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Higgs Data Could Spell Trouble For Leading Big Bang Theory 259

ananyo writes "Paul Steinhardt, an astrophysicist at Princeton University in New Jersey, and colleagues have posted a controversial paper on ArXiv arguing, based on the latest Higgs data and the cosmic microwave background map from the Planck mission, that the leading theory explaining the first moments of the Big Bang ('inflation') is fatally flawed. In short, Steinhardt says that the models that best fit the Planck data — known as 'plateau models' because their potential-energy profiles level off at relatively low energies — are far less likely to occur naturally than the models that Planck ruled out. Secondly, he says, the news for these plateau models gets dramatically worse when the results are analyzed in conjunction with the latest results about the Higgs field coming from CERN's Large Hadron Collider. Particle physicists working at the LHC have calculated that the Higgs field is likely to have started out in a high-energy, 'metastable' state rather than in a stable, low-energy configuration. Steinhardt likens the odds of the Higgs field initially being perched in the precarious metastable state as to those of dropping out of the sky over the Matterhorn and conveniently landing in a 'dimple near the top,' rather than crashing down to the mountain's base."
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Higgs Data Could Spell Trouble For Leading Big Bang Theory

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  • by K. S. Kyosuke ( 729550 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @11:38AM (#43473049)
    That sounds like a cosmic catastrophe in the making. Or has it already happened?
    • Maybe the uni/multiverse had a "reboot" from a prior state?
      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @12:01PM (#43473249)

        Maybe the uni/multiverse had a "reboot" from a prior state?

        Well, that WOULD explain why this universe seems bleak, dark, and depressing. The original universe was probably campier and silly but more beloved by fans before some pretentious jackhole looked too hard at all those physical properties and atomic interactions and decided it needed to be rebooted with black holes, hard vacuums, and the second law of thermodynamics.

        There's probably countless imitation universes out there, too, each one darker and more depressing than the last one in an effort to market them better to the universe-enjoying pan-dimensional youth out there. That continued until the 90s, when the absurdity of it all came crashing in on itself and nearly destroyed the universe-creating industry, and...

        Hang on, what was I talking about?

    • by stevegee58 ( 1179505 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @11:58AM (#43473229) Journal
      It proves the universe is only about 5000 years old.
    • by Antipater ( 2053064 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @12:05PM (#43473309)

      It's called a False Vacuum [], and yes, it's quite the possible doomsday scenario.

      If you read further down in TFA, you find that this Princeton professor has spent years trying to push his cyclical universe model over the inflationary Big Bang, and experimental results have not been kind to him. In fact, there's no actual mention of the Higgs data playing any part in discrediting the Big Bang here. The entire piece seems to hinge on his saying it's "unlikely" rather than any actual observations.

      • It's called a False Vacuum [], and yes, it's quite the possible doomsday scenario.

        A good thing is that you won't feel anything when it happens.

        Another good thing is that you won't have to file any tax returns anymore.

        The really bad thing is that your tax collector won't feel anything when it happens either.

    • by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @12:15PM (#43473409) Journal
      It's not a cosmic catastrophe so much as a physics one, although I'd prefer to call it a physics "opportunity"! Having found the Higgs we already know that there is now an incredible precarious balance even within the Standard Model. The Higgs is a fundamental scalar particle which is a radically different beast from any other fundamental particle we know of. One of the strange properties of the Higgs is that there are corrections to its mass which scale with energy squared.

      This might not sound like a big deal but quantum mechanics means that even at low energies these high energy corrections to the Higgs mass are important. The question then becomes "what energy is our current knowledge of physics good to". Well if we look at the Standard Model of particle physics it is missing gravity so, at the scale where gravity becomes important (about a million billion times higher in energy than the LHC) we know the SM breaks down.

      The problem is that this means the Higgs mass is corrected by a series of terms each of which is ~32+ orders of magnitude larger than the mass itself. This means that you need a cancellation to better than one part in ~10^32 by chance. This is about the same chance as winning the UK national lottery every week for 4-5 weeks in a row or tossing a coin and having it come up heads over 100 times in a row. If either of these events actually happened nobody would believe they happened by chance - there would be investigations into how someone managed to cheat the lottery or you would want to inspect the coin to make sure it did not have two heads.

