Technological Applications of the Higgs Boson

Can you think of any?

Here’s what I mean. When we set about justifying basic research in fundamental science, we tend to offer multiple rationales. One (the easy and most obviously legitimate one) is that we’re simply curious about how the world works, and discovery is its own reward. But often we trot out another one: the claim that applied research and real technological advances very often spring from basic research with no specific technological goal. Faraday wasn’t thinking of electronic gizmos when he helped pioneer modern electromagnetism, and the inventors of quantum mechanics weren’t thinking of semiconductors and lasers. They just wanted to figure out how nature works, and the applications came later.

So what about contemporary particle physics, and the Higgs boson in particular? We’re spending a lot of money to look for it, and I’m perfectly comfortable justifying that expense by the purely intellectual reward associated with understanding the missing piece of the Standard Model of particle physics. But inevitably we also mention that, even if we don’t know what it will be right now, it’s likely (or some go so far as to say “inevitable”) that someday we’ll invent some marvelous bit of technology that makes crucial use of what we learned from studying the Higgs.

So — anyone have any guesses as to what that might be? You are permitted to think broadly here. We’re obviously not expecting something within a few years after we find the little bugger. So imagine that we have discovered it, and if you like you can imagine we have the technology to create Higgses with a lot less overhead than a kilometers-across particle accelerator. We have a heavy and short-lived elementary particle that couples preferentially to other heavy particles, and represents ripples in the background field that breaks electroweak symmetry and therefore provides mass. What could we possibly do with it?

Specificity and plausibility will be rewarded. (Although there are no actual rewards offered.) So “cure cancer” gets low marks, while “improve the rate of this specific important chemical reaction” would be a lot better.

Let your science-fiction-trained imaginations rome, and chime in.

  1. If we could master the Higgs Field, we could shield potential space craft in a ‘Higgs Cloak’ by making it mass-less. Approaching speed of light.

  2. I don’t know but I think it’s important that we trot around a third reason for doing basic science, which is to train future professionals to do science or other pursuits that involve critical thinking, analytic model building, etc.

    This is not a trivial matter. The “leaky academic pipeline” is major subsidy to research, development, and innovation in diverse fields. Firms that would benefit from this talent do not need to engage the risky enterprise of developing it on their own. We can imagine an alternate universe, where there is no federally-funded basic science. Then firms that would seek to benefit from the human capital the federally-funded science produces would need to develop it on their own, and correspondingly pass the cost on to consumers. It is not apparent that this saves any money. Indeed, given the unpredictable nature of the direction of science, paying to develop specific science skills internalizes a cost with high positive externalities — this is usually not a good thing for a profit-oriented private firm to do in a competitive marketplace.

    One might argue, if the point is just to train a certain class of professional to find her way into other endeavors where her skills have value, does it have to be so expensive? Well, yes, it seems so. It seems the only way we know of training people to actually be good at critical thinking and model building and such is to put them on projects that expand the frontiers of human understanding, and these projects are expensive.

  3. Probably being morbid here, but I wonder if a ‘Higgs beam’ could be used to improve cyclotron efficiencies, or briefly increase nuclei loiter time (add inertia) to increase the yield of some nuclear reactions.

  4. The Higgs Bomb.

    A relatively lightweight bomb or projectile that rapidly gains mass close to it’s target, thus increasing its damage. Could cause implosion of structures through mass increase.

  5. Both these examples are crazy speculative, even given how much freedom you’ve given us, so there may be obvious problems I’m missing, but…

    In the lucky world where Higgs-inflation is true and the Higgs boson is also the inflaton we have a limitless source of energy.

    You told us we could pretend this is in the future, so I will assume we’ve solved all sorts of other problems, but if you could create an inflating universe in a box and siphon off all the energy from reheating to spin some sort of dynamo in our universe then you get electricity for free.


    Or, what about a Higgs tunnel? When electroweak symmetry is no longer broken, all the fundamental particles will become massless again. Therefore, there’s much less inertia to worry about. So you could get a pipe of some form where electroweak symmetry is not broken, pass particles down the pipe and presumably it will be easier to accelerate them down it. If they’re truly massless acceleration isn’t even an issue!

