I know I’m a little late, but …
Cern scientists reporting from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have claimed the discovery of a new particle consistent with the Higgs boson. […] Both of the Higgs boson-hunting experiments at the LHC see a level of certainty in their data worthy of a “discovery”.
That’s great news! We found the Higgs Boson, so we know how particles have mass, right??
More work will be needed to be certain that what they see is a Higgs, however.
Wait, what? I thought we were done!
The CMS team claimed they had seen a “bump” in their data corresponding to a particle weighing in at 125.3 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) – about 133 times heavier than the protons that lie at the heart of every atom.
They claimed that by combining two data sets, they had attained a confidence level just at the “five-sigma” point – about a one-in-3.5 million chance that the signal they see would appear if there were no Higgs particle. However, a full combination of the CMS data brings that number just back to 4.9 sigma – a one-in-two million chance.
Prof Joe Incandela, spokesman for the CMS, was unequivocal: “The results are preliminary but the five-sigma signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle,” he told the Geneva meeting.
Huh … so the scientific community doesn’t just tell us what do believe and demand we accept it as truth? Weird.
Sorry – both for initially not making a lot of sense and for not actually writing a blog post heavy on the science. I couldn’t resist getting a little snarky since I’ve had conversations recently to this effect. Some people don’t realize that scientific discovery in general – but especially something of this magnitude of importance – hinges upon not only high degrees of statistical certainty but also the allowance of other explanations. By the way the picture and the bullet items below are from the BBC article. I thought I would also post it here because it gives a nice concise explanation of the Standard Model, which is useful for every day folks or former physics majors who have been out of the field for way too long. I’m not naming names.
• The Standard Model is the simplest set of ingredients – elementary particles – needed to make up the world we see in the heavens and in the laboratory
• Quarks combine together to make, for example, the proton and neutron – which make up the nuclei of atoms today – though more exotic combinations were around in the Universe’s early days
• Leptons come in charged and uncharged versions; electrons – the most familiar charged lepton – together with quarks make up all the matter we can see; the uncharged leptons are neutrinos, which rarely interact with matter
• The “force carriers” are particles whose movements are observed as familiar forces such as those behind electricity and light (electromagnetism) and radioactive decay (the weak nuclear force)
• The Higgs boson came about because although the Standard Model holds together neatly, nothing requires the particles to have mass; for a fuller theory, the Higgs – or something else – must fill in that gap
In short, the language of science is very tentative, and very careful. There is always a chance that there is another explanation or some new data that may come along to turn an existing theory on its head. Granted, the likelihood of something like germ theory or the theory of gravity being absolutely wrong in totality is very small, but it is widely acknowledged that both are far from complete and thus remain works in progress.
Stephen Hawking, for one, lost money on this discovery, saying that something else would be found instead that would move the Standard Model in another direction. In many cases, it’s situations where we discover we were completely wrong that propel science even further. To that point:
Scientists will have to look at how the Higgs decays – or transforms – into other, more stable particles after being produced in collisions at the LHC. Dr Pippa Wells, a member of the Atlas experiment, said that several of the decay paths already showed deviations from what one would expect of the Standard Model Higgs.
This may be a result of noise in the data, or it may show that our understanding of this particle and how it interacts with matter may be fundamentally flawed.
Again, this isn’t a science blog so I only really touch upon these issues on a relatively high level. This is more of a comment on the way this discovery and its degree of uncertainty are being presented. We’re seeing the scientific method in action, and as always, there is much more to come after this.
Science marches on.