Why Some Physicists Bet Against the Higgs Boson


After Stephen Hawking conceded that he’d lost his bet about the Higgs boson, I wondered why he had been on the wrong side of the bet. Why had he doubted the existence of a particle widely assumed to be an essential constituent of physical reality?

Hawking wasn’t available to answer that question, but I did manage to have a long conversation with an American physicist who had also doubted the existence of the Higgs–Lawrence Krauss, author of The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe From Nothing . Krauss explained the generic reason that a number of physicists had doubted the Higgs: Its posited existence was suspiciously convenient. When you understand what he meant, I think you may conclude that physical reality is cooler than you’d thought. Here, as I understand it, is the deal:

Decades ago, physicists had found a way to unify–that is, fit into a common theoretical framework–two of the four basic physical forces: the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force. But there was one hitch: photons, the particles that mediate the electromagnetic force, have no mass, whereas the particles that mediate the weak force–the W and Z bosons–seem to have mass. And this theoretical unification wouldn’t make complete sense unless the W and Z bosons were, like photons, massless.

So–here comes the suspiciously convenient part–physicists supposed that maybe the W and Z bosons didn’t really have mass; rather, there was something–some feature of the universe–that made them behave as if they had mass. That “something” was dubbed the Higgs boson.

Click on “long conversation” link above to watch the video interview with Lawrence Krauss. 


Written By: Robert Wright
continue to source article at theatlantic.com


  1. “It seemed too easy… It seemed to me that introducing an invisible field to explain stuff is more like religion than science… “
    Nothing new. Kind of like the space-time relationship science has faith in. 

  2. As a physicist I ought to make a few comments on this
    Wright/Krauss article/dialogue (they both said baffling stuff):


    I wondered why [Stephen Hawking] had been on the
    wrong side of the bet


    Hawking explicitly dated in his concession speech that he had taken an
    anti-Higgs stance because he hoped the data would undermine our expectations
    enough to help give our future theoretical work a more empirically specific


    this theoretical unification wouldn’t make complete
    sense unless the W and Z bosons were, like photons, massless


    It’s worth bearing in mind the common historical claim that the Higgs
    boson was dreamed up just to make two particles’ mass seem less disparate in
    comparison with their photon partner misses the mathematically unavoidable
    finding (he concedes in the video) you need the Higgs mechanism or something
    like it to give *any* particles mass, not because “why does it have some mass?”
    is a question worth asking but because, when you do the maths, you find non-zero
    intrinsic masses make the theory break down. This is why we didn’t stop at “Higgs
    gives W and Z mass”, but continued to “Higgs gives all massive elementary
    particles mass”. I think bearing in mind facts like these gives the lie to
    Krauss’s “too convenient” allegation. It would be as if he felt a particular
    combination of gauge fixing with a Lagrangian which works under it was
    “convenient” for working even though you can prove no other Lagrangian would be
    feasible in that way. (What an odd analogy; I’ve been looking at BRST
    quantization today.)

    Positing the Higgs struck some physicists as a bit kludgy–a
    kind of deus ex machina wheeled onto the stage to salvage an otherwise
    incomplete plotline


    Were these physicists familiar with the proof of Goldstein’s theorem? In
    the video Krauss and Wright discuss a comparison of the Higgs field with the
    cosmological parameter, even though a careful derivation in general relativity
    shows in general it should be included because to set it to zero is equivalent
    to neglecting an integration constant when finding the general solution to a
    differential calculus problem.


    nature found an arguably kludgy way to reconcile deep
    unity with surface diversity


    Not really. Nature didn’t find a broken electroweak symmetry, then
    afterwards decide how it would explain that; nature was a certain way
    (apparently, one containing Higgs bosons), and that led to the consequences we
    observe. Inferring the Higgs explanation of the relationship between the
    electromagnetic & weak forces is like working out what happened at a crime
    scene; the crime scene didn’t “find a way”, kludgy or otherwise, to “reconcile”
    some facts with some observations.


