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Higgs boson: Web goes wild with speculation

July 02, 2012|By Rosie Mestel, Los Angeles Times / For the Science Now blog
  • Magnet core of the world's largest superconducting solenoid magnet, part of the Large Hadron Collider. Has the LHC detected the elusive Higgs boson?
Magnet core of the world's largest superconducting solenoid magnet,… (Martial Trezzini / European…)

The Internet is crackling with rumors following news reports that the long-sought Higgs boson -- popularly referred to as the "God particle" -- has been detected and that physicists at the Large Hadron Collider atom-smasher CERN, near Geneva, will announce the discovery in a news conference July 4.

Physicists have been speculating for months that the particle’s discovery would be the topic of CERN’s scheduled news conference Wednesday, but Britain’s Daily Mail and the Associated Press upped the ante Monday with articles declaring the announcement was a certainty.

“Scientists believe that the 'God particle' that might explain the underpinnings of the universe is real, and they are about to present their evidence to the world," the AP declared Monday, in an article first titled “Proof of 'God particle' found” and later downgraded to “Evidence of 'God particle' found.”

The AP story quotes British theoretical physicist John Ellis, a CERN worker since the 1970s (who is not a member of either of the two experimental teams), as saying: “I agree that any reasonable outside observer would say, 'It looks like a discovery….' We’ve discovered something which is consistent with being a Higgs.”

“Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider are expected to say they are 99.99 percent certain it has been found -- which is known as '4 sigma' level,” Britain's Daily Mail said.

Physicists have been “quivering with anticipation” over detection of the Higgs, as my colleague Eryn Brown recounted in a December story titled “The jig may be up for Higgs boson.” The subatomic particle, first proposed to exist by physicist Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh nearly five decades ago, could answer a central question: Why is there mass in the universe?

Higgs and other theorists proposed that particles could get their mass “by traveling through a particular type of energy field," Brown wrote. "It came to be known as the Higgs field; the process by which mass is created, the Higgs mechanism. There also had to be a particle associated with the field: the Higgs boson.”

The 17-mile-long Large Hadron Collider has been searching for the particle since 2010. Two rival teams -- known for short as CMS and ATLAS -- have been conducting the experiments. To be sure that they have detected the Higgs, teams must reach a level of certainty known as 5 sigma -- meaning there is less than a 1 in 1.7 million chance that they are wrong.

On Monday, U.S. researchers at now-retired Tevatron collider at Fermilab announced that they'd found hints of the Higgs boson and set a limit for what its mass could be.

Bloggers are having a field day with the rumors -- as they have for months. As Alexander Abad-Santos at AtlanticWire notes, “Today, we found out that there’s proof that the Higgs boson is out there. But you probably knew that if you were following the physics world’s best gossips who broke the news two weeks ago.”

Peter Woit, a senior lecturer in mathematics at Columbia and a physics PhD, is one of those top Higgs “gossips.” On June 17, Woit posted on his blog “Not Even Wrong” that he had heard CERN’s 2012 data -- in addition to its 2011 data -- indicated “strong hints of Higgs around 125 GeV” with “about a 4 sigma signal.” That’s less than the 5 sigma physicists want to see. ("GeV" stands for "gigaelectron volt.")

”If 2011 was a fluke, you expect to see nothing much around 125 GeV in the 2012 data. If the 2011 signal really was the Higgs you expect to see the signal to strengthen," Woit wrote back then. "What I’m hearing from both experiments is that they are seeing an excess in the new data, strengthening the significance of the signal.”

Woit speculates on his blog entry today that “neither CMS nor ATLAS have quite managed to reach the 5 sigma threshold, and CERN remains dedicated to not discussing the obvious result of combining the data.“

In the AP article, a CERN spokesman said that such data-combination was a “complex task,” and for that reason “no combination will be presented on Wednesday.”

Aidan Randle-Conde, a post-doc working on the ATLAS experiment, wrote last week on the blog Quantum Diaries that rushing to combine the data should neither experiment get 5 sigma would be “the worst thing we could do at the moment.... The Higgs field was postulated nearly 50 years ago, the LHC was proposed about 30 years ago, the experiments have been in design and development for about 20 years, and we’ve been taking data for about 18 months. Rushing to get a result a few weeks early is an act of impatience and frustration, and we should resist the temptation to get an answer now. Providing good, quality physics results is more important than getting an answer we want.”

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