      There are solutions to this conundrum: Supersymmetry makes all the corrections to the Higgs mass cancel precisely (above some energy scale) and Large Extra Dimensions lowers the scale where gravity becomes important considerably. What would be interesting to know is whether these solutions to the fine tuning problem we have in the Standard Model also solve the fine tuning which this paper suggests that cosmology also has.
      • <spock>Fascinating</spock>

        In other words, it's a "physics crisitunity!"

      • There are solutions to this conundrum: Supersymmetry makes all the corrections to the Higgs mass cancel precisely (above some energy scale) and Large Extra Dimensions lowers the scale where gravity becomes important considerably.

        I thought that LHC and other recent experiments have gotten close to entirely ruling out most Supersymmetry theories [].

        • by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @01:29PM (#43474353) Journal
          No - the LHCb data has ruled out large swathes of SUSY parameter space but has certainly not come close to ruling out SUSY. You can hide SUSY from indirect searches like Bs->mu mu by e.g. making SUSY have the same flavour symmetry as the Standard Model. So these searches are incredibly useful at limiting the SUSY parameter space but to really know whether SUSY is there you have to look for direct evidence. I'll start being sceptical of SUSY if after 2-3 years of running the LHC at 13-14 TeV we still see that point we will start to have interesting questions about Dark Matter as well if we have not seen it.
      • by invid ( 163714 )

        "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, 'hmm... that's funny...'"

        - Isaac Asimov

    • by Gilmoure ( 18428 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @12:57PM (#43473971) Journal

      New data requires reevaluation of current theory? Damn you scientific method! Damn you to hell!

  • by EricTheGreen ( 223110 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @11:40AM (#43473077) Homepage

    ....we just don't know.

    • by ackthpt ( 218170 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @11:55AM (#43473209) Homepage Journal

      ....we just don't know.

      The thing that bugs me about a Big Bang Theory is where did this singularity come from? Where exactly is it, in some infinite void? Are there more like it, all oscillating between Exapansion and Collapse throughout eternity? For the Universe, as we know it, is only this local body of mass and energy.

      and now i need a quiet corner, cuppa hot cocoa and my teddy bear

      • by almitydave ( 2452422 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @12:19PM (#43473461)

        Spent all my mod points, but excellent questions. There are, sadly, limits to what we can discover with physical sciences. This has bugged me since I was a kid. I want to know, dammit! The universe is so vast that we will never know or be able to know even a small fraction of what's there. Some questions, as why there is anything at all, will forever be in the realm of philosophy, unanswerable by empirical sciences alone.

        But we keep asking, keep looking, both farther and closer, because we have to know. It's in our nature.

        I like some was partially hoping they'd fail to find the Higgs, and the experiments would point the way to some more fundamental theory, but it seems our current model is actually pretty good as far as it goes. Although I barely understand particle physics, I'm fascinated by all the research on it, and share the desire to understand the nature of our universe at the deepest level.

        But look at me still talking, when there's science to do! (well not by me personally, I have to get back to coding).

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        The idea of "location" with regard to the singularity is a question with no real sensical answer, unfortunately. It's a bit like asking "where is the center of the Earth's surface?". Only, you can't move around on the surface of the Earth, you can't fly over it, and so you only have what you can see, limited by the horizon, in every direction. Even then, any point you pick is completely arbitrary and usually based on some landmark. Much like we can say what our position compared to the center of the galaxy

      • That's the great thing about infinity...shit happens!

        • by ackthpt ( 218170 )

          That's the great thing about infinity...shit happens!

          The Universe: An infinite space where infinite shit happens ... infinitely.

          I think I just figured something out.


          Did anyone else have the sudden feeling that something was just replaced with something even more inexplicable?

          or perhaps a feeling this has already happened

          • This must be thursday. I never could get the hang of thursdays.

            (note: before anyone complains it isn't thursday - it is in my timezone you insensitive clod!)

      • by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @01:10PM (#43474117)

        Your questions are wrong because our human minds are not adapted to handle the truth... which is: there was no time and space prior to the big bang... because there was no time that was prior to the big bang. The Big Bang created time and space. Our best measurements and studies have concluded that the universe will not collapse again. It is in an accelerating expansion. It's not slowing down. There will be no big crunch. Are there other universes? Perhaps... but I tended to think that if there are... they are all part of this one same system. All effecting each other, and therefore all part of this universe just in an indirect way... but then I'm just getting into semantics.

