Particle Physics


Higgs Fireworks on July 4

This week, we’ve come one step closer to understanding the rules that govern the universe. Two days ago, my colleagues at Fermilab announced our final results in a search for the answer to a mystery nearly 50 years old. In an intellectual tour de force, the CDF and my own DZero experiments analyzed a decade of data, combining dozens of hints that together tell an interesting tale. This announcement was an aperitif for an even more dramatic statement made today.

CMS detector

The construction of the CMS detector at the LHC. CMS is one of the detectors involved in the hunt for the Higgs. Credit: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic Society/Corbis

As physicists gathered in Melbourne, Australia, for the International Conference on High Energy Physics, one of the most anticipated conferences of the year, the two large collaborations at CERN made an extraordinary announcement. In back-to-back seminars held at CERN and simulcast to the conference (and the world), the leaders of two different experiments, CMS and ATLAS, gave strong evidence that we found something that can’t be explained by well-understood physics—something which could (and it’s worth emphasizing the “could”) be the Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson is the missing piece in the current best model of the universe, the Standard Model. In the Standard Model, building blocks called quarks and leptons are held together by the four known forces: gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Using these basic ideas, physicists can explain most of the measurements we have made. But one thing we have not been able to explain is one of the most fundamental and vexing questions in physics: Why do those building blocks have mass?

In 1964, Peter Higgs took some ideas that were floating around at the time, added a few of his own, and proposed a solution to this conundrum, which included a new particle that we now call the Higgs boson. The search for the Higgs boson is an energetic activity, directly involving as many as six thousand physicists—myself included—and the most powerful particle collider on Earth, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.

One of the fantastic benefits of being a physicist doing research at CERN and Fermilab is that I have been privileged to see this discovery evolve with an insider’s perspective in more than one world-class experiment and in collaboration with some of the finest minds on the planet. Over the past few years, we have searched through the data at both laboratories. Our measurements so far have shown where the Higgs boson isn’t. The results released today may finally show where it is.

The first tantalizing suggestions of the Higgs came in December of 2011, when scientists working with CMS and ATLAS announced that their data contained hints that the Higgs boson might be starting to show its face, and that it could have a mass about 125 times heavier than a proton. However, neither experiment had enough data to claim a discovery—or even to be certain that they were seeing anything at all.

In March, the search picked up again. This time, though, the LHC’s energy level and beam intensity were dialed up. If the LHC had been making Higgs bosons before, it would be making even more of them now—about 25% more, depending on the boson’s mass. The CERN management made their plans for 2012 so that both CMS and ATLAS would have enough “beam time” to independently discover the Higgs boson—if, that is, our hypotheses about its mass and other properties were correct. However, given the intellect and work ethic of the scientists involved, nobody really thought it would take the whole year to see a signal that “looked like” a Higgs boson, although proving anything we found was the actual Higgs boson predicted by the Standard Model could well take the entire years’ worth of data.

By June of this year, both LHC experiments had already recorded as much data in 2012 as in all of 2011. The accelerator and its detectors were performing superbly. Now the race was on to be the first to finish the job and find—or rule out—the Higgs boson.

ATLAS and CMS won’t find the Higgs itself, though; it disappears too quickly, decaying into other subatomic particles. It’s those particles that we’re looking for in the ATLAS and CMS data. Depending on the true mass of the Higgs boson, it could decay in several different ways. Seeing an excess of these decay products is an indication that we might have discovered the Higgs.

And that’s what we found! In the shrapnel of the LHC’s powerful collisions, the CMS experiment detected more pairs of photons and Z bosons than we can explain without some new kind of physics appearing. CMS also looked for supporting evidence in predicted decays to bottom quarks, W bosons and tau leptons. The ATLAS experiment also found an excess of events decaying into two photons and two Z bosons, but the ATLAS did not announce the results of their investigations into other decay modes.

To be certain that we didn’t adjust our analysis techniques to produce a preconceived result, we did the searches “blind,” meaning that we designed the analysis before we looked at the relevant data. This was especially important given that we saw hints in December 2011. We didn’t want that information to bias our searches in any way. That way, if the 2012 data told the same story as that of 2011, it would tell us something about the universe and not ourselves.

When all of our results are combined, CMS claims to have found a new boson with a mass of 125 GeV (or about 133 times heavier than a proton) and a statistical significance of about five sigma (which means that this result could happen 1 time in 3.5 million by accident), while ATLAS’ measurement indicates the existence of a particle with about the same mass (126 GeV) and the same statistical significance. While both experiments’ results are significant individually, the fact that both experiments are announcing similar observations and the 2011 and 2012 measurements are compatible lends tremendous credence to today’s announcement.

It is very important to stress that neither experiment team has claimed to have observed the Higgs boson. They have observed something without a doubt, but the Standard Model Higgs boson is a very specific thing. To be sure we’re seeing the Higgs boson and not a lookalike, we need to see it in all of the predicted decay modes.

For instance, the Higgs theory makes specific predictions about the relative probabilities of the Higgs decaying into pairs of bottom quarks, tau leptons and a whole myriad of possibilities. If all of the predicted possibilities aren’t seen, or aren’t seen in the right ratio, it might be that what we’re observing isn’t the Higgs boson after all. Furthermore, the Higgs boson is predicted to have exactly zero quantum mechanical spin. Until those and other properties are confirmed, it is possible that the experiments might be picking up traces of something entirely different. So, although what has been observed is consistent with being a Higgs boson, these measurements cannot rule out some other possibilities. In fact, this announcement is not the end of the story but rather the very beginning.

Tell us what you think on Twitter, Facebook, or email.

Don Lincoln

    Don Lincoln is a senior experimental particle physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and an adjunct professor at the University of Notre Dame. He splits his research time between Fermilab and the CERN laboratory, just outside Geneva, Switzerland. He has coauthored more than 500 scientific papers on subjects from microscopic black holes and extra dimensions to the elusive Higgs boson. When Don isn’t doing physics research, he spends his time sharing the fantastic world of science with anyone who will listen. He has given public lectures on three continents and has authored many magazine articles, YouTube videos and columns in the online periodical Fermilab Today. His most recent book "The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Stuff That Will Blow Your Mind" tells the tale of the Large Hadron Collider, the physics and the technology required to make it all work, and the human stories behind the hunt for the Higgs boson.