    I found it odd Krauss felt an invisible Higgs field was quasi-religious.
    Newton called gravity occult because it was the first known force at a
    distance, but now we know many fields like this and understand them. (Perhaps
    he meant the field seems strange for having the same vacuum expectation value
    everywhere.) As for Wright, (a) Krauss displayed just how little general
    journalists know about science (why cover it? Let science correspondents do
    it!) and (b) he seemed like a right-wing blowhard interviewer in a way.

  3. It seems to me the universe is not constrained to work in way simple enough for humans to understand it. I could conceive of it being 4 or 5 orders of magnitude more complicated. It strikes me as profound good luck so much of it could be figured out by our species.

    Or perhaps all I am noticing is that we are nowhere near even suspecting the complex stuff.

  4. And yet (1) both are correct and (2) both are described mathematically. Cute that you try, though.

  5.  Maybe the point could be made that a universe which is governed by relatively simple rules (and I count the standard model as simple) is more amenable to evolving intelligence. I’m not sure how it would work in detail though.

  6. I also find his “higgs field is like religion” comment quite strange. Calling the Higgs field “invisible” seems  silly to me, since you can fill books with the precise predictions the theory makes. You can *in principle* measure all the coupling constants of the Higgs boson to other particles and, most important, to itself, and if that all turns out to be consistent with the prediction of the Higgs mechanism, this is for all intents and purposes equivalent to saying “there is a higgs field”. If it looks, smells, talks, and walks like a higgs field, you might just as well go ahead and call it that.

    Also, the “all too convenient” comment… He has it ass-backwards. Assuming that there can be such a thing as scalar particles in the universe (and why shouldn’t there), there is basically a 50/50 chance that their parameters are such that they develop a background value. That gives you the Higgs effect, it’s not that exotic at all, it’s just that up until 1964 people hadn’t realized what the precise consequences would be.

    btw.: Have fun with the brst 😀

  7. Esoteric comments aside, it just strikes me that you could spend tens of thousands of dollars/pounds/whatever to go to university and never get to see a lecture/dialog like this.  Ain’t technology wonderful – and people like Krauss willing to share all this good stuff for free.

  8. I thought Hawking’s bet was that the Higgs wouldn’t be found in his lifetime? Not that he didn’t think it would be found at all.

  9.  That would have been quite a foolhardy bet (or he was simply betting against his own health), because as he surely knew well, people have been calculated more than a decade ago what the rough amount of LHC data is that it would take to discover or exclude the standard higgs boson. In the end, it took pretty much the  expected amount of data (slightly less) to discover it. Alternatively, he was maybe opting for an exotic variety of the higgs which conspires to be invisible at the LHC. While there were such models on the market, they are not exactly mainstream.

  10. After Stephen Hawking conceded that he’d lost his bet about the Higgs boson, I wondered why he had been on the wrong side of the bet. Why had he doubted the existence of a particle widely assumed to be an essential constituent of physical reality?


    Because he’s a scientist? Scientists, as far as I’m aware, don’t accept assumptions behind theories, at least not officially, unless there’s evidence to justify them. Plus, he’s not above hoping that experiments will give future physicists more work; he is a human who loves investigating things, and the thought of an upcoming plot twist probably gave him pleasure.

  11. That’s NOT Lawrence Krauss- that’s Chevy Chase.

    No, he’s not in Chevy Chase, he’s in Chautauqua.

  12. Hawking also lost a bet with John Preskill over whether information is erased in black holes — an incident in the famous Black Hole Wars with Leonard Susskind of Stanford University.  If he keeps up this losing streak, Stephen Hawking will be a penniless pauper in approximately 8.5 million years.

    I really enjoy these stories of epic disagreement in physics, and it’s heartening to see people who are passionate enough about these things to wager their own money (however symbolic and trivial the amounts might be).

    In contrast, every time I’ve made (and won) bets with colleagues in the engineering companies I’ve worked for, the typical reaction is “who cares” followed by petulant and vindictive behavior for the next several weeks.  Most of the time, the wagers are simply refused outright, as if the offers themselves violate some sort of unwritten “anti-embarrassment” law in corporate America.  Apparently you’re just not a good “team player” when you care enough to actually bet money over a technical disagreement.  It’s inherently sad.

