Higgs-Hatin': 'Vanilla' Boson May Be Real
Image: A plot of Tevatron (Fermilab) data sho
Discovery, At Last?
July 3, 2012 --
It seems that the Higgs boson just keeps bringing out the crazy in people. As we get closer and closer to cornering the secretive particle, there's been no shortage of myths, rumors and just downright odd (yet physically sound) theories to add some entertaining sideshows to the proceedings. So, this week, physicists who are working tirelessly with CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland, have a big announcement. But will it be
announcement we've all been waiting for? In typical quantum physics style, a
discovery announcement will be unlikely -- but we are slowly, yet surely, closing in on the particle's hiding place. While we wait for that precious "5-sigma" result, here are some peculiar Higgs stories and odd boson facts that have entertained, mystified and confused us ever since the LHC revved up its superconducting magnets.
Credit: Delta Publishing
Not the "God Particle" Let's get this crime of physics out of the way first. The hunt for the Higgs boson has nothing to do with God. The Higgs is not a divine entity; it is a gauge boson -- i.e. it is a particle that mediates mass and therefore endows all matter with (you guessed it) mass. (And no, that's not mass as in "religious service mass;" it's mass, a "property of matter mass.") So why the heck do we see, with alarming regularity, the "God Particle" reference plastered across every tabloid newspaper? Ever since Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon M. Lederman and science writer Dick Teresi gave the elusive particle the tongue-in-cheek moniker in their 1993 book "The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?" mainstream media grabbed hold of the nickname as if physicists were looking for The Almighty himself. Alas, the hunt for the Higgs has nothing to do with God, but it is a critical step forward in our understanding of what gives all matter in the Universe its mass. Of course, if the tabloid press mentions the "God Particle" as an ironic or sarcastic reference, that's fine. Physicists have a sense of humor too.
There's a Higgs Family?! In 2010, physicists at the DZero collaboration at Fermilab's Tevatron particle accelerator came up with an interesting proposition: What if there are actually five different types of Higgs bosons? Perhaps old Higgsy has a mom, dad and twin sisters! Known as the "two-Higgs doublet model," the mere hint that there may be more Higgs particles to hunt down will likely make any particle physicist sweat, but it would explain some of the strange science results coming from the DZero collaboration. According to Discovery News' Jennifer Ouellette, this has potential implications for the "God Particle" misinterpretation: "Along with many physicists, I hate the term 'god particle' to describe the Higgs," says Ouellette. "Fermilab's Leon Lederman coined the term over a decade ago, and it's been misleading innocent civilians ever since into thinking physicists are trying to prove or disprove the existence of god or something. But it did give the blog 80 Beats the best line yet about these new results: 'If the Higgs boson is the God Particle, then some particle physicists just turned polytheistic.'"
Credit: Test Tube Games
It Has An App Like everything else in the Universe, the Higgs particle has its own app. Naturally, LHC physicists are the villains of the game and you have to use other Standard Model particles to hide the Higgs from detection. You may not need a Ph.D. to play the game, but a vague understanding of quantum particles might help.
Image: The massive CMS detector in the LHC. C
God Hates It It seems that the longer a particle evades detection, the more stir-crazy some scientists become. This may not be an established law of physics, but it certainly seems to be the case for one distinguished physicist who, in 2009, published a lighthearted paper about why the Higgs is so difficult to find. The upshot: God hates the Higgs boson. What's with all the 'God' references? In a nutshell, as the Higgs boson can transmit a signal back in time when it is created by a particle accelerator, this signal will ultimately sabotage the accelerator before the thing has even been built. Nature, and therefore "God," doesn't want old Higgsy to see the light of day. Dennis Overbye of the New York Times summarized the situation quite nicely: "...the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one."
Image: A simulation of the production and dec
It's a Time-Traveling Assassin Reading like the plot of Jean-Claude Van Damme's 1994 movie "Timecop," the Higgs boson's time-traveling capabilities may be used for evil. Yes, it could go back in time to kill your grandfather. Or, at least, a signal utilizing the Higgs' time-traveling capabilities could be used to send a signal back in time to an assassin who is waiting for the signal to start a killing spree. Actually, that might really be the sequel to Timecop. This time-traveling Higgs theory was thought up by Vanderbilt University theoretical physicists Tom Weiler and Chui Man who admit their idea "is a long shot," but it "doesn't violate any laws of physics." Yay physics! Based on the theory that when a Higgs particle is generated a Higgs "singlet" particle is also generated at the same time, this singlet can utilize the "fifth dimension" of spacetime to zip through time and travel into the past. According to Weiler and Man's calculations, this could allow a Higgs singlet signal to be sent back in time, and could therefore be used for all kinds of freaky shenanigans.
It's a Social Media Superstar It may come as no surprise that the Higgs boson has become something of a celebrity. Even though the vast majority of the public have no clue what the Higgs boson actually is, the hypothetical particle has become more popular than Lindsey Lohan and, for a time, was a trending topic alongside Lady Gaga and... Santa. True story. As we've already mentioned, the myth of the Higgs has often been a little more exaggerated than the truth, so in the spirit of "going viral," old Higgsy had its own meme on Twitter. Using the hashtag #HiggsRumors, hundreds of Higgs fans -- evidently exacerbated by the flurry of half-truths and rumored discoveries -- invented their own rumors about the elusive particle. It all began when @drskyskull tweeted: "I hear the Higgs boson once shot a man just to watch him die. #HiggsRumors" The rest, as they say, is social media history.