      • by eggstasy ( 458692 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @01:21PM (#43474253) Journal

        It's turtles all the way down.

      • The thing that bugs me about a Big Bang Theory is where did this singularity come from?

        I am not a physicist. My limited understanding is that under M-Theory the universe may be a higher-dimensional membrane, a "brane". Furthermore, the universe is not unique, there are numerous branes, a multiverse. Its been suggested that when two branes collide a new one is formed ... a new brane, a new universe, a big bang.

      • I think at that point it is more about Linguistics, Philosophy, Neuroscience than actual physics.

        Other than in Math which can get very conceptual, human thought likes to deal with discrete things. Stuff like Infinite, Everything, Nothing, or anything that is an absolute is very difficult to process. We like to label things, we like to describe things. In describing something you are by nature encapsulating it into a known value. In many cases we describe things in absolute terms, even those things rarely ar

    • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @12:33PM (#43473651) Journal

      A bit of background here: the great data we now have on the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation presents a solid mystery: it's all very nearly the same temperature, yet with steady expansion of the universe opposite sides of the sky would be too separated (by speed-of-light delay) to have temperatures evened out like that.

      In order to explain that, "inflationary" models were invented, which proposed that the very early universe expanded quite a bit faster than the speed of light. I don't quite get why expanding faster makes temperatures more equalized, but I don't doubt the math works. There is some actual evidence for inflation: the temperature variations in the CMBR do look a lot like quantum fluctuations magnified enormously. A lot of work has been done in this area in the past decade.

      Inventing a new mechanic by which space itself grows very rapidly is easy, but inventing one where the expansion was likely to happen, and happen evenly across the universe, and then stop, is hard. The best candidates are tied to the Higgs field - basically saying it was briefly at a meta-stable state where there was no inertia, allowing rapid expansion, but then the symmetry broke and it reached the current stable state.

      The new problem is: all that only works if you assume the Higgs field naturally starts in its metastable state, so even if it's only that way for 10^-lots of a second, that's enough. Apparently, it wouldn't naturally start in that state, and would in fact be quite unlikely to. That unravels everything, because the whole problem being addressed is how unlikely the even temperature distribution of the CMBR is in the first place: a hypothesis that's also quite unlikely to occur naturally doesn't really help much.

      • by Baloroth ( 2370816 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @01:33PM (#43474415)

        I don't quite get why expanding faster makes temperatures more equalized, but I don't doubt the math works

        In order to be in thermal equilibrium, two objects need to be close enough together at one point in time to, well, touch, basically (within each others light-horizon, specifically). Without inflation, parts of the microwave background far apart wouldn't be within each others horizons, so they wouldn't have been able to interact and equalize their temperatures. Inflation solves that by making it so everything was much much more dense in the very early universe, so temperature across the entire (visible) universe could equalize, then expanding very (very very) rapidly so that bits that were within thermal contact are now separated (or rather were separated at the time of microwave background emissions).

      • Inflation is not necessary to answer the horizon problem (or why far reaches of the universe are at equal temperatures). It's much cleaner to attribute that fact to initial conditions of the universe. Frankly, if the temperatures were different across the CMB, then we would need an explanation for why they are different. With prejudice for whether the temperatures should be different or the same, we should expect the universe to be in the scenario which is more likely (e.g., has higher entropy). Just like h

        • by lgw ( 121541 )

          As I understand it: you would expect a certain distribution of energy - not uniform - because when the universe is quite quantum variations cover significant portions of it.

          In my naive expectation, inflation would preserve a less uniform temperature distribution, by magnify that quantum variation up to scales where it didn't equalize afterwards, while if the universe expanded slowly you'd get something more uniform. We do see evidence of that quantum variation magnified up to large scales, but somehow I ha

    • And I thought there was a consensus.

    • we don't even know if the particle that was predicted at this energy is a Higgs boson for sure yet (need detailed decay analysis), and if it is a Higgs boson, if it's the one that imparts mass, if any do. Both seem likely at this point, but the LHC is gearing up to confirm it in a few years.

      Not that it's not worth publishing a paper that points out that if all of those turn out to be true then the inflation model needs a revisit.

  • I knew it! (Score:5, Funny)

    by ackthpt ( 218170 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @11:52AM (#43473167) Homepage Journal

    It wasn't a Big Bang, but a Medium Bang!

    gotta get out my papers, nobel prize for fizziks here I come!

