result any less worthy of recognition than a positive result? It was still an experimental tour de force and it still advanced our knowledge of the subatomic realm. But it didn’t produce a dramatic change in our understanding. Sorry, Larry, no Nobel!

That brings us to Peter Higgs, who may be a Nobel Laureate in waiting. He has produced the most widely accepted interpretation of why most particles have mass but photons do not.

In Higgs’ theory, there is an all-pervasive field in space. Unlike the ether, which was viewed as an actual physical substance that supported electromagnetic waves but did not interact mechanically with matter, the Higgs field does not have substance. Like other fields, it produces an observable phenomenon–in this case mass–by an exchange of particles called Higgs bosons.

If the LHC does indeed reveal Higgs bosons, and Peter Higgs is fortunate enough to live to see it, does anyone doubt that he would be a leading candidate for at least a share of the next Nobel Prize for Physics?

Another possibility is that the LHC will produce results that will give more definitive evidence supporting or debunking String Theory. Should John H. Schwarz, originator of String Theory, be any more worthy of the Nobel Prize if the theory is shown to have predictive power than if it is not? Up to now, he is probably not on the A-list for the award.

In other words, should the Nobel committee honor those whose work explores important questions and leads to other important work only if that result leads to a new avenue? Or should they be honored even if they have explored a blind alley and shown it to be so. As Edison put it when hundreds of candidate materials for electric light filaments proved unsatisfactory, each of those was a positive result because they eliminated a possibility that seemed viable until it was explored.

Fred Bortz
Author of Physics: Decade by Decade (Twentieth-Century Science set, Facts on File ages 15-adult, 2007)
and
the six-book Library of Subatomic Particles (Rosen Publishing, ages 12-15, 5th grade reading level, 2004)