The Future Thinks We Suck

By: Matthew Battles
October 18, 2009

back to the future

As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, a pair of physicists have offered a novel theory to explain the troubles bedeviling the Large Hadron Collidor, the world’s most powerful — and to date, least effective — scientific instrument. In the online physics journal arXiv, Holger B. Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya suggest that the particle the LHC was built to discover — the Higgs Boson, which the so-called “Standard Model” of physics postulates makes mass possible — actually acts from the future to prevent its discovery in the present. Or maybe it’s the universe itself that’s trying to keep us mired in Higgs ignorance. In fact, maybe it’s god.

To help establish a proof of their theory, Nielsen and Ninomiya suggest a test: a game of cards. Using a random number generator, they offer, administrators at CERN (the Geneva-based institution responsible for the LHC) could make the decision to shut down the LHC dependent on drawing an ace out of a virtual deck of one hundred million hearts. If the ace comes up against such long odds, the future must be watching us.


Many physicists find Nielsen and Ninomiya’s notion outrageous. Some suggest that they’re pursuing a hoax. But if it’s the case, this is a hoax far more elaborate than the last great physicist-run scam, the infamous Sokal affair of 1996. Nielsen and Ninomiya have developed their theory in no fewer than seven papers published on arXiv, dating back to 2007; their work has attracted at least one paper building on the model they propose. (Perhaps tellingly, the arXiv administrators have reclassified the papers as general-audience reports, not professional work.) The authors make bold claims for the ideas advanced in the papers — they assert the work may explain not only the malfunctioning of the LHC, but suggest explanations of such mysteries as the origin of the cosmological constant and the equations of motion. One thing is certain: the alleged hoaxers are at the top of their field. Nielsen, who currently works at CERN, is considered one of the fathers of string theory. That said, and confessing total illiteracy before the physics involved, I must confess I find the theory both wildly intriguing and wonderfully cracked.

It should be obvious to logic-choppers out there that to detect the influence of the future and the Higgs Boson, the card game — and even the LHC itself — may not even be necessary. The instrument’s continued malfunctioning in the face of massive intellectual and engineering support could be taken as proof that the particle is out there hiding from us in the future, passing judgement on our present acts and theories. (In one of their papers, in fact, Nielsen and Ninomiya seem to suggest this conclusion.) Einstein’s god may not play dice with the universe, but he may expect us to do so.



What do you think?

  1. What happens when you posit your teleological endpoint as your first cause? When the answer is in the form of begging the question? I think some of the Scholastic arguments for God “worked” like that . . . !

    But on the other hand, why do we have to find this thing? Just wait a little while, the theories will change, and it will either wink out of theoretical existence, or be well-defined enough by the things around it. And if there’s a chance, even a slight one, that finding this thing might cause a black hole, even a small one — our M.O. is that we do things because we can do them, not because we stop to consider whether we should. Since we’re now the default stewards of the planet, which has shrunk from a wilderness to a terrarium near the window, maybe it’s time to start asking “why” as often as “how.”

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