– Particle’s Discovery Points to a Firmer Grasp of Physics (The New York Times, July 4, 2012):
ASPEN, Colo. — Physicists working at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider said Wednesday that they had discovered a new subatomic particle that looks for all the world like the Higgs boson, a potential key to an understanding of why elementary particles have mass and indeed to the existence of diversity and life in the universe.
“I think we have it,” Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director general of CERN, said in an interview from his office outside Geneva, calling the discovery “a historic milestone.” His words signaled what is probably the beginning of the end for one of the longest, most expensive searches in the history of science. If scientists are lucky, the discovery could lead to a new understanding of how the universe began.
Dr. Heuer and others said that it was too soon to know for sure whether the new particle, which weighs in at 125 billion electron volts, one of the heaviest subatomic particles yet, fits the simplest description given by the Standard Model, the theory that has ruled physics for the last half-century, or whether it is an impostor, a single particle or even the first of many particles yet to be discovered. The latter possibilities are particularly exciting to physicists since they could point the way to new deeper ideas, beyond the Standard Model, about the nature of reality. For now, some physicists are calling it a “Higgslike” particle.
“It’s great to discover a new particle, but you have find out what its properties are,” said John Ellis, a theorist at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
Joe Incandela, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, a spokesman for one of two groups reporting data on Wednesday, called the discovery “very, very significant.”
“It’s something that may, in the end, be one of the biggest observations of any new phenomena in our field in the last 30 or 40 years, going way back to the discovery of quarks, for example,” he said.
Here at the Aspen Center for Physics, a retreat for scientists that will celebrate its 50th birthday on Saturday, the sounds of cheers and popping corks reverberated early Wednesday against the Sawatch Range through the Roaring Fork Valley of the Rockies, as bleary-eyed physicists watched their colleagues read off the results in a webcast from CERN. It was a scene duplicated in Melbourne, Australia, where physicists had gathered for a major conference, as well as in Los Angeles, Chicago, Princeton, New York, London and beyond — everywhere that members of a curious species have dedicated their lives and fortunes to the search for their origins in a dark universe.
Nima Arkani-Hamed, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, said: “I was really impressed. It’s a triumphant day for fundamental physics. Now some fun begins!”
At CERN itself, 1,000 people stood in line all night to get into the auditorium, according to Guido Tonelli, a CERN physicist who said the atmosphere was like a rock concert. Peter Higgs, the University of Edinburgh theorist for whom the boson is named, entered the meeting to a standing ovation.
Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very much like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it. And it affirms a grand view of a universe ruled by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws, but in which everything interesting in it, like ourselves, is a result of flaws or breaks in that symmetry.
According to the Standard Model, which has ruled physics for 40 years, the Higgs boson is the only visible and particular manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles that would otherwise be massless with mass. Particles wading through it would gain heft.
Without this Higgs field, as it is known, or something like it, physicists say all the elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight. There would be neither atoms nor life.
Physicists said that they would probably be studying the new Higgs particle for years. Any deviations from the simplest version of the boson — and there are hints of some already — could open a gateway to new phenomena and deeper theories that answer questions left hanging by the Standard Model: What, for example, is the dark matter that provides the gravitational scaffolding of galaxies? And why is the universe made of matter instead of antimatter?
“If the boson really is not acting standard, then that will imply that there is more to the story — more particles, maybe more forces around the corner,” Neal Weiner, a theorist at New York University, wrote in an e-mail. “What that would be is anyone’s guess at the moment.”
One intriguing candidate for the next theory they have been on the watch for is called supersymmetry, “SUSY” for short, which would come with a whole new laundry list of particles to be discovered, one of which might be the source of dark matter. In supersymmetry there are at least two Higgs bosons.
Dr. Incandela said, “The whole world thinks there is one Higgs, but there could be many of them.”
Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago and the chairman of the physics center board, said, “This is a big moment for particle physics and a crossroads — will this be the high water mark or will it be the first of many discoveries that point us toward solving the really big questions that we have posed?”
Wednesday’s announcement is also an impressive opening act for the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest physics machine, which collides protons and only began operating two years ago. It is still running at only half-power.
Physicists had been holding their breath and perhaps icing the Champagne ever since last December. Two teams of about 3,000 physicists each — one named Atlas, led by Fabiola Gianotti, and the other CMS, led by Dr. Incandela — operate giant detectors in the collider, sorting the debris from the primordial fireballs left after proton collisions. Last winter they both reported hints of the same particle. They were not able, however, to rule out the possibility that it was a statistical fluke.
Since then the collider has more than doubled the number of collisions it has recorded.
The new results capped three weeks of feverish speculation and Internet buzz as the physicists, who had been sworn to secrecy, did a breakneck analysis of some 800 trillion proton-proton collisions over the last two years. They were racing to get ready for a major conference in Melbourne that started on Wednesday, where they had promised an update on the Higgs search.
In the end, the CERN council, which consists of representatives from each of CERN’s 20 member states, decided that the potentially historic announcement should come from the lab’s own turf first.
Up until last weekend, physicists from inside were reporting that they themselves did not know what the outcome would be, though many were having fun with the speculation.