  • OK, so I'll confess my ignorance on this one, and maybe someone can clarify it.

    Does this have anything to do with if the universe will go through a big crunch? Or is this more about the models about the mechanics of the big bang?

    I have no idea what this summary is saying since it's outside of my field, so I have no idea if this is good news, bad news, or a different in understanding something which is pretty abstract anyway. :-P

    • Basically, it is the difference between Deism and Asmovian Atheism.

      Theologically anyway.

      It is either "God created the universe and all of its physical laws in the planck time following the big bang" or "All intelligent life will eventually evolve into God and learn to reverse entropy".

      I can't imagine either scenario making any difference to anybody at all, except for maybe the Pastafarians, Hindus, and actual hard atheists.

    • From what I've heard, the big crunch was thrown out a few years ago (when they discovered that the universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate).
    • This research is pushed by someone who has long advocated for a crunch/bang cycle, and in this paper is trying to question the statistical likelihood that the non-cyclical big bang theory (start of everything) would follow the leading models of inflation. So it's about the mechanics.

      Another commenter here said the Anthropic Principle applies if you accept the possibility of multiple universes, which would bring into question such questions about "likelihood".

  • Ambiguity in title (Score:4, Informative)

    by Twinbee ( 767046 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @11:58AM (#43473235) Homepage
    The title is ambiguous (in the words "Leading Big Bang Theory"). It could mean either:

    A: Other variations of the big bang theory are safe, just the 'main' version is in trouble
    B: The big bang theory itself is in trouble, including any of its variations. 'Leading' here would mean big bang theory over say, a steady state universe.

    From what I can tell, the Slashdot title means B due to this quote in the story:

    But if you take the data we’ve been given and just follow your nose, then inflation and the whole Big Bang paradigm seem to be in big trouble,” Steinhardt says.

    Emphasis on "whole".

    • by Antipater ( 2053064 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @12:14PM (#43473399)
      Yeah, but a paragraph right after that goes on to talk about Steinhardt's competing Big Bang theory.

      Steinhardt is no novice when it comes to making controversial cosmic claims. For many years, he and some of his colleagues have been developing an alternative 'cyclic model', in which the Universe undergoes a series of Big Bangs and crunches, repeatedly expanding outwards and contracting inwards. Unlike inflation, this framework predicts slight deviations from the smooth Gaussian distribution of temperature fluctuations.

      So it's not like he wants to throw out the whole thing, just the "inflation" variation.

      • by ananyo ( 2519492 )

        Yup you're right. He's saying the vanilla version of 'inflation' is in trouble. Other more exotic versions might be OK - but none of them are really favored by the community at the moment.

    • by lgw ( 121541 )

      Steady state isn't even in the running. It's the details of the big bang that are hard to understand: mostly, why is the temperature so evenly distributed. A bunch of theories have been put forth over the past 30 years to explain the details, but like most of particle physics, 30 years of speculation without new data to regularly cull the bad ideas leads to a bad place. We've had a wealth of new data from cosmology over the past few years, but relevant data from the LHC was sorely needed to start falsif

  • ..but I have always been skeptical of "inflation"

    It seemed like a mathematical "band-aid", applied in desperation to a flawed theory

    • Maybe you should become a physicist, then.
    • Well, I doubt many physicists would disagree; however, "desperate mathematical band-aids" are where a lot of eventually solid theories start off. The concept of "inflation" started off fairly hand-wavy, "whoah, those ripples in the cosmic microwave background must've been really close together to smooth everything out, but they're really far apart where we see them... cosmic inflation, dude!". However, as time goes on, theorists get better at turning vague statements of "it was tiny... then it got big!" int

  • by concealment ( 2447304 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @12:05PM (#43473305) Homepage Journal

    The old ways are best:

    This finding is relevant because it suggests the existence of a limited number of ephemeral particles per unit volume in a vacuum. []

    In other words, there is no nothingness; everything is something. Thus we're looking at vacuums being a variation of type of substrate of matter, not an absence of matter. Mind-blowing. Be sure to drop acid before reading this.

    • Well, loop quantum gravity says that the gravitational field isn't something that happens *in* space; rather, the gravitational field *is* space. So even empty space is something.

    • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

      Aether never left. At best it took a short hiatus.

      Quantum field theory describes fields that pervade the universe. All matter and energy particles are excitations in these fields. General relativity describes space-time as something that can be distorted by gravity. Between the two of them they encompass all of modern fundamental physics.

