by Dennis Overbye
October 12, 2009
The core of the
superconducting solenoid magnet at the Large Hadron Collider in
Then it will be time to test one of the
most bizarre and revolutionary theories in science.
I’m not talking about extra dimensions
of space-time, dark matter or even black holes that eat the Earth.
No, I’m talking about the notion that
the troubled collider is being sabotaged by
its own future.
A pair of otherwise distinguished
physicists 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, like a time traveler who goes
back in time to kill his grandfather.
Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in
Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute
for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan, put this idea forward
in a series of papers with titles like “Test
of Effect From Future in Large Hadron Collider: a Proposal”
for Future Influence From LHC,” posted on the physics Web
site arXiv.org in the last year and a half.
According to the so-called Standard Model that rules almost
all physics, the Higgs is responsible for imbuing other elementary
particles with mass.
“It must be our prediction that all
Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck,” Dr. Nielsen said
in an e-mail message. In an unpublished essay, Dr.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.”
This malign influence from the future,
they argue, could explain why the United States Superconducting
Supercollider, also designed to find the Higgs, was canceled in 1993
after billions of dollars had already been spent, an event so
unlikely that Dr. Nielsen calls it an “anti-miracle.”
You might think that the appearance of this theory is further proof
that people have had ample time - perhaps too much time - to think
about what will come out of the collider, which has been 15 years
and $9 billion in the making.
The collider was built by
CERN, the European Organization
for Nuclear Research, to accelerate protons to energies of seven
trillion electron volts around an 18-mile underground racetrack and
then crash them together into primordial fireballs.
For the record, as of the middle of September, CERN engineers hope
to begin to collide protons at the so-called injection energy of 450
billion electron volts in December and then ramp up the energy until
the protons have 3.5 trillion electron volts of energy apiece and
then, after a short Christmas break, real physics can begin.
Dr. Nielsen and Dr. Ninomiya started laying out their case for doom
in the spring of 2008. It was later that fall, of course, after the
CERN collider was turned on, that a connection between two magnets
vaporized, shutting down the collider for more than a year.
Dr. Nielsen called that,
“a funny thing that could make us to
believe in the theory of ours.”
He agreed that skepticism would be in
After all, most big science projects,
including the Hubble Space Telescope, have gone through a period of
seeming jinxed. At CERN, the beat goes on: Last weekend the
French police arrested a particle physicist who works on one of the
collider experiments, on suspicion of conspiracy with a North
African wing of Al Qaeda.
Dr. Nielsen and Dr. Ninomiya have proposed a kind of test: 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
Sure, it’s crazy, and CERN should not and is not about to mortgage
its investment to a coin toss.
The theory was greeted on some blogs
with comparisons to Harry Potter. But craziness has a fine history
in a physics that talks routinely about cats being dead and alive at
the same time and about anti-gravity puffing out the universe.
Niels Bohr, Dr. Nielsen’s late
countryman and one of the founders of quantum theory, once told a
“We are all agreed that your theory
is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy
enough to have a chance of being correct.”
Dr. Nielsen is well-qualified in this
He is known in physics as one of the
founders of string theory and a deep and original thinker,
“one of those extremely smart people
that is willing to chase crazy ideas pretty far,” in the words
of Sean Carroll, a Caltech physicist and author of a
coming book about time, “From Eternity to Here.”
Another of Dr. Nielsen’s projects is an
effort to show how the universe as we know it, with all its apparent
regularity, could arise from pure randomness, a subject he calls
Dr. Nielsen admits that he and Dr. Ninomiya’s new theory smacks of
time travel, a longtime interest,
which has become a respectable research subject in recent years.
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. Although just why the Higgs would
be a catastrophe is not clear. If we knew, presumably, we wouldn’t
be trying to make one.
We always assume that the past influences the future. But that is
not necessarily true in the physics of Newton or Einstein.
According to physicists, all you really
need to know, mathematically, to describe what happens to an apple
or the 100 billion galaxies of the universe over all time are the
laws that describe how things change and a statement of where things
start. The latter are the so-called boundary conditions - the
apple five feet over your head, or the Big Bang.
The equations work just as well, Dr. Nielsen and others point out,
if the boundary conditions specify a condition in the future (the
apple on your head) instead of in the past, as long as the
fundamental laws of physics are reversible, which most physicists
believe they are.
“For those of us who believe in
physics,” Einstein once wrote to a friend, “this separation
between past, present and future is only an illusion.”
In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Sirens
of Titan,” all of human history turns out to be reduced
to delivering a piece of metal roughly the size and shape of a
beer-can opener to an alien marooned on Saturn’s moon so he can
repair his spaceship and go home.
Whether the collider has such a noble or humble fate -
or any fate at all - remains to be seen.
As a Red Sox fan my entire adult life, I
feel I know something about jinxes.