Friday, 16 October 2009

Freaky Physics

There's a very odd story about the large hadron collider at CERN in the Telegraph, New York Times and other places. It proposes a solution to why the multi billion dollar collider has encountered so many problems - it is sabotaging itself from the future. From the future.

The strangeness begins:

Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one.

This implies that nature has some sort of consciousness or is at least a self-regulating system, able to stop us screwing with it too much like a universe-wide Gaia theory. These are proper scientists, with PhDs and everything. My O level physics and Humanities PhD qualify me to say: Huh? Freaky stuff happening with time?

The scientists have said that "It must be our prediction that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck,” . In an unpublished essay, Dr. Nielson said of the theory, “Well, one could even almost say that we have a model for God.” It is their guess, he went on, “that He rather hates Higgs particles, and attempts to avoid them.

OK, this I can handle. No, we do not have a model for God here (and which god would that be?). If this unidentified god hates Higgs particles, why did he make them in the first place? Or is he some sort of second-rate god who didn't make the universe and spends his time trying to jump out of the way of particles like the fat kid in PE class during dodge ball? He seems pretty happy to let us screw up the Earth - is there something out there in the cosmos that he wants to protect? His collection of Franklin Mint plates, perhaps?

The article continues: While it is a paradox to go back in time and kill your grandfather, physicists agree there is no paradox if you go back in time and save him from being hit by a bus. In the case of the Higgs and the collider, it is as if something is going back in time to keep the universe from being hit by a bus.

Something? Is that a scientific term?

What is going back in time? We all know that the only thing which can do this is Doctor Who (preferably in his David Tennant incarnation). Is he messing with the LHC to stop the Daleks getting their hands on it - is that the terrible thing that would happen? There are no doubt some Star Trek time-travel scenarios I could quote if I knew them, but I have a life.

The two physicists have proposed that CERN engage in a game of chance, a “card-drawing” exercise using perhaps a random-number generator, in order to discern bad luck from the future. If the outcome was sufficiently unlikely, say drawing the one spade in a deck with 100 million hearts, the machine would either not run at all, or only at low energies unlikely to find the Higgs.

As far as I am aware, luck is not a scientific concept. And it's very different from a reaction caused by something we do in the present rippling forward into the future and then bouncing back, which would be an entirely physical effect.

Either it's science or it's supernatural - god and luck are not science. They are throwing your hands up and saying "Search me, guv."

On the other hand, if they are right, then a large part of the physics we know is wrong. Maybe we can have warp drive, transporters and Tardises after all. But they might want to stop talking about God and luck if they want to have any credibility.


  1. Excellent post, and you're quite right to criticise the stuff about God (which God indeed?). I think you have misunderstood the stuff about going back in time, though. In the quantum world, we know that the past and future can indeed be connected, so that current behaviour is constrained by future outcomes (there's a similar thing with distance as well). Nothing actually travels back in time, but there is a sort of "spooky action at a distance" nevertheless. You have to stop thinking of time as a linear arrow - in a sense everything is "now".

    Normally this quantum effect vanishes when we deal with everyday objects rather than quantum particles (which is what the Shroedinger's cat thought experiment is all about) but in this case we are dealing with a single Higgs particle, so these people are wondering if the future really is constraining the past somehow.

    No-one knows if it really is possible to create the Higgs in the LHC - that's why we're spending billions to find out. The really wacky thing for me is the suggestion that if it's physically impossible at the quantum level, this impossibility would manifest itself as engineering problems constructing the collider itself.

  2. Can you explain how we know it?