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Finding the Higgs Leads to More Puzzles
Tuesday, 05 November 2013 12:38

Near the end of “The Tempest,” in what has been taken as Shakespeare’s farewell speech, the sorcerer Prospero breaks his staff and declares, “Our revels now are ended.” And he goes on:

“These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air: and ...leave not a rack behind.”

The latest word from physics is that something like that ending may be in store for the universe. In this case, the role of Prospero is played by the Higgs field, an invisible ocean of energy that permeates space, confers mass on elementary particles and gives elementary forces their distinct features and strengths.

The field, theoretical for 50 years, took on real life last year when physicists at CERN in Europe discovered the Higgs boson, a sort of droplet of Higgs energy. The world rejoiced, and two of the chief theorists, Peter Higgs and François Englert, will share a Nobel Prize. But studies of the new boson suggest it could have a fatal disease.

As Joseph Lykken, a theorist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and Maria Spiropulu, of the California Institute of Technology, put it in a new paper reviewing the history and future of the Higgs boson:

“Taken at face value, the result implies that eventually (in 10^100 years or so) an unlucky quantum fluctuation will produce a bubble of a different vacuum, which will then expand at the speed of light, destroying everything.”

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