Oh You Zany Scienticians.

Phase 1: Physicist makes joke.
Phase 2: NYT.
Phase 3: ...
Phase 4: Profit!

A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.

Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan, put this idea forward in a series of papers with titles like "Test of Effect From Future in Large Hadron Collider: a Proposal" and "Search for Future Influence From LHC."


24 Responses:

  1. revsphynx says:

    "like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather."

    So the LHC is going to be like Fry? How does a machine have sex with its own grandmother?

    • spike says:

      How does a machine have sex with its own grandmother?

      You've just torn open a rift in the geek-sex continuum; soon we'll be deluged with snappy retorts and links to gundam-fursuit trannyformer porn...

    • sethg_prime says:

      By using a USB-to-RS232 adapter.

    • maramala says:

      Interestingly, there's a follow-up right in the very same article:

      While it is a paradox to go back in time and kill your grandfather, physicists agree there is no paradox if you go back in time and save him from being hit by a bus. In the case of the Higgs and the collider, it is as if something is going back in time to keep the universe from being hit by a bus. Although just why the Higgs would be a catastrophe is not clear. If we knew, presumably, we wouldn't be trying to make one.

  2. asjo says:

    By the way: Holger Bech Nielsen definitely sounds - in real life - as a prototypical zany scientist.

    Example (he starts at 2:48):

  3. dasht says:

    Of course! Although it seems an unlikely possibility, Douglas Adams was right.

    To build an infinite improbability drive, we need only make a highly calibrated Higgs-Boson generator which, at a particular setting, has only a very specific probability of failing. And then put it in a space ship.

    Navigation is a bitch. Let's assume that we want to travel from Earth to Alpha Centuri. Clearly there must be some exact probability of the entire space ship being transported there, instantly (via a kind of quantum tunneling).

    Fortunately, we don't need to calculate the probabilities quantitatively:

    Every machine of sufficient complexity must have some failure mode (c.f. Goedel) however we can pick and choose what failure modes we'll tolerate (that's engineering).

    Therefore, build a machine that absolutely will not fail to produce a Higgs boson *unless* the ship is instantly transported from earth to Alpha Centuri. Then switch it on. Voila.

    It has benevolent uses, too. Want the cure for cancer? Configure the machine to produce a Higgs boson *unless* a cure for cancer materializes.

    Need a six pack of beer in California after 2AM? Same deal.

    I'd like my nobel prize now, thanks.


    • strspn says:

      I fully endorse testing this awesome theory with such applications.

      • dasht says:

        Ah, yes, but that was mere speculation - a hoax. It would yield only a finite improbability drive (for it is not so impossible that earth blows itself up in a nuclear war) AND it suffers the defect of relying on the multiple worlds hypothesis which we now know is "almost certainly" false. In contrast, my design for the *infinite* improbability drive merely requires catching god in a logical contradiction in a single time-line universe. He can then use his omnipotence to prolong the argument and forever avoid admitting his mistake (thus avoiding disappearance in a puff of logic) but only at the cost of granting whatsoever miracles we demand (such as immediate transport to alpha centuri).

        By the way, did you know that "So this is it. We're all going to die." is precisely forty-two characters long, when quined? That it occurs on page 42 of the first edition? and that if you read off the 42nd words of each page of the first edition you get a series of really filthy limericks?


        • Ah, but your drive is also of a finite probability. There is a finite, albeit very small, probability that you'll find yourself teleported to the Alpha Centauri. And it depends on an unreliable theory too. The only difference is that if you request a truly improbable outcome, Higgs drive would go back in time and erase the desire for such a silly thing from your mind, while Everett drive would simply kill you. By the way, there is a workaround for the latter: you assess the probability of catastrophic failure (that the number in question is not a multiple of two primes, for example) and make your device fail with somewhat lesser probability.

          Also, either way you should be very careful when expressing your wish. If teleporting your ship to the Alpha Centaury intact is less probable than doing so but without teleporting the contents of oxygen tanks (and without the bomb too, in case you'd want to make a next wish then), you are in trouble.

          • dasht says:

            First, I commend you in this sense: every brilliant physicist I've sent my pre-print to has initially responded with the very objection that you make here - it's a natural mistake. I wish that Feynman were still alive because he was more familiar than most physicists with computer science and I bet he'd have not slipped up. Anyway, as I've explained to each objector - and they've all come around on this point - "it doesn't work that way, here's why:"

            The problem is two fold. I'll state it informally first: (1) God, to maintain his omnipotence, is subject to a "rule of forward progress" - there can not be a finite limit to the time-line. (2) Sentient creatures are inevitable. (3) Sentience leads *inevitably* to an attempt to create the infinite improbability drive in at most a finite amount of time G (the "Conway Constant").