  • by Covalent ( 1001277 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @12:08PM (#43473327)
    Years ago, this was a significant debate, but in recent years the debate was "settled" - the universe's expansion is actually increasing in rate.

    I have always felt that it was wrong to call this settled. The increased rate of expansion of the universe is explained by "Dark Energy", a completely unknown entity with unknown properties. There is no reason why the effects of Dark Energy might change (or even reverse) over time. So, is the universe expanding at an increasing rate? Apparently. Will it continue to do so? I don't think that is even close to answered.
    • Don't worry, if this turns out to be a real problem they'll make up another dark term to add to the model, it's so incredible flexible in that regard. Once we have ordinary matter down to sub 1% of the energy content of the universe every observation inconsistent with the model just becomes a rounding error.
  • by ( 245670 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @12:08PM (#43473329)

    A wizard did it.

  • ... the most idiotic paper I have read all year. It's a silly collection of straw-man arguments, with no actual science in it at all.

    What they claim is "universally accepted" (actually, they claim it is almost "universally accepted", quotes theirs), isn't. Which is why they have to use the silly quotation marks.

    Plateau-like models are not the only ones consistent with Planck. See: the Planck paper on inflationary constraints []

    Inflation has always had a problem with initial conditions. Guess what?
    • "A challenge for the inflationary paradigm in light of the Planck2013 data is to explain why no significant multiverse effects have been observed" Wuh? Maybe, um, because there might not be a multiverse at all?

      I think that's exactly one of the solutions the authors are suggesting through statements like this. The authors "take aim" at a large class of inflationary models that do assume a multiverse situation to provide a "fine tuning" range for all the parameters --- noting that, while the Planck2013 data isn't inconsistent with these models, it's consistent with a "more fine tuned than necessary for anthropogenic arguments" tiny region of the theories --- hence there should be a "better" theory that explains the

  • Why is this called Steinhardt's paper? Anna Ijjas is first author and she's a post-doc at Harvard.

  • Chicken that laid a very large egg.

  • Good. This means scientists had a theory, and they've been testing the hell out of it. As they find data that contradicts the theory, they will rework the theory to match what is observed. This is exactly what we want. We should be celebrating because the scientific process works.
  • The universe starting out in an unlikely high-energy state? isn't that just what the Big Bang theory says anyway?

    • Nothing is "wrong" with "unlikely states," because normative judgments like "right"/"wrong" don't particularly apply in scientific analysis of theories. An unlikely state is, however, ... unlikely. Maybe you can find a different theory in which said state isn't so unlikely (i.e. a theory that more finely predicts the observed universe); maybe you can't --- but if you're going to bother trying to find better theories at all, "unlikely" observations provide promising starting points for closer scrutiny.

  • And this guy proved it. Real existence would be unbearable.
  • by anwaya ( 574190 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @01:53PM (#43474635)
    By coincidence I went to Stephen Hawking's lecture at Caltech last night, and one of the concepts he discussed was Feynman's "sum over histories" idea.

    If the evolution of a stable universe requires the Higgs field to start out at a metastable point, and if variations in those initial conditions lead to universes which collapse rather than inflating, then "the amplitude" (i.e. the probability that they are the outcome that we turn up in) for those other states is zero. Why? Because those universes all collapse long before we could show up.

    On the other hand, if Steinhardt is correct, then his result shows there is a path to here-and-now through the metastable point, and if that's what it takes to get here, then that's enough: that's what it takes. The amplitude of the entire wave function for the Steinhardt path is non-zero, unlike the functions for the ones that collapsed.

  • by naoursla ( 99850 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @01:58PM (#43474691) Homepage Journal

    This is the most complex argument I've heard that the universe is only 6000 years old.

  • I'm not going to sleep well tonight knowing my understanding of the Universe has changed from one form of utter nonsense to another.

  • by Khashishi ( 775369 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2013 @03:06PM (#43475511) Journal

    We have no way of assigning probability to initial conditions of the universe because we don't anything about the space of possible universes. We can't even say that probability was involved. We already know that the universe began in a low entropy state, so a naive estimate of the probability of our universe is vanishingly small. So there must be some reason for the universe to start in a low entropy state, and until we understand that reason, we can't make any sense of initial probabilities.

The best defense against logic is ignorance.