Higgs Boson Discovered? Not So Fast.


The CDF experiment at the Tevatron (Fermilab)

The particle physics community is buzzing about a blog posted by a University of Padua (Italy) physicist saying that he’s been hearing rumors about a “light Higgs boson” discovery at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois.

Tommaso Dorigo, a physicist and blogger who is no stranger to controversy, posted a blog titled “Rumors About A Light Higgs” saying, “an experiment at the Tevatron is about to release some evidence of a light Higgs boson signal.”

The UK’s Telegraph was quick to declare that the Tevatron “has found Higgs boson” but New Scientist was more cautious, speculating that there might be a big announcement coming soon.

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Dorigo goes into some detail about hearing “voices about a possible new “three-sigma” Higgs effect” but points out that “others do not make explicit claims but talk of a unexpected result.”

So at least we know where we stand: This is simply a rumor, coming from a research group (or groups) suggesting compelling evidence for the detection of a Higgs boson event.

The aging Tevatron particle accelerator — the second largest particle collider in the world — is set for retirement and will be superseded by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland.

One of the LHC’s main goals is to find the Higgs particle, the boson that gives matter its mass. However, if the LHC doesn’t find the Higgs, the Standard Model of particle physics may not be correct, indicating that we may need to look at more exotic theories to understand how the Universe works.

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The prospect of not discovering the Higgs boson is attractive to many physicists because if it doesn’t exist, a revolution in physics awaits, and which scientist doesn’t love discovering something unexpected?

“Actually I am not really a big Higgs fan, but something has to be doing the job of making the electromagnetic force look so different from the weak force at everyday energies,” said Jon Butterworth, an LHC physicist working with the ATLAS detector, in an interview with Discovery News last year.

“If it’s not the Higgs doing it, it is something more exotic, and our theories are wrong. That would be exciting.”

But say if the nearly-retired Tevatron discovered the Higgs before the LHC could even reach full Higgs-hunting capacity? Needless to say, when you have two “competing” high-energy particle accelerators on either side of the Atlantic, there’s bound to be some rumors.

“ fly around quite a bit,” Butterworth told me in light of today’s new whisperings about a possible Higgs discovery by the Tevatron. “If it’s not in the coffee room, it’s on Twitter.”

Butterworth urged caution before listening to any rumor circulating about the Higgs boson.

“Anyone can spread rumors,” he said. “The way we normally do things protects people from ‘noise’ in the system. If we announced everything that looked interesting, people would get excited for a few days until follow-up results told us something totally different.”

“It’s best to wait for an official announcement as it keeps things in perspective.”

But what is all this discussion about a “three-sigma event”? Is it significant?

“Three-sigma events happen occasionally, especially when you look at a lot of data,” said Sean Carroll, senior research associate in the Department of Physics at Caltech. “But it could be real.”

Three-sigma refers to the statistical certainty of a given result. In this case, the rumored result is supposed to have a 99.7 percent chance of being correct (and a 0.3 percent chance of being wrong).

“Three-sigma isn’t seen as a ‘discovery,’ but it would be strong evidence for the existence of the Higgs,” Butterworth added. “Really, a ‘five-sigma’ is classed as a discovery. Five-sigma is the ‘Gold Standard.’”

Also, this “three-sigma” claim arose from a rumor that may or may not be substantiated.

Carroll also urged caution about Dorigo’s dramatic blog post: “I would be inclined to wait until there was some actual announcement, rather than just rumors on the internet, before taking it seriously.”

So, it looks like we’ll have to wait until scientists present their research at the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP) in Paris on July 22 before we start getting too excited.

Special thanks to Dave Mosher for the tip about this rumored rumor.

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