MIT Physics News Spotlight
After Particle Search, Some Wallets May Lose Mass
Dennis Overbye, New York Times
August 6, 2012
When physicists at CERN reported on July 4 that they had discovered a new particle resembling the long-sought Higgs boson, it prompted a worldwide celebration of pride and mystification.
It also prompted a worldwide settling of scores as physicists — inveterate gamblers — examine the data to decide whether it is time to pay up on longstanding bets about the existence of the boson, which has been the object of a 40-year manhunt.
As described by the Standard Model, the theory that now rules physics, the Higgs boson would be tangible evidence of a hypothesized cosmic molasses known as the Higgs field. That field endows some elementary particles with mass, breaking a logjam of mathematical symmetry in the laws of the early universe and thus adding diversity and the possibility of life to the cosmos. Physicists say it will take them at least the rest of the year and maybe longer to ascertain whether the new particle fits the theoretical prediction — in particular that it has no spin, the first known subatomic knuckle ball.
Nevertheless, the British cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who 10 years ago bet the University of Michigan theorist Gordon Kane $100 that the particle didn’t exist, has already told reporters he is conceding defeat. Dr. Kane is awaiting his windfall. “I haven’t heard directly from him,” Dr. Kane said in an e-mail, “but I assume I will soon, in some interesting way.”
Guido Tonelli, a CERN physicist and former spokesman for one of two groups that helped discover the particle, said that if he collected on all the bets he made, he would be a rich man.
Some of these bets are still hanging in the balance. On Intrade, where as of this writing an investment of about $8 will get you $10 if the boson is officially found by the end of this year, the rules specify publication in a major peer-reviewed journal.
For Janet Conrad, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, those conditions were tentatively satisfied last week by the appearance of papers from the two CERN teams that made the discovery, CMS and Atlas, on the physics Web site arXiv.org.
As reported last fall, Dr. Conrad had bet her colleague Frank Wilczek, a physics Nobelist in 2004, 10 chocolate Nobel coins that the Standard Model Higgs boson did not exist. On July 4 she realized she was going to have to pay.
The payoff, however, turned out to be almost as complicated as some of the so-called Feynman diagrams physicists use to describe the interactions in which particles like the Higgs boson are created and destroyed. Or as complicated as a clandestine drug deal. The coins, embossed with the Nobel seal, are sold only at the Nobel Museum.
So shortly after the July 4 announcement, she sent Chad Finley, a friend and physicist at Stockholm University, to the museum, where he bought the chocolates for about $15. He could have then mailed them to the United States but was worried they would melt; instead he passed them to Szabolcs Marka, a Columbia physicist who was in Sweden at the time.
Dr. Marka took them back to New York and gave them to Matt Toups, a postdoctoral researcher with Dr. Conrad who was headed for Fermilab, in Illinois, where Dr. Conrad was working. The pair wrapped the chocolates in plastic foam so they wouldn’t melt during the bus ride to La Guardia Airport.
Dr. Conrad picked up the chocolates just before a power failure sent temperatures in the Fermilab offices rising toward the chocolate melting point, and took them home to Cambridge, Mass., leaving them with her sister while she went off to a physics conference in Virginia and then back to Fermilab. She wrote in an e-mail, “I have not seen them, since they are carefully enclosed in their Styrofoam, but I trust they are in excellent shape!”
Dr. Wilczek, who is in New Hampshire, has not seen the chocolates either, but he said they had been delivered to his office.
Should subsequent measurements determine that the particle has the wrong spin and is not the Higgs boson, Dr. Wilczek has agreed to pay Dr. Conrad 1,000 coins, but neither expects that.
“We’re going to have some kind of party around the culmination of the bet; details are under construction,” he wrote, adding, “I’ll be eating one myself and giving the rest away.”