Along with two senior postdocs (Andrey Katz of Harvard and Nathaniel Craig of Rutgers) I’ve been visiting the University of Maryland all week, taking advantage of end-of-academic-term slowdowns to spend a few days just thinking hard, with some very bright and creative colleagues, about the implications of what we have discovered (a Higgs particle of mass 125-126 GeV/c²) and have not discovered (any other new particles or unexpected high-energy phenomena) so far at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC].
The basic questions that face us most squarely are:
Is the naturalness puzzle
- resolved by a clever mechanism that adds new particles and forces to the ones we know?
- resolved by properly interpreting the history of the universe?
- nonexistent due to our somehow misreading the lessons of quantum field theory?
- altered dramatically by modifying the rules of quantum field theory and gravity altogether?
If (1) is true, it’s possible that a clever new “mechanism” is required. (Old mechanisms that remove or ameliorate the naturalness puzzle include supersymmetry, little Higgs, warped extra dimensions, etc.; all of these are still possible, but if one of them is right, it’s mildly surprising we’ve seen no sign of it yet.) Since the Maryland faculty I’m talking to (Raman Sundrum, Zakaria Chacko and Kaustubh Agashe) have all been involved in inventing clever new mechanisms in the past (with names like Randall-Sundrum [i.e. warped extra dimensions], Twin Higgs, Folded Supersymmetry, and various forms of Composite Higgs), it’s a good place to be thinking about this possibility. There’s good reason to focus on mechanisms that, unlike most of the known ones, do not lead to new particles that are affected by the strong nuclear force. (The Twin Higgs idea that Chacko invented with Hock-Seng Goh and Roni Harnik is an example.) The particles predicted by such scenarios could easily have escaped notice so far, and be hiding in LHC data.
Sundrum (some days anyway) thinks the most likely situation is that, just by chance, the universe has turned out to be a little bit unnatural — not a lot, but enough that the solution to the naturalness puzzle may lie at higher energies outside LHC reach. That would be unfortunate for particle physicists who are impatient to know the answer… unless we’re lucky and a remnant from that higher-energy phenomenon accidentally has ended up at low-energy, low enough that the LHC can reach it.
But perhaps we just haven’t been creative enough yet to guess the right mechanism, or alter the ones we know of to fit the bill… and perhaps the clues are already in the LHC’s data, waiting for us to ask the right question.
I view option (2) as deeply problematic. On the one hand, there’s a good argument that the universe might be immense, far larger than the part we can see, with different regions having very different laws of particle physics — and that the part we live in might appear very “unnatural” just because that very same unnatural appearance is required for stars, planets, and life to exist. To be over-simplistic: if, in the parts of the universe that have no Higgs particle with mass below 700 GeV/c², the physical consequences prevent complex molecules from forming, then it’s not surprising we live in a place with a Higgs particle below that mass. [It's not so different from saying that the earth is a very unusual place from some points of view -- rocks near stars make up a very small fraction of the universe --- but that doesn't mean it's surprising that we find ourselves in such an unusual location, because a planet is one of the few places that life could evolve.]
Such an argument is compelling for the cosmological constant problem. But it’s really hard to come up with an argument that a Higgs particle with a very low mass (and corresponding low non-zero masses for the other known particles) is required for life to exist. Specifically, the mechanism of “technicolor” (in which the Higgs field is generated as a composite object through a new, strong force) seems to allow for a habitable universe, but with no naturalness puzzle — so why don’t we find ourselves in a part of the universe where it’s technicolor, not a Standard Model-like Higgs, that shows up at the LHC? Sundrum, formerly a technicolor expert, has thought about this point (with David E. Kaplan), and he agrees this is a significant problem with option (2).
By the way, option (2) is sometimes called the “anthropic principle”. But it’s neither a principle nor “anthro-” (human-) related… it’s simply a bias (not in the negative sense of the word, but simply in the sense of something that affects your view of a situation) from the fact that, heck, life can only evolve in places where life can evolve.
(3) is really hard for me to believe. The naturalness argument boils down to this:
- Quantum fields fluctuate;
- Fluctuations carry energy, called “zero-point energy”, which can be calculated and is very large;
- The energy of the fluctuations of a field depends on the corresponding particle’s mass;
- The particle’s mass, for the known particles, depends on the Higgs field;
- Therefore the energy of empty space depends strongly on the Higgs field
Unless one of these five statements is wrong (good luck finding a mistake — every one of them involves completely basic issues in quantum theory and in the Higgs mechanism for giving masses) then there’s a naturalness puzzle. The solution may be simple from a certain point of view, but it won’t come from just waving the problem away.
(4) I’d love for this to be the real answer, and maybe it is. If our understanding of quantum field theory and Einstein’s gravity leads us to a naturalness problem whose solution should presumably reveal itself at the LHC, and yet nature refuses to show us a solution, then maybe it’s a naive use of field theory and gravity that’s at fault. But it may take a very big leap of faith, and insight, to see how to jump off this cliff and yet land on one’s feet. Sundrum is well-known as one of the most creative and fearless individuals in our field, especially when it comes to this kind of thing. I’ve been discussing some radical notions with him, but mostly I’ve been enjoying hearing his many past insights and ideas… and about the equations that go with them. Anyone can speculate, but it’s the equations (and the predictions, testable at least in principle if not in practice, that you can derive from them) that transform pure speculations into something that deserves the name “theoretical physics”.