Higgs Boson - Forget Science, What Do Bookies Think?
    By Hank Campbell | July 25th 2011 12:10 PM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0® and co-author of "Science Left Behind".

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone...

    View Hank's Profile
    The LHC and its lower-energy counterpart in the US, Tevatron, have reported some important Higgs news this past week - details of six searches for the Standard Model Higgs boson at CERN and another in Chicago coming up.

    To-date, Higgs searches and announcements have been mostly about exclusions - chopping out swaths where physicists know it cannot be to focus the search on where it can be.  Now, in the  140 and 145 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) area, they have reported 'interesting' events.    'Interesting' is science speak for uncertainty, but reason for excitement.  In order for a result to be considered a discovery, it has to be 5-sigma, only a one in 1,000,000 chance of it being a statistical error.    The LHC results are 2.8 sigma level of certainty, so more than a one in 1,000 chance of it being a statistical quirk, while DZero and CDF experiments have also seen something 'interesting' at close to 140GeV but theirs is only 1 sigma.

    What does that all mean?   Particles have to get mass from somewhere - some place fundamental - and the Higgs boson, proposed by Peter Higgs, would be the missing particle in the Standard Model, the one true particle to rule them all.   It's been talked about so much that few people in the public recall anything more than that it is an unfortunately-named 'God particle' but, if found, it basically puts an end to a long-standing debate and, if excluded, it opens up a new frontier in theoretical physics.

    To get their results, the Tevatron has searched 700,000 billion proton-antiproton collisions, a lot of data, but the LHC and its higher luminosity can get better results with smaller numbers of inverse femtobarns.  That is why so much is happening this year - the Tevatron is scheduled to end its mission in a few months and the LHC has a lot to look at and will only get more.

    But likely, if the Higgs exists, someone has already got it and just needs to find it in all that stuff.

    Scientists are going to be cautious so if you want to really know what these dizzying statistics and numbers mean, you have to talk to people who understand statistics in a practical way - bookies.

    Bookies are legitimate in the United Kingdom.  Because the government controls everything there, they even have a state-sponsored bookie, which is likely confusing to capitalists.

    Paddy Power is one publicly-traded oddsmaker in the UK - bookies - and they know their physics, it seems.   They have been taking odds on the mass-energy level where the Higgs Boson will be discovered and between 131-140GeV (billion electron volts) is the 13/8 favorite.  That's a pretty big range to physicists but keep in mind that a bookie is not trying to make money from being right about an event happening or not, he is more like an insurance guy protecting himself from being wrong.   Bookies try to position the odds so that the chance of the result people are betting on occurring is around 50/50 - they pay money to winners and collect money from losers plus 10%, the juice.   10% on every event is quite a lot of money so they don't need to do anything but be the best insurance agent they can be - thus, even if a bookie may feel like something is a lock, if he gets too many bets for one side on one set of odds he will lay off those bets with another bookie to protect his assets from a fluke occurrence and a large loss and change the odds.   Insurance companies, like I said.

    Paddy Power had odds on the Higgs Boson particle being scientifically proven to exist before the end of 2011 at 12/1 but due to the recent announcements I mentioned before they just brought those down to 1/3.   

    So if you were a sharp-eyed Science 2.0 reader and read Tommaso's blog, you could have gotten 12-1 odds yesterday instead of a 1/36th return on that today.  That sounds terrific, right?   Ken Robertson, spokesman at Paddy Power said “It seems that we’ve been taught a lesson about what happens when you don’t keep on top of particle physics!”

    Well, maybe not.

    When a representative for a successful casino has that 'I guess you got us' tone, reach for your wallet.   Here are their current odds related to Higgs:

     Year  Odds
     2011 1/3
     2012 4/1
     2013+ 5/1

     Mass-energy Odds
     130 GeV or lower 6/1 
     131-140 GeV 13/8 
     141-150 GeV 5/2
     150 GeV+ 7/4 

    What do you see missing in there?  A way to bet on if there is no Higgs found at all.   Their disclaimer even says "Higgs Boson particle must eb (sic) discovered before the end of 2013 or bets void. Must be confirmed conclusively by CERN."