CERN is expected to make its announcement about the possible Higgs boson confirmation on July 3. For updates, keep an eye on Discovery News and the @Discovery_Space Twitter feed.
MORE ARTICLES BY IAN O'NEILL
Forget the Higgs boson’s delusions of grandeur, the exchange particle that gives stuff mass appears to be something of a disappointment.
No, physicists haven’t disproven its existence. And no, the Higgs boson hasn’t jetted off to a Caribbean island, run up a huge bar tab, thrown TVs out of hotel windows and been arrested for getting into a drunken brawl — rockstar style. On the contrary.
Decades of searching and a 7.5 billion Euro ($9bn) particle accelerator later, why is everyone so down on one of the biggest discoveries of the century?
This week, physicists descended on La Thuile, Italy, for the Rencontres de Moriond conference to discuss all things physics and cosmology. Scientists from the two main experiments — the CMS and ATLAS detectors — at the particle-smashing Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland, were in attendance to discuss their much anticipated results on, amongst other things, the Higgs boson.
Although the announcement of the discovery of a “Higgs-like” particle last summer took the headlines, data is still being processed so particle physicists can decisively say, once and for all, that they have discovered a real Higgs boson. In the world of particle physics, one needs to have an extremely high level of certainty before a discovery can be confirmed. On July 4, 2012, CERN scientists said that they had detected a strong signal — to a statistical probability of “5-sigma” — of a particle with the same predicted energy of a theoretical Higgs boson.
One Higgs boson model predicts the particle has a rest-mass energy of 125 gigaelectron volts (GeV) — 125 times the mass of a proton. The LHC was producing an “excess” of photons that indicated they’d discovered something with an energy of 125 GeV.
Aside: The Higgs boson cannot be detected directly; it can only be detected through the particles it decays into. In one model of “Higgs decay,” the boson decays into two photons. These photons can be detected by the complex array of detectors inside the ATLAS and CMS experiments — so when you hear the term “excess of photons,” it means that some decay process after a particle collision is generating photons in a measurable quantity. By analyzing the energies of these photon excesses, through a little physics detective work the parent particle can be revealed.
But just because a particle has been detected with an energy of 125 GeV, it doesn’t mean it is that specific Higgs boson. That’s why the particle is “Higgs-like” — just because it looks like a Higgs and quacks like a Higgs, in particle physics, it doesn’t necessarily mean it IS a Higgs. In the case of the “Higgs-like” particle, although the odds are heavily stacked in favor of it being a bona fide Higgs boson, there may be the slightest of chances that it is an unexpected, exotic particle that has the hallmarks of being a Higgs when, in fact, it’s not.
So, that’s what LHC physicists have been busy doing: taking more results, crunching more data and running more simulations in an effort to reduce the margin for error.
When they presented their results on Wednesday (March 6), LHC scientists had a not-so-groundbreaking announcement: “Physicists speaking today … have announced that the new particle discovered at CERN last year is looking more and more like a Higgs boson,” wrote CERN’s official spokesman James Gillies. Exciting, right? Thought not. A slew of science writers didn’t think so either.
This discovery may be looking more and more like the Higgs boson, so what will it take until we can definitively say that it is the Higgs? Everything seems so positive, so why all the Higgs-hatin’?
As discussed by Gillies, LHC researchers are working hard to measure other characteristics of the “Higgs-like” particle. The clincher should come when physicists deduce the particle’s “spin.” The spin of a particle in quantum mechanics is analogous to the amount of angular momentum that particle carries. The theoretical Higgs boson has a spin of zero. Should this particle be measured to have a spin of 2, physicists will know that they are being duped by an exotic particle that shouldn’t exist in our current model of physics and will “possibly linked to the way gravity works,” Gillies added.
“Until we can confidently tie down the particle’s spin,” said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci, “the particle will remain Higgs-like. Only when we know that is has spin-zero will we be able to call it a Higgs.”
In the (unlikely) event that the particle doesn’t have a spin of zero, physics would be turned on its head! It would be a revolution — the universe that we thought we knew and understood is weirder than our weirdest dreams! In case you haven’t already guessed, this scenario excites physicists, a lot.
The current scenario (that’s looking most likely) would prove the existence of a particle theorized in the 1960s, thereby tying up the Standard Model of physics in a pretty, neat, red quantum bow. This is decidedly boring in comparison. What’s worse, of all the possible theorized Higgs species, what if the most “vanilla” option is proven to be correct?
And there you have a strange juxtaposition — a profound discovery that’s also an anticlimax.
Although I’d argue that the Higgs boson discovery is a triumph of modern science and only the beginning of a golden era for quantum physics, many will be subdued at seeing the Standard Model being completely proven — of which the Higgs boson is the last component to be discovered — thereby disproving more exciting possibilities of exotic physics beyond known physics.
There’s a lot of data still to be processed, but when the LHC is switched back on again in 2015 after a planned refit, physicists will still be hopeful that some exotic physics may be discovered — such as the supersymmetry hypothesis — when the collider begins slamming protons together at even higher energies.
Image: A rendering of the Higgs particle decay. Credit: CERN