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Research at Boston University

Death of a Theory

By Neil Savage

When scientists announced that they had finally found what looked like the elusive Higgs boson, many physicists believed their theories had been vindicated. But for Professor of Physics Kenneth Lane, the announcement appeared to be the beginning of the end of the theory he’d worked on since the 1970s.

The Standard Model of particle physics, which explains most of why the universe looks the way it does, called for the existence of the Higgs boson. But the Standard Model, Lane says, is inelegant, and requires a lot of mathematical cunning to remain consistent.

“Many theorists just were unsatisfied with the Higgs boson per se, because it raised more questions than it answered,” he says. Most dramatically, he explains, for the theory to work well, the Higgs should be many orders of magnitude heavier than it actually is.

Lane’s answer to the problems was technicolor theory, originally developed by Steven Weinberg and Leonard Susskind and named for the charges or “colors” of its basic particles, analogous to red, green, and blue. In this theory, there was no Higgs boson, but instead a collection of new “techniparticles” whose interactions led to the same effect.

When the Higgs was announced, Lane suggested scientists had actually found a Higgs impostor, made of two other particles. He based this idea on some problems with the data, but those went away with more data and further analysis, and took the impostor with them. “It’s dead, and apparently so is the version of technicolor that I was working on for 35 years,” he says. “The data has changed and my opinion has to change. I’m a physicist, I’m not a politician.”

Now, after some time mourning his old theory, Lane is working to develop a new theoretical model to explain why there is a Higgs boson. Such a model invariably predicts the existence of new, more exotic particles. “I’m having fun,” he says. These “beyond-the-Standard-Model” scenarios could fix some of the theory’s weaknesses. And armed with descriptions of possible new particles, experimentalists can go looking for the exotic specimens once the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) goes back online at higher energies in 2015.

After all, Lane argues, scientists once believed the atom was the smallest indivisible unit of matter, until they discovered it consisted of electrons, protons, and neutrons. Then they found that protons and neutrons were made up of even more elementary particles, which they named quarks. “Why should this discovery of ever deeper layers of matter stop? Who are we to imagine that this is the end of the story?” Lane asks. It’s quite possible, he says, that there will always be more fundamental particles to discover, that quantum mechanics just continues scaling down forever, with no end. “There’s no reason to believe we’ll ever get there.”

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