Higgs Update: Holiday Edition

I apologize, dear galleons. My mind has been elsewhere the past few days. Namely, I’ve been playing too many video games and dwelling on a personal issue, neither of which should ever get in the way of SCIENCE. And yet, I let them. So, from of the bottom of my right ventricle (which is the bottom-most chamber of the heart)… I am so, so sorry.

And now, I’m going to correct my egregious error and discuss last week’s big news on the Higgs front, which resulted in my Twitter feed being ‘blown up’ (such a silly term) for a few hours as all my science-types (so… half the folks I follow) yammered on about the CERN sit-down.

At the end of August, PhD student Richard Ruiz wrote on the Quantum Diaries blog (I’ll link it here, but it’s a permanent staple of the ol’ blogroll on the right there):

What this means is that by the end of this year, not next year, we will definitely know whether or not the Higgs Boson as predicted by the Standard model exists.

Which is a pretty bold thing to say, Richard me boy, and wasn’t actually the view of the LHC team at the time. It was by no means a guaranteed thing that the Higgs would show itself by Christmas (though it would be hilarious to watch the Christians in an uproar as the discovery of the God Particle overshadows the birth of their sweet baby savior), though many scientists were holding out hope. Initially, they had predicted Higgs results by the end of 2012. What poor Richard was trying to convey was the idea that the LHC was working even better than they had originally planned (having, in a mere few months, gathered half the data they had expected to get by the end of 2012), and that data analysis was coming along so smoothly that they could be seeing results much sooner than the end of 2012.

Now, the idea that the Higgs could be a Christmas gift to the science community was pretty effectively shot down by many other LHCers. As Richard Hawkings of the ATLAS experiment said:

If the Higgs had been in an easy to find area then yes, we may have been able to have discovered it by Christmas. But what we have discovered in the past couple of months is that it’s in a region that’s much harder to find. This will require more data and more time.

And that seemed to be it. There was little hope for a holiday Higgsplosion, so it kind of fell off the radar.

Until last week, that is.

Between the dearly departed Tevatron and the LHC, the range in which we look to find the Higgs has shrank considerably. Down and down it’s gone, and the smaller it gets, the more we start to sweat. Because the Higgs is the lynchpin of many current theories in physics, which is the reason it’s being pursued like it’s the most popular girl in the school and prom is coming up. The tinier that range gets, the less likely it is we’re going to find the Higgs in it.

*gulp*

Last week, however, Higgs news suddenly fucking exploded all over the internet like a glorious, scientific money shot. CERN had an announcement regarding the Higgs- tune in for more details. And oh, were the masses tuning in. As I stated before, my Twitter feed was 90% Higgs speculation. It was scientific gossip at its finest, as everyone felt their hopes swelling while still trying to keep the excitement in check. It was a war between the emotional rush of the possibility of a discovery and the more rational thought that this probably wasn’t the solid proof we’ve been waiting for. All we could do for a few days was wait, anxiously fidgeting in our seats, until CERN’s official announcement.

And then it happened. On December 13, CERN revealed that the LHC team had glimpsed the Higgs boson.

It’s a Christmas miracle! PRAISE SCIENCE!

Okay, so, let’s back it up a second. Before we break out the champagne and start stripping down to our skivvies (as I imagine happens at any good science party), it’s not like we just got an upskirt shot of the Higgs. No flash-of-flesh and a tingly feeling somewhere in our 12-year-old genitals (…I don’t know how many of you have read Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, but I’m basically basing this entire stupid analogy on the boys traveling to the abandoned shed to see the naughty picture supposedly tacked to the bulletin board). In fact, there’s nothing really concrete about the findings.

Yeah, that’s right. Put the noisemakers down. It’s not quite party time yet.

But maybe a quiet cheer is still in order, because the results are promising. See, as with so many things in scienceland, we aren’t searching for the Higgs directly. Instead, the experiments at the LHC are focused on hunting for particles that would match up to Higgs decay. Now, the Higgs has been narrowed down (via both ATLAS and CMS) to having to reside within 116 and 127 GeV. And both ATLAS and CMS have reported small excesses of particle decay in this region that point toward the Higgs boson.

CERN was quick to stress that, taken individually, these results aren’t any more statistically significant than rolling a die and coming up with two sixes in a row. What was really interesting (and prompted the big announcement) was that there were multiple, independent measurements in this range from two separate LHC experiments. Which is tantalizing indeed.

Now, the results are being classed as about 2.5 sigma. Which means? Well, the sigma designations when discussing results in physics reference the deviation of a Gaussian distribution. The lower the number of sigmas, the more the data deviates from the standard “bell curve”. 3 sigma is considered fairly normal deviation, but in order for a scientific discovery to be classed as such and officially announced, it has to be at least 5 sigma.

And 2.5 sigma is no 5 sigma, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t exciting. 2.5 sigma basically means there is less than a 5% chance that they are simply statistical fluctuations. Which, to the layman’s eye, is a damn small percentage. Of course, science requires us to be much more precise, but this is certainly a step in the right direction.

Of course, as is so often the case with the little science tidbits I like to post here, there’s nothing definite at this time. As the CERN press release itself stated:

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.

So, while the Higgs might not be the Christmas gift I was hoping for, I guess I can consider it a sexy holiday peepshow. And we’re still on track for the original estimate of a 2012 ruling on the existence of the Higgs.

…Has anyone considered that what the Mayans saw when they ended their calendar in 2012 (which I think we can all agree is obviously intentional) was the revelation of the Higgs?

And lo, the Higgs boson did descend from the heavens to the hallowed halls of CERN, and then did speak, “Children of Science, rejoice, for this is the end of the old world. For I am your God Particle, and my Word is Scientific Law. Ye shall obey the Standard Model in all things, unless later Data contradicts it, for these are the edicts of Science set forth by Ibn al-Haytham, my prophet. Further the search for Truth, my faithful, in the glorious years to come, a world of Science and light, free from the darkness of persecution by the religious and the ignorant. For these folk shall be smote by the mighty hand of Physics, in my Name.”

Yes, I find Biblical capitalization as ridiculous as British voweling.

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