CERN’s July 4 declaration of victory in the quest to find the Higgs particle (or something very much like it) is a many-splendored triumph. It confirms, as it completes, the Standard Model of fundamental physics. It hints at the splendid new prospect of supersymmetry while debunking rival speculations. Most fundamentally, it reaffirms our scientific faith that nature works according to precise yet humanly comprehensible laws—and, importantly, rewards our moral commitment to testing that faith rigorously.
A few months ago, when the evidence was suggestive but not yet conclusive, I discussed here the nature of the Higgs particle, and what its discovery would mean for the enterprise of physics. Now I will supplement that discussion, focusing on what it took to win the victory.
Physicists had to overcome three challenges to discover the Higgs particle: producing it, detecting it, and proving that they really had produced and detected it.
To put these challenges in context, let me introduce another perspective on what the Higgs particle is: The Higgs particle is The Quantum of Ubiquitous Resistance. I’m referring here to a universe-filling medium that offers resistance to the motion of many elementary particles, thus producing what we commonly think of as their mass.
The Standard Model of physics—our best-yet model of the matter and forces that make our universe—requires, for consistency of its equations, that many of its ingredients are particles with zero mass. These particles should travel at the speed of light in empty space, but in reality, some of them—like quarks, leptons, and W and Z bosons—travel more slowly. What is slowing them down?
Our Standard Model comes equipped with a Standard Reconciliation: Space is never empty! Space is filled with a material that resists the motion of those particles. Over the past decades, physicists have deduced many of the properties of the Ubiquitous Resistance by observing its effects on the forms of matter we can see. They even gave it a name: the Higgs field. But none of the known particles had the right properties to build up the Ubiquitous Resistance. So theorists drew up the specifications for a particle that would do the job. They called it the Higgs particle.
But wishing doesn’t make it so. Only experiments can grant (or deny) theorists’ wishes. With that in mind, let us consider the three challenges facing experimental observation of the Higgs particle.
Any physical material, hit hard enough, is bound to break. The smallest possible shard reveals the most basic unit of the material: its “quantum.” For the Ubiquitous Resistance, that quantum is the Higgs particle.
To break off a piece of the Ubiquitous Resistance, though, requires producing disturbances of unprecedented intensity, albeit confined to tiny volumes of space for tiny intervals of time. That is what the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is all about. By accelerating beams of protons to extremely high energy, and bringing them into collision, the LHC creates “Little Bangs” systematically.
Once you’ve produced a Higgs particle, the next challenge is to detect it. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, as the Higgs rapidly decays into other particles. We can look for those secondary particles, but most of them are useless for detection because they are produced more abundantly by other processes. The Higgs’ tiny signal competes with a cacophony of noise. The most likely mode of Higgs decay, into a bottom quarks and its antiparticle, in particular, is diluted by garden-variety strong interaction processes which produce those particles in droves.
So detection requires cunning.
Some decay processes that we might be able to detect are sketched below. Each has its own advantages and limitations, and each adds information, so experimenters have pursued them all. (For more information on the characters you’ll encounter below—W bosons, Z bosons, and the rest of the particle zoo, this is a good starting point.)
#1: Photon pairs
After a Higgs particle is created, quantum fluctuations convert it into a particle-antiparticle pair, which recombines into two photons.
The observable signal, in this case, is the pair of photons emerging from the decay. From the energy and momentum of the two photons, one can reconstruct the mass of the Higgs particle. This is significant because there are many other ways to make photons in collisions at the LHC that don’t require the production and decay of Higgs particles. The Higgs signal would be swamped, if not for the redeeming feature that randomly produced photons will “add up” to indicate random masses for their hypothetical progenitors, and only by rare accident land on the Higgs particle mass, whatever it happens to be. The signature of the Higgs, then, is an excess of photon pairs in a very narrow mass range. The mass where there’s an excess is fingered as the Higgs particle mass. Since the energy and momentum of photons can be measured accurately, this method gives an excellent measurement of the Higgs particle mass.
The main limitation of this technique, besides the unavoidable background “noise,” is the fact that this decay process is quite rare compared to other possibilities.
#2: W boson+ (Higgs -> bottom-antibottom)
Here is one of those other possibilities: In this case, the Higgs particle is produced as a byproduct of the creation of a W boson. The W boson itself decays, but in ways that experimentalists are thoroughly familiar with, and can often identify with confidence. The presence of the W boson, itself a relatively rare occurrence, helps this class of event to stand out above the strong interaction background. Thus the most common Higgs decay, into bottom-antibottom pairs, becomes discernable when you demand an accompanying W.
There are two more possibilities:
#3: Higgs -> WW -> lepton + antilepton + neutrino + antineutrino
#4: H -> ZZ -> 2 leptons + 2 antileptons
In Processes 3 and 4, the observed particles are leptons (l), which is just another way of saying that they might be either electrons or muons, and their antiparticles; the ghostly neutrinos escape detection. The Higgs boson barely interacts with those light particles, but it can communicate with them indirectly, through fluctuations in the W and Z boson fields (a.k.a. “virtual particles”). Process 4 is special, in that it is the only case where the background is so small that individual events, as opposed to enhanced probabilities, can be ascribed with confidence to Higgs particles.
By measuring the rates of all of these processes, one can determine how powerfully the Higgs communicates with many different things: two gluons, two photons, two Z bosons, two W bosons, and bottom-antibottom pairs. Their different rates are logically independent, of course, but theory connects them.
This is the final challenge. Finding the Higgs boson depends on assuming that the Standard Model is reliable, so we can work around the “background noise”. Here years of hard bread-and-butter work at earlier accelerators—especially the Large Electron-Positron Collider (LEP), which previously occupied the same CERN tunnel in which the LHC resides today, and the Tevatron at Fermilab, as well as at the LHC itself—pays off big. Over the years, many thousands of quantitative predictions of the Standard Model have been tested and verified. Its record is impeccable; it has earned our trust.
The next step is to search for data that the Standard Model can’t explain, like excesses of the decay products discussed earlier, and compare them against our predictions for yields from a hypothetical Higgs boson. Insofar as these quantitative predictions match the observations, which they do, one can speak of proof.
Future observations may reveal new effects, or small quantitative discrepancies in the effects already observed. (I’ll be surprised if they don’t!) But the original, simplest sketch of what The Quantum of Ubiquitous Resistance could possibly be resembles reality enough to pass muster, at least as its first draft.
Finally, I’d like to reprise the conclusion of my earlier piece, in which I considered what might happen if the hints of the Higgs did not pan out:
And if not?
I’ll be heartbroken. Mother Nature will have shown that Her taste is very different from mine. I don’t doubt that it’s superior, but I’ll have to struggle to understand it.