Frank Wilczek

There are two kinds of particle physicists: those who wanted the Higgs boson to be discovered, and those who wanted the Higgs boson not to be discovered.

At a conference last fall, I sat at the same dinner table with Frank Wilczek. Inevitably, the conversation came around to the prospects for discovering the Higgs boson in 2012. “It would be much more exciting if the Higgs isn’t found,” I insisted. Frank did not claim to disagree, but was adamant: “I want closure.”*

In the late fall of 1974, I had applied to graduate school, but did not yet know where I would be accepted. Roberta (then my fiance, now my wife) and I were in Boston for the day, so we decided to stop by Harvard to look around. We noticed Steve Weinberg was in his office, and though I had never met Weinberg and had no appointment, we barged in. I introduced Roberta and announced I was interested in coming to Harvard the following year.

It seems strange to me now. Normally I am very shy. I have met with dozens of prospective Caltech graduate students over the years since then, but can’t recall one of them introducing me to his/her fiance. It did not seem strange to Steve, who smiled and recalled, “Oh, Louise and I did the same thing.”

The fall of 1974 was a pivotal time in particle physics, and an exciting time to be a physics student. The discovery of the J/Psi had been announced only a few weeks earlier, indicating that Glashow, Illiopoulos, and Maiani were right about charm, and that Gross, Wilczek, and Politzer were right about asymptotic freedom. Gargamelle had announced the discovery of weak neutral currents, confirming a key prediction of the emerging standard model. Clouds were lifting and the subatomic world was coming into sharper focus.

The evidence supporting the standard model has accumulated steadily since then. After 38 years of delayed gratification, not finding the Higgs boson would have been a shock, and therefore seemed unlikely. Now we have closure.

But no scientist really wants closure. Every great discovery is a steppingstone to the next one. Closure does not shift paradigms, as Frank knows very well.

The discovery of the Higgs boson is a great triumph. But the main purpose of the Large Hadron Collider is not really to discover the Higgs boson. To find the Higgs boson, and nothing else beyond the expected, would be a huge disappointment. No one wants that. It really would be closure.

Much of physics is like a less heroic version of the hunt for the Higgs boson — we look for what we expect to find. If we don’t find it, we’re frustrated; if we find it, we’re satisfied. We have closure.

Particle physics is about searching for the fundamental laws of Nature. What we sometimes call “Quantum Science” is often about confirming the expected consequences of those laws. But I work in this field because it need not be that way. I expect that big surprises lie ahead.

* Frank’s plea for closure also concerned the quest for supersymmetry, but let’s save that for another day.


  1. Stephen Preskill July 11, 2012 at 8:37 am - Reply

    Even though I know nothing about the Higgs boson and really, when you come right down to it, virtually nothing at all, I was quite moved by this post and the idea that particle physics, and perhaps all of science, constitutes an ongoing search to discover the fundamental laws of nature. Closure no, openture yes.

  2. John Sidles July 11, 2012 at 9:08 am - Reply

    In the winter of 1975 the exciting ideas of the then-emerging Standard Model had penetrated even to a freezing-cold ramshackle trailer sitting on the snowy prairie of Illinois, where a clueless first-year graduate student (me) had the midnight shift, observing parasitic muon-pairs from the Fermiab M2 beam-line. Yes, those were fun times.   πŸ™‚

    Today, thirty-six years later, the ideals of quantum closure are neither nearer closer to us, nor farther from us, but rather rmain tantalizingly in view. Yes, these are fun times!   πŸ™‚

    • John Sidles July 11, 2012 at 10:22 am - Reply

      At yet, to balance the above optimism with sobriety — and to address legitimate concerns of today’s students — it was true too that in the late 1970s, few or no physicists foresaw coming events like the abandonment of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), or that the annual number of physics graduate degrees awarded in the late 1970s would stagnate through the 2010s (and beyond?).

      And similarly, in 2002 and 2004, few or no quantum physicists foresaw that the rosy milestones and timelines of QIST: A Quantum Information Science and Technology Roadmap (LA-UR-02-6900 and LA-UR-04-1778) would prove to be so exceedingly slow and difficult of achievement, as to adversely impact the career opportunities of an entire generation of young physicists.

      Guided by Dwight Eisenhower’s strategic maxim: “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable,” we find a thoroughgoing app;ication of Eisenhower’s maxim to STEM enterprises in Robert Burgelman and Andy Grove’s Strategy Is Destiny: How Strategy-Making Shapes a Company’s Future (B&G, 2002), and also in the case studies of Burgelman and Grove Strategic Dynamics: Concepts and Cases (2005).

      B&G (p.65):  “One of the toughest challenges is to make people see that self-evident truths are no longer true. I recall going to see Gordon [Moore] and asking what a new [Intel] management would do if we were replaced. The answer was clear: get out of DRAM [computer memory]! So, I suggested to Gordon that we go out through the revolving door, come back in, and do it ourselves.”

      Guided by Eisenhower’s strategic maxim, and by the lessons-learned of previous STEM enterprises, we may all therefore hope, that the weblog Quantum Frontiers provides both an enduring source of (vital!) scientific inspiration and a venue for (vital!) realistic discussions of the quantum-related challenges of our century.

      How likely is it, that some of “self-evident truths” of QM/QC/QSE/QIT/FTQC are in fact not true?

      The sobering-yet-thrilling lesson-learned of previous STEM enterprises, is that this likelihood is so great, as to amount to a near-certainty. Good!   πŸ™‚

  3. Zach July 13, 2012 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    I find that a similar superposition of desired outcomes exists within the gravitational wave community. I think everyone expects to find gravitational waves, which would indeed be a nice verification of GR, but wouldn’t it be more exciting if Einstein didn’t quite have it?

    Of course, in our case we have the nice fallback plan of GW astronomy, which is promising for its own reasons.

  4. Spyridon Michalakis July 13, 2012 at 4:07 pm - Reply

    @Zach: We, in the quantum computation community, also want closure! In fact, there was recently a long debate about the feasibility of large-scale fault-tolerant quantum computation:
    Maybe Gil and Aram can comment πŸ™‚

  5. […] Rushing to produce a congratulatory post for Stephen Hawking yesterday, I didn’t mention the other big news regarding the Fundamental Physics Prize. Joe Polchinski, Sasha Polyakov, Charlie Kane, Laurens Molenkamp, and Shoucheng Zhang have received theΒ 2013 Physics Frontiers Prize, making them eligible for the Fundamental Physics Prize to be announced on March 20. The New Horizon in Physics Prize (for young physicists) has been awarded to Niklas Beisert, Davide Gaiotto, and Zohar Komargodski. And another “special” $3M Prize, shared by seven people, appropriately recognizes the discovery of the Higgs boson. […]

  6. […] discovery of the Higgs boson was exciting because we had been waiting soooo long for it to happen. Unable to stream the live feed of the announcement, I followed developments via […]

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