“HiggsRumors” became one of the most popular hashtags on Twitter. The particle also acquired its own iPhone app, a game called “Agent Higgs.” Expectations soared when it was learned that the five surviving originators of the Higgs boson theory had been invited to the CERN news conference.
On the eve of the announcement, in what was an embarrassing moment for the lab where the Web was invented, a video of Dr. Incandela making his statement was posted to the Internet and then quickly withdrawn. Dr. Incandela said he had made a series of video presentations with alternate conclusions so that the video producers would not know the right answer ahead of time, but the one that was right just happened to get posted.
But the December signal was no fluke.
Like Omar Sharif materializing out of a distant blur of heated air into a man on a camel in “Lawrence of Arabia,” what was once a hint of a signal had grown over the last year, until it practically jumped off the chart. “I believe it now; I didn’t before,” said a physicist who was one of the first to see the new results but was not authorized to discuss them.
The new particle has a mass of about 125.3 billion electron volts, in the units of mass and energy — Einstein showed they are the same — that are favored by physicists, about as much as a whole barium atom, according to the CMS group, and 126 billion according to Atlas.
Both groups said that the likelihood that their signal was a result of a chance fluctuation was less than one chance in 3.5 million, so-called “five sigma,” which is the gold standard in physics for a discovery.
On that basis, Dr. Heuer said that he had decided only Tuesday afternoon to call the Higgs result a “discovery.”
He said, “I know the science, and as director general I can stick out my neck.”
Dr. Incandela’s and Dr. Gianotti’s presentations were repeatedly interrupted by applause as they showed slide after slide of data bumps rising like mountains from the sea.
Dr. Gianotti said at one point: “Why are you applauding? I’m not done yet. This is just beginning. There is more to come.”
She noted that the mass of the putative Higgs made it easy to study its many behaviors and channels. “So,” she said, “thanks, nature.”
Gerald Guralnik, one of the founders of the Higgs theory, said he was glad to be at a physics meeting “where there is applause like a football game.”
Asked to comment after the announcements, Dr. Higgs seemed overwhelmed, saying, “For me, its really an incredible thing that’s happened in my lifetime.”
In quantum theory, which is the language of particle physicists, elementary particles are divided into two rough categories: fermions, which are bits of matter like electrons, and bosons, which are bits of energy and can transmit forces, like the photon that transmits light.
Dr. Higgs was one of six physicists, working in three independent groups, who in 1964 invented the notion of the cosmic molasses, or Higgs field. The others were Tom Kibble of Imperial College, London; Carl Hagen of the University of Rochester; Dr. Guralnik of Brown University; and Francois Englert and Robert Brout, both of Université Libre de Bruxelles.
One implication of their theory was that this cosmic molasses, normally invisible and, of course, odorless, would produce its own quantum particle if hit hard enough, by the right amount of energy. The particle would be fragile and fall apart within a millionth of a second in a dozen different ways depending upon its own mass.
Unfortunately, the theory did not say how much this particle should weigh, which is what made it so hard to find. The pesky particle eluded researchers at a succession of particle accelerators, including the Large Electron Positron Collider at CERN, which closed down in 2000, and the Tevatron at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill., which shut down last year.
Along the way the Higgs boson achieved a notoriety rare for abstract physics. To the eternal dismay of his colleagues, Leon Lederman, the former director of Fermilab, called it the “God particle,” in his book of the same name, later quipping that he had wanted to call it “the goddamn particle.”
Finding the missing boson was one of the main goals of the Large Hadron Collider.
Both Dr. Heuer and Dr. Gianotti said they had not expected the search to succeed so quickly, a tribute, they said, to the people who had built the collider and the detectors and learned to run them efficiently. “It’s truly amazing,” said Lisa Randall, a prominent Harvard theorist.
Dr. Heuer recently extended the current run of the collider an extra three months, to the end of this year, during which the experimenters say they expect to triple their data on the new particle, narrowing its possible identities.
The collider will then shut down for two years for major repairs. When it starts up again, theories of both inner space and outer space could be up for grabs.
Although they have never been seen, Higgslike fields play an important role in theories of the universe and in string theory. Under certain conditions, according to the strange accounting of Einsteinian physics, they can become suffused with energy that exerts an antigravitational force. Such fields have been proposed as the source of an enormous burst of expansion, known as inflation, early in the universe and, possibly, as the secret of the dark energy that now seems to be speeding up the expansion of the universe.
Knowing more about the new particle will help put those theories on firmer ground, Dr. Turner of Chicago said.
So far, the physicists admit, they know little. The CERN results are mostly based on measurements of two or three of the dozen different ways, or “channels,” by which a Higgs boson could be produced and then decay.
There are hints, but only hints so far, that some of the channels are overproducing the Higgs while others might be underproducing, clues maybe that there is more than the Standard Model at work.
“This could be the first in a ring of discoveries,” Dr. Tonelli said.
CERN will be examining the rest of the channels over the coming months and years, and the idea that the Standard Model could be cracking is a prospect that physicists find thrilling. Only time, and a few more trillion proton collisions, will tell.
In an e-mail, Maria Spiropulu, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who works with the CMS team at CERN, wrote about the Higgs: “I personally do not want it to be standard model anything — I don’t want it to be simple or symmetric or as predicted. I want us all to have been dealt a complex hand that will send me (and all of us) in a (good) loop for a long time.”