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17Mar 2013

News Flash – The Particle Everyone Said Was the Higgs Boson is Likely to Be the Higgs Boson.

A Higgs by Any Other Name....

Update/Correction: Physicists Sean Carroll and Matt Strassler have pointed out that one physicist out there does claim that the Higgs Boson caused the big bang. That's Michio Kaku. Strassler and Carroll both disagree with Kaku's claim, as do several other physicists consulted for this post.

For anyone following physics, it sounded odd to hear that the particle announced with much fanfare last summer is likely to be the long-sought Higgs Boson. After all, AAAS and other list-makers declared the discovery of the Higgs to be the breakthrough of 2012.  And now they’re telling us it’s the Higgs as if that’s news?

There really was some news. Further work at CERN has shown the particle that’s very likely to be the Higgs is behaving as predicted.  That came out at a meeting in Italy on March 6 and last week in a CERN press release. The predictable behavior is not altogether good news for physicists, many of whom are hoping for some surprise to propel the field forward.

Still, for those of us who like writing about particle physics, incremental announcements offer teachable moments when we can get an update and pass it on to readers. The CERN announcement posed a couple of interesting questions: What property or behavior of this particle would indicate it was something other than the Higgs Boson? And what’s at stake if it is something new?  

I asked physicist Sean Carroll how they determine if it is or is not a Higgs, and he said the ways the particle decays – and the rates of those decays - could have indicated that it was something different. “This is one of those situations where it would be easy to know that it's *not* the Higgs, but very hard (impossible, in some sense) to know for sure that it *is* the Higgs,” he wrote in an email.

Lots of people covered the news in very short stories and posts. I didn’t see many that delved into how one determines whether the new particle is a Higgs. And there were a couple of odd explanations of the nature of the Higgs Boson, including this one from Shoshana Davis at CBS News:

The Higgs boson is often called "the God particle" because it's said to be what caused the "Big Bang" that created our universe many years ago. The nickname caught on so quickly (even though scientists and clergy alike do not care for it) partly because it's a great explanation of what it's supposed to do -- the Higgs boson is what joins everything and gives it matter.

I’d like to know who said the Higgs Boson caused the big bang. Obviously not a physicist. Maybe it was said by a character on the Big Bang Theory TV show – though that’s supposed to be pretty scientifically accurate. That last sentence about giving everything matter was one of the most incoherent things I’d ever read about the Higgs, at least until I got to this graph:  

The confirmation was crucial because the model dictates how the basic pieces of matter act together. If it was proved incorrect, or that the there was no Higgs boson, the way modern scientists look at particle physics would be completely altered, therefore changing many of the current technological assumptions.

Moving on, others who covered the news included Robert Evans at Reuters, Eryn Brown at the Los Angeles Times and Dennis Overbye for the New York Times. There was also a nice blog post by Scientific American blogger Michael Moyer.

Brown’s LA Times story was admirably readable and coherent. Overbye’s lede captured the nature of the situation and made it enticing:  

“In their bones, physicists feel it is the long-lost Higgs boson, but in science, feelings take second place to data.”

Overbye had already given us a fascinating account of the continuing study of the almost-certainly-a-Higgs Boson in a recent particle physics extravaganza, which took up the entire March 5 Science Times. The package included a multi-part narrative series on the discovery. It was great behind-the-scenes synthesis of the personalities, the drama, the snafus and the science. Apparently there’s a book in the works. I look forward to it. Overbye’s cosmology narrative, “Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos” was a classic.  


I would be curious what people thought about this exigesis in the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto which used some interesting metaphors


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