Why the Higgs Boson Discovery Is Disappointing, According to the Smartest Man in the World

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In confirming what we already thought, the Higgs Boson discovery portends a close to a glorious chapter of particle physics.

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CERN

Experimental physicists around the world are celebrating the discovery of the Higgs boson, which was officially announced yesterday. While many of us are trying to figure out what the Higgs boson is, and whether calling it the God particle is stupid, one of the smartest guys in the world, Stephen Wolfram, is sad.

A boy genius who got his CalTech PhD at 20, Wolfram dabbled in particle physics before creating the Mathematica software package, and then WolframAlpha, a "computational engine" that debuted to considerable fanfare a few years ago.

In an elegiac blog post, Wolfram notes that the discovery of the Higgs brings a lifetime (his lifetime) of physics research to a close. It confirms the "Standard Model," which is the putative organization of the subatomic universe that scientists have been working on for decades. That might sound like a good thing, but confirming what we already thought was the case actually is actually a lot less interesting than discovering something fundamentally new.

Here's Wolfram (emphasis added):

It's been 35 years, and when it comes to new particles and the like, there really hasn't been a single surprise. (The discovery of neutrino masses is a partial counterexample, as are various discoveries in cosmology.) Experiments have certainly discovered things--the W and Z bosons, the validity of QCD, the top quark. But all of them were as expected from the Standard Model; there were no surprises.

At some level I'm actually a little disappointed. I've made no secret--even to Peter Higgs--that I've never especially liked the Higgs mechanism. It's always seemed like a hack. And I've always hoped that in the end there'd be something more elegant and deep responsible for something as fundamental as the masses of particles. But it appears that nature is just picking what seems like a pedestrian solution to the problem: the Higgs mechanism in the Standard Model...

If the Standard Model is correct, yesterday's announcement is likely to be the last major discovery that could be made in a particle accelerator in our generation. Now, of course, there could be surprises, but it's not clear how much one should bet on them.

When I was reporting on the opening of the Large Hadron Collider a few years ago, I talked with a lot of scientists and came to the same conclusion that Wolfram did: Discovering the Higgs boson is a victory for physicists but a sad day for physics. In 2008, I (somewhat cheekily) called the discovery (or rather, confirmation) of the Higgs boson the "worst-case scenario" for the Standard Model.

Of course, we could find all sorts of other surprises lurking within the experiments at the LHC, and there is much that we do not know about physics generally. But this is a moment to recognize that the dominant field for the world's biggest brains in the 20th century -- particle physics -- may not immediately unlock any more of the universe's important secrets.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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