Finding the Higgs

“We have observed a new boson, at 125.3 GeV, with 4.9 sigma confidence.” — from the CMS team at CERN in the LHC. 

12.45 am on the eve of Independence Day, and I’m watching — with great puzzlement but a mounting sense of excitement — a live webcast from Zurich, at CERN, about the Higgs boson. I say “great puzzlement” because it’s not particularly easy to follow the jargon. It is, however, really great to be awake and thinking about the possibility that I’m right here when history’s being made.

If you’re still wondering why anyone would care about a new subatomic particle when we’ve got more than enough to spare, this blog post does a good job of giving us an overview.

A couple of months ago, I posted a link to PHD Comics’ lovely comic on the search for the Higgs boson. The comic focuses on the various methods that the Higgs could be detected, and the ways physicists try to make sense of the staggering amount of data streaming out of the LHC.

There’s a nifty little explanation of how the collisions themselves work, by the Christian Science Monitor, which isn’t something I’ve come across very often before. It’s a straightforward article to read, full of good analogies, but I want to point out one astonishing paragraph:

Using powerful magnets to steer the protons around two lines running in opposite directions, the beams are at last brought into focus at each of two mammoth detectors the size of a cathedral’s nave. This is where the collisions take place. By the time the beams are focused for collision, each is about half the width of a human hair. The detectors that track the collision debris must be able to locate the telltale debris trails to within half the width of a human hair.

Gives brand new meaning to the phrase “needle in a haystack”, doesn’t it?

But this doesn’t mean that our work is done. Finding the Higgs will validate the Standard Model, but that means we’ve still got to flesh out the details. I think of it this way: imagine you’re pulling pieces out of a puzzle box and you’re not quite sure what the final image is. But you have a good idea, and eventually you find all the corner pieces, which seem to make a very strong case for this to be the sort of image you think it is. And then you look down, and realize that a good chunk of the middle of the puzzle is yet to be finished.

Now imagine the Higgs is the final corner piece; the other particles predicted by the Standard Model and which are required by supersymmetry to exist, must still be found. This Wired article has a very nice summary of the challenges we face in a post-Higgs world.

One writer whose work I enjoy consistently is Dennis Overbye of The New York Times. I’m not sure I could even tell you why; it’s a sort of wry, whimsical take on physics, where I get the impression that every subatomic particle he writes about is anthropomorphized. Perhaps he takes the physicists out for a drink first and then gets them to talk. Either way, I was looking for his first take on the matter, and it’s here — one of the first to publish about the Higgs boson. Other news outlets haven’t been as restrained in their coverage, but that’s a matter for tomorrow morning.

This might be a little cliched and perhaps three hundred years from now it won’t seem like a piece of history at all, when we’ve discovered the true nature of our universe — but as I’m about to head to bed, I can’t help but feel that I’ll wake up to a new interpretation of the world.

Welcome, Higgs boson! I expect nerdy t-shirts to be available for sale within the end of the week.

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