Sunday, April 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Penn Prof Helps Higgs the Cat Clear Up Confusion over Higgs the Boson.

They've discovered the Higgs in Europe, but the language is cautious because the scientists are human.

Penn Prof Helps Higgs the Cat Clear Up Confusion over Higgs the Boson.

F.F. Higgs the cat placed a bet about his namesake particle. Has he won or lost? 

Higgs: I think I might have lost my bet after all. I said the physicists would announce that they’d discovered the Higgs particle today, and they sort of did, but not quite. The problem here is that the humans are not behaving as I would have predicted. And this is as it always has been. It’s easier to predict the behavior of sub-atomic particles than it is to forecast the behavior of human beings.

For the record books, today’s announcement is likely to represent the culmination of many years of work and billions of dollars. That’s what it takes to create the extreme conditions necessary to coax this particle called the Higgs boson to materialize.  The experiment in question is called the Large Hadron Collider – a 17-mile ring-shaped device that accelerates particles and smashes them together. It’s located at a European lab called CERN.

Physicists announced Higgs hints last December. You’d think they’d just wait until they were certain enough to use a word like “discovery” before they went public again. Apparently they have convinced themselves at this point but they don’t quite have all the checks and cross checks in place to say discovery. There’s this little hedge. A press release this morning said they found a particle  “consistent with” the Higgs particle.

We hear that this announcement is all turning around some meeting in Australia next week. The timing of the announcement is not tied to the confluence of data they’d like, but to a meeting. Humans can be that way. Everyone is going to consider today the official announcement of the discovery anyway.

Some popular accounts are reporting that they found a definite particle and the uncertainty is in the identity. That’s a bit confusing IMHO. Penn physicist Brig Williams has helped clear this up in an interview a couple of days ago: 

“Penn professor Brig Williams explained that there are three major patterns of debris that are likely to be left behind by the Higgs. One possible Higgs track entails two high energy photons. The other two involve pairs of exotic particles called W and Z, which themselves spontaneously disappear and become more commonplace particles that speed through the detectors. The problem is that any of these signals could show up without a Higgs ever gracing their experiment.
So what the physicists do is they gather a lot of data. The more data they have the lower the odds that they’re seeing a coincidental convergence of Higgs imposters. Last December they had collected enough potential Higgs candidates to reduce their odds of a false sighting to one in a thousand. That sounds good, said Williams, but back then, they were hunting for an unexpected signal over a large range of energies, so the odds are not so remote that something weird would crop up somewhere."

Now they’re looking for something more specific since they’ve narrowed down the mass of the possible Higgs. ….Dr. Williams says there will still be plenty of science to do to study the Higgs. And the LHC might produce other hitherto unknown high energy particles in the future. 

The uncertainty that’s worrisome is the slim chance that they have nothing but a statistically unlikely confluence of noise that looks like the Higgs. That would be unfortunate but not likely at this point.

If they found a particle that was not the Higgs, or behaved differently from the Higgs, it would be great news, because it would open up new avenues of exploration in a field needs a shake-up. Science, even more than the economy, requires growth and does poorly with stagnation. These people need new mysteries to solve.

The current picture of the constituents of matter is called the Standard Model, which is not quite as boring as it sounds, but it could get boring if too many decades go by without anything new.  We have some inside info that the observations they’re making are not perfectly consistent with the Standard Model. There’s may be a discrepancy in the way the Higgs behaves. That would be truly good news. More later.
It’s a holiday here in the US.  There is food to eat and naps to take. Read more here.

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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