    Hawking figured out that black holes decay and can eventually vanish via Hawking Radiation.  His legacy in Physics is secure.  I agree with the earlier poster who said Hawking’s bet against the Higgs Boson was only his private wish that Nature would instead reveal something more interesting and provocative than merely confirming a theory he can recite backwards from memory.

  13. About 36 minutes in “No particles have intrinsic mass”

    Well some might, but that wouldn’t really tell us anything useful about why they have mass. Declaring that a property is intrinsic is pretty meaningless as it halts all further investigation of the phenomenon.

  14. Not if it’s true. It doesn’t halt further investigation, it creates all new avenues, actually.

    No rigid structures have intrinsic properties such as viscosity, but we aren’t halted by this simply because viscosity has nothing to do with rigid structures.

    We aren’t worried about the lack of the intrinsic organic quality of steel impeding us. Nor should we be. It doesn’t halt all further investigation of the phenomena, it steers it based on evidence.

  15. I think you misread my post. There are no intrinsic properties in science, everything we see is the result of some kind of interaction.

  16. No, that’s why your comment doesn’t make any sense.

    You failed to realize that particles don’t require innate mass, they get it through interactions with many fields.

    An intrinsic lack of mass is no more a problem for particles than an intrinsic lack of arsenic on your sandwich.

    I never claimed there were intrinsic properties in science, only materials, mass, etc.

    And what of everything we can’t see?

    You know, there is a great deal of that. Especially on the current topic.

  17. “Atheists proved wrong after discovery of god particle!”
    “can’t believe there are still #atheists out there. it’s called the GOD particle for a reason”
    “they found the “god particle” on the “fourth of july” PROOF AMERICA IS GOD”

    See http://twitter.com/derpparticl… (if you haven’t already). Be careful not to injure your jaw too much when it hits the floor.

    Civilisation is doomed.

  18. I really wanted to listen to it, but it’s unbearable listening to constant shouting. Is this a common way to converse in USA?

  19. Of course particles don’t require innate mass, I was attempting to explain why even suggesting that they might is meaningless. I really wish philosophers would get past their vague platonic essentialism and stop misusing words like inherent and intrinsic.

  20. Also, something can lack intrinsic mass, but there is no such thing as “an intrinsic lack of mass”.

  21. “So–here comes the suspiciously convenient part–physicists supposed that maybe the W and Z bosons didn’t really have mass; rather, there was something–some feature of the universe–that made them behave as if they had mass. That “something” was dubbed the Higgs boson.”

    Um….how do we know the Large Hadron Collider is not simply behaving ‘as if’ the Higgs Boson exists ?

    No…wait….maybe my computer screen is behaving ‘as if’ its displaying news about the Large Hadron Collider behaving ‘as if’ the Higgs Boson existed…

  22. Even if it is behaving as if a certain state of affairs is true, you still have to explain why it’s behaving “as if” the Higgs boson is true. The least assumptive answer is that the Higgs boson is true, especially if the result repeatedly turns up positive. That’s the basis of Ockham’s razor. To assume it’s some sort of deception is to go beyond the evidence and be a little superstitious.

    This is a little cheeky of me, but your “as if” stance is strangely ironic given which thread you’ve recently opened in discussions:


  23. I’d love to see more discussion of all the cool technology we might base on manipulating the Higgs field. How plausible is anti-gravity, for instance?

  24. I have read many books by these scientists, but I am still and idiot. Let the scientist be scientists while we can enjoy it too as spectators. I will likely never be up to their speed, but I know not to take their word as gospel(sorry for that word). As It always changes with new information and as exiting as it is, sometimes their interpretation is not the right one. It’s like jamming on a guitar. You can get riffs and chords and a general progression, but at the end of the day. You might not use a single thing you practiced when it comes time to make the actual album or song.

    I don’t know what the story will be in the next 20 years. I imagine it will be quite different In a subtle way. But I do like science and I think it’s fun to hear them brainstorm. because even small ideas can grow to become bigger ones. And I wouldn’t miss that for anything.

Leave a Reply