    Bookies are in the business of making bets as fair as possible but there is no way to make a needle-in-a-haystack bet fair - which means you are a sucker if you pick any bet at all.    These guys really do know their particle physics.

    Play some roulette instead.   I can at least give you a shot at winning there.


    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Ha ha, this is a really good article Hank.
    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at
    The Stand-Up Physicist
    What do you see missing in there?  A way to bet on if there is no Higgs found at all.   Their disclaimer even says "Higgs Boson particle must eb (sic) discovered before the end of 2013 or bets void. Must be confirmed conclusively by CERN."
    Excellent. I cannot bet against the house, I just have to watch.
    I find it impossible to believe that so many people who are so strong in their faiths would suddenly give them up just because a theory that had been around for many years suddenly became a bit stronger.

    Faith is not a relevant word in physics - granted, if you are a string theory proponent, there is some belief but if you are shown to be wrong, you move on.   So it goes with Higgs.
    The Stand-Up Physicist
    In at least three articles, I have read theorists acknowledging that the Higgs might not be found. If that turned out to be the case, they thought that would be interesting since it would require new physics. No more was said because such new physics would have to past so many stringent constraints based on what we know already about particle physics. It is non-trivial to come up with an alternative to the Higgs mechanism for getting mass to the W and Z particles without messing things up. The bookies and the theorists are on the same page.
    I certainly agree what we don't find can be important to science but sometimes it is an expensive thing.  As I have said many times, no one in the funding effort at the LHC said $13 billion would be validly spent to not find the Higgs, they said they were going to find it.  It was only afterward the 'what we don't find can be important too' argument came into play.   If there is a Higgs, there will be an ILC.   If there is not, smaller experiments like reusing the Tevatron site to tackle lower energy mysteries will be the norm.
    The Stand-Up Physicist
    Funding pitchmen speak with forked tongues, always have. In an academic setting, one presentation I heard did say a justification for looking for the Higgs 5 different ways with 2 different machines was to make solid the no-Higgs scenario should it play out that way.
    Sure, but if they had to work for free or write a check how important would it be?  I generally think that is the funding criteria for most things.  I created Science 2.0 because I don't think big media should control how scientists communicate - had I waited for the government to fund me it would never have happened, no matter how well I justified it.   I am not in the government inner circle.

    Getting something positive funded ("we'll find the Higgs!") is far easier than the fuzzy alternative ("we may not find anything but science will be more awesome to 1,000 physicists with jobs"), scientists just generally prefer not to see that is how these things are funded.
    You are right. They want, for ever follow the actual Flawed Paradigm when History proved that that what accepted at the beginning was wrong: Flat Earth-Eratosthenes, Geocentric-Heliocentric, Aether-Planck Quantum, wave-quantum, SR/GE- Autodynamics. You could be interestedin the New Paradigm in Physics-Cosmology. See, please:
    Lucy Haye Ph. D.
    SAA's representative

    Hey, great piece Hank. I am also rather wary of "official" bets which are so ill-defined. What happens if CERN announces in mid 2012 they found the Higgs conclusively, and retracts the word "conclusively" three months afterwards when ATLAS (say) publishes an errata of their latest result ?

    Further, what happens if the mass is quoted as a probability density function (say bimodal) instead than just a central value with symmetric error bars ? You bet at 131-140 and your friend bet at 121-130, but the PDF has one mode at 125 and another at 132, so the bookie does not pay either. Hmmm.

    Roulette is no better unfortunately, as I showed with my simulations some time ago ;-)
    But is certainly more fun, and you do not get old in the spinning of a wheel!

    Your Monte Carlo analysis was too thorough, though - over the long run, the casino's 5.26 percent advantage will burn you.   I make money fast, and usually just before I go, because I know my goal and when to stop - I just want to pay for my trip.
    :) and I hope you will get the gas money at least ! Add beer also. But in general your strategy works
    for you because you are not upset by a large loss every once in a while. You enjoy more the larger-than-50% chance of coming back home with a win.