On the interpretation of Feynman diagrams, or, did the LHC experiments observe Hγγ?

  • Oliver PassonEmail author
Paper in Philosophy of the Natural Sciences


According to the received view Feynman diagrams are a bookkeeping device in complex perturbative calculations. Thus, they do not provide a representation or model of the underlying physical process. This view is in apparent tension with scientific practice in high energy physics, which analyses its data in terms of “channels”. For example the Higgs discovery was based on the observation of the decay Hγγ – a process which can be easily represented by the corresponding Feynman diagrams. I take issue with this tension and show that on closer analysis the story of the Higgs discovery should be told differently.


Feynman diagrams Quantum field theory Virtual particles Higgs discovery 



We thank Robert Harlander, Tilman Plehn and Thomas Zügge for illuminating discussions and helpful comments. The valueable suggestions by the referees and the editors are gratefully acknowledge as well as the proof reading of Joan P. Marler.


  1. Aad, G., et al., ATLAS Coll. (2012). Observation of a new particle in the search for the Standard Model Higgs boson with the ATLAS detector at the LHC. Physics Letters B, 716(1), 1–29.Google Scholar
  2. Aad, G., & Coll, C. M. S. (2015). ATLAS Combined Measurement Of the Higgs Boson Mass in pp Collisions at \(\sqrt {s}= 7\) and 8 TeV with the ATLAS and CMS Experiments. Physical Review Letters, 114, 191803 (33pp).Google Scholar
  3. Arthur, R. T. W. (2012). Virtual processes and quantum tunnelling as fictions. Science & Education, 21, 1461–1473.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bentvelsen, S., Laenen, E., Motylinski, P. (2005). Higgs production through gluon fusion at leading order. NIKEF, 2005–007.Google Scholar
  5. Bokulich, A. (2009). Explanatory fictions. In Suárez, M. (Ed.) Fictions in science, Philosophical Essays on Modeling and Idealization (pp. 91–109). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  6. Brown, J. R. (1996). Illustration and inference. In Picturing knowledge, Historical and Philosophical Problems Concerning the Use of Art in Science B. Baigrie (pp. 250–268). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bunge, M. (1970). Virtual processes and virtual particles: Real or fictitious. International Journal of Theoretical Physics, 3(6), 507–508.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chatrchyan, S., et al., CMS Coll. (2012). Observation of a new boson at a mass of 125 GeV with the CMS experiment at the LHC. Physics Letters B, 716(1), 30–61.Google Scholar
  9. Dittmaier, S., Mariotti, C., Passarino, G., und Tanaka, R. (Hrg). (2011). Handbook of LHC Higgs Cross Sections: 1. Inclusive Observables. Report of the LHC Higgs Cross Section Working Group,
  10. Dixon, L. J., & Li, Y. (2013). Bounding the higgs boson width through interferometry. Physical Review Letters, 111, 111802 (5pp).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dyson, F. J. (1949). The radiation theory of Tomonaga, Schwinger, and Feynman. Physical Review, 75(3), 486–502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dyson, F. J. (1951). Advanced quantum mechanics. The typed and annotated version of the original typoscript is available at http://www.quant-ph/0608140.
  13. Elkins, J. (2008). Six stories from the end of representation. Stanford University Press: Stanford.Google Scholar
  14. Feynman, R. P. (1949). Space-Time Approach to quantum electrodynamics. Physical Review, 76(6), 769–789.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fox, T. (2008). Haunted by the spectre of virtual particles: a philosophical reconsideration. Journal of General and Philosophy of Science, 39(1), 35–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Friebe, C., Kuhlmann, M., Lyre, H., Näger, P., Passon, O., Stöckler, M. (2015). The philosophy of quantum physics. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  17. Frigg, R., & Hartmann, S. (2012). Models in science. The stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)Google Scholar
  18. Frigg, R., & Nguyen, J. (2017). Models and Representation. In Magnani, L., & Bertolotti, T. (Eds.) Springer Handbook of Model-Based Science (pp. 49–102). Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  19. Heinemeyer, S., Mariotti, C., Passarino, G., und Tanaka, R. (Hrg). (2013). Handbook of LHC Higgs Cross Sections: 3. Higgs Properties. Report of the LHC Higgs Cross Section Working Group,
  20. Kaiser, D. (2000). Stick-Figure Realism: conventions, Reification, and the Persistence of Feynman Diagrams, 1948–1964. Representations, 70, 49–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kaiser, D. (2005). Drawing theories apart. Chicago: The University of Chicago press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kauer, N., & Passarino, G. (2012). Inadequacy of zero-width approximation for a light Higgs boson signal. Journal High Energetics and Physics, 1208, 116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kleinert, H. (2015). Particles and quantum fields. Singapore: World Scientific.Google Scholar
  24. Kuhlmann, M. (2010). The Ultimate Constituents of the Material World. Frankfurt a M. Ontos.Google Scholar
  25. Lahiri, A., & Pal, P. B. (2000). A first Book on Quantum Field Theory. Oxford: Alpha Science.Google Scholar
  26. Mandl, F., & Shaw, G. (2010). Quantum field theory, 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  27. Martin, S. P. (2012). Shift in the LHC Higgs diphoton mass peak from interference with background. Physical Review D, 86, 073016 (6pp).Google Scholar
  28. Mattuck, J. (1967). A guide to Feynman diagrams in the many-body problem, 2nd edn. New York: Dover.Google Scholar
  29. Mehra, J. (1994). The Beat of a Different Drum. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
  30. Meynell, L. (2008). Why feynman diagrams represent. International studies. Philosophy of Science, 22(1), 39–59.Google Scholar
  31. Morgan, M., & Morrison, M. (Eds.). (1999). Models as mediators: Perspectives on natural and social science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Peierls, R. (1985). Bird of passage – recollections of a physicist. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Redhead, M. (1988). A philosopher looks at quantum field theory. In Brown, H. R., & Harré, R. (Eds.) Philosophical foundations of quantum field theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  34. Schwartz, M. D. (2014). Quantum field theory and the standard model. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Schweber, S. S. (1994). QED And the men who made it. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Stöltzner, M. (2017a). Feynman diagrams as models. The Mathematical Intelligencer, 39(2), 46–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Stöltzner, M. (2017b). Feynman Diagrams: Modeling between Physics and Mathematics. forthcoming.Google Scholar
  38. Valente, M. B. (2011). Are Virtual Quanta Nothing but Formal Tools? International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 25(1), 39–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Weingard, R. (1988). Virtual particles and the interpretation of quantum field theory. In Brown, H. R., & Harré, R. (Eds.) Philosophical foundations of quantum field theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  40. Wilczek, F. (2016). How Feynman Diagrams Almost Saved Space. Quanta Magazine.Google Scholar
  41. Wolf, R. (2015). The higgs boson discovery at the large hadron collider. Springer Tracts in Modern Physics Vol. 264. Heidelberg: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Wüthrich, A. (2010). The genesis of feynman diagrams. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  43. Wüthrich, A. (2012). Interpreting feynman diagrams as visual models. Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science, 6(1), 172–181.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Mathematics and Natural SciencesUniversity of WuppertalWuppertalGermany

Personalised recommendations