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Posted at 10:15 AM ET, 12/10/2011

Higgs particle: Getting closer

The Higgs particle is also known as the Higgs boson, or “the God particle,” a term that Leon Lederman used some years ago and which delighted journalists but surely offended photons and electrons throughout the universe. The Higgs is named after Peter Higgs, a theorist who four decades ago predicted its existence as part of the Standard Model of particle physics. No one’s ever found one. Discovering the Higgs is a central purpose of two very elaborate experiments being conducted at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. On Tuesday, the CERN scientists will announce their latest batch of results, and, as Scientific American has reported, rumors abound that they’ve homing in on the Higgs. More here from Nature.

CERN has itself said that there will be no “discovery” announcement, and the best bet is that the two experiments haven’t quite nailed the Higgs with certainty but are getting very close. “I am looking for closure, and I don’t expect to get it next week,” a leading theorist tells me by email.

As SciAm notes, certainty in this case is made difficult by the fact that, even with the elaborate infrastructure in place at the LHC, there’s no way to catch a Higgs and bottle it up like a lightning bug.

“...the CMS and ATLAS detectors cannot directly catch Higgs bosons; those particles would decay into other particles immediately after being created in the LHC’s proton collisions. Instead, physicists must analyze the subatomic debris from the decays and reconstruct what happened.”

As my editor, Claudia, has pointed out, we’re at a point where a lot of major discoveries are indirect. No one shouts “Land ho!” from the crow’s nest anymore. Instead we find planets like Kepler 22-b, utterly invisible even with the most advanced telescope, but found through fluctuations in the light of its parent star. We are devising new ways to peel back layers of the onion.

Physicists are hoping to discover some “new physics” with the LHC. At the very least, they’d like to find a new particle they hadn’t even imagined. The Higgs, however, is kind of a familiar particle, as undiscovered particles go. It’s supposed to be lurking there somewhere because otherwise the Standard Model has a gaping hole in it. What matters most about the Higgs, beyond whether it exists at all, is how massive it is. If it’s high-mass, that gives you a different universe than a low-mass Higgs. Among other things, the “stability” of the vacuum is in play. A low-mass Higgs leads to a less stable vacuum, is what I hear.

I hope that we can all agree that a stable vacuum is better than an unstable one. We’ve got enough problems.

By  |  10:15 AM ET, 12/10/2011

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