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Do I Detect a Hint of Higgs Boson in This Universe?

CERN researchers announced this morning the barest of hints of the Higgs boson at the Large Collider. It's not a discovery, and anyone that pays any sort of attention to this stuff knew just as well there wasn't going to be a "discovery" announced...
December 13, 2011, 3:15pm

CERN researchers announced this morning the barest of hints of the Higgs boson at the Large Collider. It’s not a discovery, and anyone that pays any sort of attention to this stuff knew just as well there wasn’t going to be a “discovery” announced today ‘cause that’s not really how it works when you’re hunting for statistical evidence of a theorized particle through not direct observation of the particle, but via its decay products. It’s not spotting Bigfoot. Think of it more like analyzing millions of hours of surveillance footage in a crowded city for signs that Bigfoot might have passed by this or that street corner — without knowing what exactly Bigfoot looks like.

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At today’s seminar, a regular seasonal report of findings and not the hastily called press conference a lot of the more breathless talk over the past couple days would have led one to think, scientists revealed an even further narrowed range of masses in which the Higgs could fall, somewhere between 115 and 130 GeV. We’ve known for a while that range was tightening, shrinking the range in which we might find the Higgs and leading some folks to start fretting about finding it at all. Well, it seems there’s a couple of “small excesses” within that range, found at both the collider’s ATLAS and CMS detectors, that might indicate the Higgs.

Each excess in that region is an increase in some combination of particles that the Higgs boson, the particle possibly responsible for mass in the universe, should decay into. So, a Higgs shows up and quickly turns into all of these other particles, which is what CERN researchers actually measure. Any individual excess is about as statistically significant as rolling two sixes in a row with a single die. So, you know, it could be Bigfoot or it could be someone — a somewhat unlikely someone — with a lot of hair in that surveillance footage.

“We have restricted the most likely mass region for the Higgs boson to 116-130 GeV, and over the last few weeks we have started to see an intriguing excess of events in the mass range around 125 GeV,” says ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti. “This excess may be due to a fluctuation, but it could also be something more interesting. We cannot conclude anything at this stage. We need more study and more data. Given the outstanding performance of the LHC this year, we will not need to wait long for enough data and can look forward to resolving this puzzle in 2012.”

Most likely we’ll have to wait until late next year for anything definitive. In the meantime, please try not to panic. We’ll have this whole mystery of how particles acquire mass unraveled soon enough. Or maybe, with more data, we’ll be able to totally exclude the possibility of a Higgs boson, which might actually be even more exciting. Depends on if you’re a question or an answer sort of person, I suppose.

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Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.