A Christian physicist, the Higgs particle, and an anthropic multiverse

Christian physicist Stephen M. Barr, of the University of Deleware and a frequent contributor to  First Things, wrote with some other scientists a paper on the Higgs field–an aspect of the so-called “God particle”–that is getting new attention in light of the collider that has recently assembled evidence about this mysterious yet fundamental entity.  See The Large Hadron Collider, the Multiverse, and Me (and my friends) » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.  After the jump, a sample and a link to a very lucid popularized explanation from Dr. Barr about his findings, having to do with both the multiverse and the anthropic principle (the notion that the laws of physics are what they are in order to make possible human life).

From Stephen Barr, On the Edge of Discovery (11 September 2008):

The Higgs particle is also a Higgs wave—you all remember that quantum mechanics says that waves and particles are the same thing in a different guise. The Higgs wave is a wave in the Higgs field. All of space is permeated by this Higgs field—just as all of space is permeated by electric fields, magnetic fields, and gravitational fields. Compared to the electric fields, magnetic fields, and gravitational fields all around us, however, the Higgs field is enormously strong. This Higgs field plays a very important role in the world: It accounts for the fact that most particles have mass. If you could turn off the Higgs field somehow, then most types of particles (including the good old electron, neutrinos, and quarks) would lose their mass. The world would be a vastly different place.

The deep puzzle, however, is that the Higgs field “ought” to be much, much more intense than it is. In fact, there are strong arguments that suggest that it ought to be about seventeen orders of magnitude (100,000,000,000,000,000) more intense than it is. That would make the electron seventeen orders of magnitude more massive than it is, and similarly for lots of other particles that we know and love. What makes us say that the Higgs field ought to be so large? The answer is that we know of various things that are generating a huge Higgs field, and thus there must be other as-yet-unseen things that are generating a nearly canceling Higgs field. And that is very mysterious.

The only really good idea for how something might cancel out the strong Higgs field that ought to be there is called supersymmetry. The idea of supersymmetry is that there is a new kind of matter that cancels the contributions of the ordinary matter. For example, if the electron produces a certain contribution to the Higgs field, there is a new kind of particle called the scalar electron (or selectron for short) that contributes the opposite amount, and so on. What people really are hoping to see at the LHC is evidence of these new kinds of matter predicted by supersymmetry. Until recently, most theorists probably thought that the chances were much greater than 50 percent that the supersymmetry solution of the Higgs problem is correct, and that evidence for it would be seen at the LHC. Some doubts are creeping in, however.

First of all, theories based on the supersymmetry idea are not without serious difficulties. But what has made the doubts increase in many physicist’s minds recently (including many top physicists) is the possibility that the Higgs puzzle may be explained anthropically rather than by supersymmetry. If we live in a multiverse, it is possible that, in different places in the multiverse, the Higgs field has different strengths. In most places it might have its natural strength. But in rare places it may happen to have the much smaller value that it has where we are. And—it can be argued convincingly—only in those rare places can there be life. We see a strangely small value of the Higgs field, because we are living in a highly atypical part of the multiverse, namely a part where the Higgs field has a value that allows life to exist.

For reasons of pure egotism, I will note that the paper that called attention to the possibility of an anthropic explanation of the Higgs puzzle was written by me and a few colleagues. It has become a fairly well-known paper in particle physics. If the LHC turns up no evidence in favor of supersymmetry or of other conventional explanations of the Higgs puzzle, it would strongly suggest that our anthropic explanation is correct. I still think that supersymmetry will probably be found at the LHC. But the anthropic dark horse is coming up strong on the outside track. And even if evidence of supersymmetry is found, the full explanation of the Higgs puzzle may well involve anthropic considerations that we talk about in our paper.

The evidence for supersymmetry has NOT been found by the Large Hadron Collider, which is leaving Barr’s anthropic multiverse as the only explanation standing.

His scientific article is here.

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