The mysterious Higgs boson is thought to be involved in the generation of mass in the universe, but so far it seems to be best at the generation of rumors among particle physicists. A new wave of rumors is propagating even as we speak. Has the Higgs boson been detected at Fermilab's Tevatron? It might depend on what you mean by "detected." Or it might merely be a case of deja vu all over again.
Like an earlier case of Higgs boson hype, the latest wave appears to have been generated by Italian physicist Tommaso Dorigo on his blog, "A Quantum Diaries Survivor." Dorigo says he's "heard voices" talking about a Higgs effect that could be nailed down to a three-sigma level of confidence, or 99.3 percent. That's suggestive of a real effect, but not as good as the five-sigma "gold standard" for an accepted discovery.
In his item, Dorigo freely admits he has no idea whether the voices are right, even though he works on one of the Tevatron's two main experiments (CDF). "I know nothing at all, so I can certainly talk about it without violating any rule!" he writes. He goes on to review the work done at CDF and the other main experiment, D0, discussing the possibility that a lightweight Higgs particle might exist. Then he adds this appendix:
"Why am I doing this ? I know several 'serious' physicists and colleagues who have questioned this care-free attitude of mine in the past. What good does it do to shout 'Higgs' every second week ?
"It does a lot of good to particle physics, in my very humble, but not quite uninformed, opinion. I have made this point other times, and will not repeat it here. Suffices to say that, in a nutshell, keeping particle physics in the press with hints of possible discoveries that later die out is more important than speaking loud and clear once in ten years, when a groundbreaking discovery is actually really made, and keeping silent the rest of the time.
"And there is another reason why I find this kind of rumor-mongering entertaining: maybe some informed soul out there might comment anonymously and share some more gossip about the matter with us... ;-)"
Dorigo is dead-on about one thing: His hints have sparked a fresh uptick in press reports about particle physics. Follow-up reports have appeared on The Reference Frame blog as well as websites for the Telegraph, New Scientist, Discovery News ... and now in this space.
Why now? It's because a big particle-physics meeting is coming up next week in Paris, known as the International Conference on High Energy Physics or ICHEP. This will be the first ICHEP meeting to feature scientific results from Europe's Large Hadron Collider, which began its physics program earlier this year. "New results about the elusive Higgs boson, or signals of physics beyond the standard model might therefore be announced at this conference!" the ICHEP home page declares.
Finding the Higgs boson - the only subatomic particle predicted by physics' standard model that has not yet been detected -was one of the main reasons for building the $10 billion LHC was built. It's been called the "God particle," but I've said that "the goad particle" might be a more apt label, because the mere possibility that the particle may exist has goaded scientists into spending billions of dollars and expending countless hours of effort.
It'd be a sly move for Fermilab's researchers to steal the LHC's thunder. It might also be a case of somewhat wishful thinking. Chances are that Fermilab will indeed announce some significant findings at next week's meeting. How significant remains to be seen.
As for the LHC's findings, here's what Katie Yurkewicz, a U.S. spokeswoman for Europe's CERN particle physics center, told me today in an e-mail:
"I can say with all honesty that the LHC experiments themselves don't yet know exactly what will be presented at ICHEP, as they're still in the final stages of approving their results. But the results presented are likely to be so-called 'standard model' results, thus re-measurements of known quantities (such as W bosons) that show that the detectors are working properly, or providing new measurements of known quantities at higher energies (such as the paper recently published by the CMS experiment: http://arxiv.org/abs/1005.3299). We'll still have to wait some time for some new discoveries.
"You have likely seen as well the rumors that the Tevatron might announce something more exciting, however. (I have no inside information here, so as far as I'm concerned they're really just rumors, to be taken with many grains of salt!)"
While you're salivating over that scientific salt, here are some links to chew over:
- Big Bang Machine: Special report on the LHC
- The Guardian: Hunt for the God particle
- Inside the subatomic race
- Atom smashers on TV
Update for 2:15 a.m. ET July 13: Caltech physicist Sean Carroll points to this tweet from Fermilab Today: "Let's settle this: the rumors spread by one fame-seeking blogger are just rumors. That's it."
Update for 11:11 p.m. ET July 13: The Reference Frame's Luboš Motl adds a bit more spice to the rumors in an e-mail:
"A reader just provided me with striking new details about the Higgs rumor:
"A gluon plus bottom-quark collided and created a bottom quark and a Higgs - many times for them to have a signal. This is an unexpected process a priori. However, it's one natural in the Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model with a large value of tangent (beta), which is the ratio of the two vacuum expectation values.
"This would be huge. Needless to say, I am the only blogger on this planet who claimed that SUSY [supersymmetry] was likely to be found, and I also have $10,000 bets about it - although only time will tell whether my parties would respect their commitments (which are not legally written on paper)."