    All the other sources of mass would of course still be a problem, so this might just work for electrons and muons, but hey, those customers need to get their leptons somehow.

  6. I hope somebody can provide a counterargument to why I think it’s impossible that knowledge of the Higgs or any other new physics at the TeV scale will have practical application.

    Since we’re by construction talking about physics that could be discovered for the first time at the LHC, we’re looking for practical application of something that differs from the SM only on the TeV scale. Whatever we discover–Higgs, super awesome BSM, whatever–must reduce to what we already know at everyday energies and temperatures. (And even reduce to what we already know even at, say, inside-of-the-sun conditions, since that’s already well understood.) The only time anything at the TeV scale matters is when the nations of the world spend billions of dollars and decades of work to make a miles-long high energy collider. That’s not going to happen on a regular basis, to say the least. Therefore, since nothing is at the TeV scale, nothing we discover at the TeV scale could ever be of practical use.

    As a working physics grad student, that’s the reason I feel terribly misleading whenever I talk about possible practical uses of LHC discoveries. The important difference between the physics discoveries of the past X hundred years, and the HEP discoveries of the past 50 years, is that E&M, GR, and non-relativistic QM all had measurable effects at scales accessible to humans. Whatever is beyond the SM will not, just because we’ve at the point in history when we have good understanding at scales ranging from 10^-15 * everyday life to 10^+19 * everyday life.

    Of course, their can still be practical application from other aspects of HEP (CERN Courier had a thing about vacuum technology that was developed for beampipes now being used in solar energy cells, e.g.), just not the new physics itself.

  7. i’m pretty sure that knowing the actual mass of the higgs will enhance the flavour of beer and the colours of rainbows.

  8. @nonnormalizable:

    The amount of energy accessible to the average person today is far greater than the energy accessible to the average person a century ago. Who is to say what will be ‘every day’ in 100 years time? I am not going to say that the energies of the LHC will be accessible to individuals, but they may be accessible to nations and industry. That impact should not be underestimated.

    As to what the future will hold with an understanding of the Higgs…who knows? Having a full understanding of what gives objects mass and, possibly, under what circumstance that property may be manipulated (maybe under no circumstance, but this is speculation) would be huge. Just look at your screen and see what a good understanding of electromagnetic fields has done. I am certain that if you looked, you could find examples of scholars who believed electromagnetism would never be of any practical use before it was understood.

  9. It’s possible to do engineering without understanding that much. Accelerator physics has real applications now, at whatever level we currently understand the Higgs field. If the Higgs field is as much the source of mass as current theory says, we use the Higgs field every time we move or think. Engineering controlled systems only requires descriptions of experimental results, it doesn’t require that those descriptions have the conceptual efficiencies that allow intuitive jumps to otherwise unimaginable ideas.

    The Higgs field idea is part of an overall structure that seems too complex to allow intuitive jumps that go far, so it seems more likely that a radically different synthesis will be necessary before the engineering takes off. The ideas above seem more science fiction than remotely close to achievable engineering because, I think, the Higgs idea just isn’t that productive, however I’m not quite so downbeat about applications of TeV scale physics being possible in the future as “Nonrenormalizable”, because whatever synthesis replaces the existing Standard Model of Particle Physics will almost certainly improve our chances of using fusion as an effective energy source.

  10. Interesting that you should mention Faraday, since it is the cage named after him that I take as inspiration. Just as we now know how the Faraday cage shields objects within it from the effects of electric fields which surround it, wouldn’t it be interesting if the discovery of the Higgs boson lead to such a comprehensive understanding of the Higgs field that it became possible to design materials which would manipulate it or shield objects from its effect.

    It might even explain the physics behind what was going on in some of those strange areas in Stalker/Roadside Picnic.

  11. I thought the entire purpose of finding the Higgs Boson was finding a way to “cheat” gravity.

    Therefore, as a consumer, I am expecting the following:

    1) flying cars
    2) anti-gravity boots
    3) faster-than-light cruises to Saturn

    Thank you for your compliance.

  12. I’m not sure if the Higgs boson will have direct technological use, but the search for it certainly does. The data collection and analysis that CERN does on the data from the LHC is ridiculous. Their entire IT infrastructure and analysis software is a very interesting model for all kinds of computing.

