For Physicists, Nothing is Something

While it may seem odd, particle physicists actually find a whole lot of nothing in their experiments, which, in fact, tells them something. On the search for new particles to explain some of the Universe’s biggest mysteries, physicist Usama Hussain must look in all the places where a particle isn’t first before he can find where it is. If it exists at all.

But this a common practice for particle physicist everywhere, even in the discovering of Higgs Boson, and is called null results. Not only is it common, but it’s also important in its own right. If an accepted theory states that a particle should be present and it is not, then the theory, and our understanding of our universe, has to be worked out again. “Anything that happens, even if we find nothing at all, will be a revolution,” said physicist James Beacham.

Hussain explains: “You’re checking a box—it’s not there. You’re still in a way making a contribution. You’re making sure that other people don’t look in the same place.”

Hussain, who got his love of particle physics from his father, is working on his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin and on the part of a team at CERN searching for the oddest particles they can, smashing particulate matter and looking for what might be there.

When Hussain and his team smash protons in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. A combination of detectors, record the particles produced and in turn it spits out data for the scientists to search through, trying to piece the particles back together to see if they find what they are looking for in the tiny bits of data leftover.

Each test is another confirmation that the laws of physics still work which is important since it confirms what we already know, but at the same time physicists are hoping they don’t work out, so they can discover something new. As more and more experiments are performed, and more and more nothing is found, it is becoming harder to find new and surprising things.

Many different groups use the colliders at CERN looking for various types of particles while Hussain’s group is searching for the Z-prime (Z’) particle, a particle which acts as a go between dark matter and regular matter. “We’re really in uncharted territory as far as physics is concerned,” said Hussain. “The small hope is always there. It would have been really radical, extremely unusual if I saw something.”

Hussain’s position is not unique. With so many ideas in physics, there are plenty of opportunities for discovering or not discovering new particles, and they all need testing. “The totality of null results is the only way,” says Beacham. “The metaphor I use is map making. It’s cartography. You have to sweep out all the possible range you have at your disposal.”

Others agree with Beacham as Karl Popper, a philosopher, has said that “every refutation should be regarded as a great success; not merely a success of the scientist who refuted the theory, but also of the scientist who created the refuted theory and who thus in the first instance suggested, if only indirectly, the refuting experiment.”

Some null results are celebrated like those made by Edward Morley and Albert Michelson which eventually led to, in part, to Einstein’s theory of special relativity but this is mostly limited to physics, and not in other science fields. “Getting a null result to some extent in physics is much more meaningful than in other fields,” explains Laura Dodd, also a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin “Other fields would benefit more by having more null results.”

In the end, looking for nothing is an important part of physics and experimentation. Because looking for nothing is the only way to find something and, as it turns out, nothing is something too after all.

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