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.