  13. As Faraday said to Disraeli (or Gladstone, depending on the source) when asked what good his experiment (involving electromagnetic induction) was: I don’t know, but in the future you may tax it.

  14. @Peter Morgan: Why do you think “whatever synthesis replaces the existing Standard Model of Particle Physics will almost certainly improve our chances of using fusion as an effective energy source”? The Standard Model explains fusion fully. I think whatever is beyond it will reduce to the SM at the (comparatively “low”) energy and temperature scales relevant to fusion, necessarily.

    @Tony: We have, what, 100 to 10,000 times the energy available to us on a daily basis as someone did in 0 AD? Even if it went up 10^4 times yet again, new physics at LHC energy scales still isn’t relevant, and I don’t see any reason that it would increase that much again in the next 2000 years, nor do I see offhand where it could come from. Sure, it’s not *impossible,* but just waving vaguely and saying it could happen for no particular reason doesn’t seem persuasive. Regarding mass: it turns out that most of the mass of everyday matter comes from (well understood) QCD effects within the proton and neutron. The Higgs gives the intrinsic mass to the particles of the SM, but contra the very common misconception that’s not the source of the mass of atoms and larger objects. (Confusing, I know. Somewhere online there’ probably a good explanation.) I’m inclined to think that one would NOT be able to”find examples of scholars who believed electromagnetism would never be of any practical use,” but I lack the interest to actually find out. 🙂

  15. Is there a way to explain to non-physicists how the Higgs creates mass? Saying that it “represents ripples in the background field that breaks electroweak symmetry and therefore provides mass” doesn’t produce much of a picture in my mind.

  16. I think that not finding the Higgs boson would have almost immediate practical applications as we would have to reformulate the currently accepted theory of the standard model.

  17. Well, the Higgs is part of the Standard Model, so anything that comes from new physics in or beyond the SM would be informed by understanding the Higgs.

    Is there anything like that? Maybe we can figure out a way to violate conservation of baryon number. We know this probably happened in the early universe, since there’s an excess of matter over antimatter. Total conversion bombs, anyone?

    Since the Higgs itself only shows up after laboriously collecting months of data from a machine tens of kilometers in size, I doubt it by itself could be used for much. Tabletop science is more likely to turn into tabletop applications.

  18. There really aren’t any technological applications of the Higgs boson, nor are there likely to ever be. However, the development of the technologies necessary to produce it, find it and study it can be considered spin-offs.

  19. I hope it has some use in the near future. The money spent at CERN and similar research centres could have been used to fund or underwrite real world research and production of renewable energy sources and/or water purification or something the world needs now. If we don’t solve our current problems it may not matter what we may be able to do in 50 or 100 years.

  20. I’m unsure if it would be practical relative to using em waves but a “graviphone” could be possible for communication purposes. By rapidly increasing and decreasing the mass of a collection of particles you could generate waves through space time which could be picked up by a receiver. You could potentially pack more information this way as I can assume the wavelength of a wave of space itself could be much smaller than that of even the most energetic em wave.
    Another interesting application could be using these waves to probe tiny structures just as em waves are today. Theoretically the wavelength could reach a lower limit of the planck length allowing unprecedented study at the universes smallest scales.

  21. If I had a lab sized Higgs beam, I would use it to slow down fast chemical reactions (if that is what happens) and study them at leisure. And a Higgs stasis field for scifi space travel, for stasis of traumatized body parts during extensive surgery or waiting for new grown clone body parts (because if you have Higgs beams you have come that far with replacement parts too =D), or at least for the next generation of expensive home freezers, would be neat too!

    If we can Higgs the shit out of molecules, the non-leaking carbon dioxide AGW store could be fun. Enter “Project Black Hole”. (There is a pun with “annual production” and “US” in there, I’m sure.) Just don’t flip the power switch.

    @ Nonnormalizable:

    I’m not sure why you are fixated on energy, while the article was not, but FWIW we have access to much more energy on a daily basis in the form of cosmic radiation. So if you can’t drive your Higgs doohickey down at Earth surface, take it to ISS to drive it, whatever it does. That is how people started using radiation IIRC, utilizing natural sources because they couldn’t produce the radiation synthetically.