            And so, if the universe always went back to take away our attempts to build the infinite improbability drive, the universe would get stuck in a loop and god's omnipotence thus refuted. (Talk about prayers with teeth!)

            Now, the theological framing of it might make you uncomfortable but rest assured it's actually a mathematical result that follows from nothing more or less than QM + some Shannon-style information theory + some game theory.

            If you feel like working the math out for yourself (my colleagues and I are in pre-print so don't get any ideas about precedence!) I'll give you a big hint, Conway's "Strong Free Will Theorem" (c.f. wikipedia) is an important lemma along the way.


        • dasht says:

          Sorry for the self follow-up but I forgot to explain why the multiple worlds hypothesis appears to be false. The Poles, not the Russians, actually nailed this one with the Lem Conjecture. The Lem Fundamental Lemma (which is certainly true) is that if there exists a possible world in which the multiple world hypothesis is false, then we exist in that world. Simple enough, but how do you show such a possible world can exist? The Lem Conjecture notes that you can probably do a Goedel-encoding of the negation of the existence a proof of the multiple worlds hypothesis as a configuration of, you guessed it, Higgs bosons and that (I'm simplifying here) if you constructed that configuration it would perform a quantum computation whose result immediately implies you can't construct that configuration in the first place. The only reason the Lem Conjecture is still a Conjecture and not a theorem is that it looks like it would be really tedious and boring to do the math but you can kind of tell it's possible.


          • Any sufficiently advanced scientific theory is indistinguishable from total bullshit.

            (On the minuscule chance that this hasn't been postulated dozens of times before, let's call it Borogove's Law.)

            • dasht says:

              (There is an earlier cite, alas, so you lack precedent. It's Clark's Lemma of Magic as Bullshit. See ... well, hmm, I don't have the reference and Google isn't being helpfl but I think it must have been around 1989.... somewhere in Johns Hopkins' University Press journal "Practica Analactica".)


    • strspn says:

      In keeping with my view that time becomes the fifth dimension when we die (which can, as an alternative to religious mythology, be used as a basis for ethics) I believe we should start with the assumption that the new(?) force(s) responsible for the prevention of the Higgs boson are transmitted backwards in time through a Bose-Einstein condensate formed by supercooling a large accelerator. If we understood more of the particle/wave duality of matter, it couldn't hurt.

      • dasht says:



      • xoruglm says:

        What do you mean by 5th dimension? Two-dimensional time? Alternate time-lines?

        • strspn says:

          I mean two dimensions of time, the first of which transitions through alternate time line configurations along the second, which we are unlikely to become aware of until our mental endpoints become fixed (i.e., we die.) Since this may be a hypothesis on which only the experiments proposed in the great-grandparent post could ever shed any light, I only ask that you consider whether such a situation gives rise to more motivation for altruism and cooperation than ethics based on fear of eternal damnation and similar supernatural punishment mythologies.

          • xoruglm says:

            Interesting, I've had similar thoughts ...

            I'm not following how 2D time affects ethics, though. I fully agree that an ethics system based on superstition isn't very effective, but I don't understand how alternate time lines figure in.

            • strspn says:

              If ordinary, fourth-dimensional time lines reconfigure along a fifth dimension of time, then not only do our choices and behavior affect the way others see and react to us, but our goals and motivations would, too. I suppose it's very similar to the idea of karma, but based on a mathematical abstraction instead of superstition.

              Even in a universe without free will, but where the actors have the illusion of free will, those with more sophisticated views of ethics are more likely to have better outcomes than those tending towards an every-man-for-himself philosophy.

            • strspn says:

              Another, similar implication here would be: Actions speak louder than words, unless those words are directed towards the most powerful actors and are convincing in the Aristotilian Greeks' forensic sense.

              I am so appreciative of those who have followed their convictions, gut feelings, and instincts. In the digital world there is no greater treasure. The rewards they deserve seem so much more than what reality hands them.

    • Awesome. And then you can use your remaining two tokens to attempt to undo the side effects of using the monkey's paw quantum toaster probability drive.

  4. daenfr says:

    ... because, logically, the existence of backwards propagating events like these imply that the Higgs boson *does* exist! Well done Holger. The machine need never be turned on.

    But wait.

    If they never turn it on, then there is no possibility of detecing the Higgs boson, and thus no trigger for the future events that will propagate backwards in time, so the machine will be turned on, and will trigger the future events that will propagate backwards in time, so ...