We’ve all been hearing for days that they discovered the Higgs boson, also known as the Higgs particle, also known, controversially and inaccurately but irrepressibly, as the God particle. This is a particle that precipitates in high-energy collisions from the Higgs field, which saturates all of space and gives other particles their mass. That’s the theory, and now there is hard evidence, thanks to a little experiment at CERN that cost $10 billion.
Unfortunately, scientists have incredibly high standards for declaring a discovery. They need “5 sigma,” in which case you have only about a one-in-a-million chance of being wrong. They’re supposedly just below that threshhold, though I’m told that if you add two separate experiments, CMS and ATLAS, together, you get 5.5 sigma. Whatever: We keep hearing they’re not going to say they nailed it. Instead, presumably, they’ll say they’re really, really, really confident that they’re probably right, they’re amazingly optimistic, they’re in a terrific mood, they’ve snappin’ their fingers, they’re wearing their Hawaiian shirts, and they’re going to drink a tremendous amount of champagne as soon as they finish telling reporters that they can’t be entirely sure and maybe this is all a dream.
The problem with searching for the God particle is that you might find the God asterisk.
The timing of the announcement is very close to being an act of war. It’s bad enough that Europe stole the frontier of particle physics, but now they’re going to make their big announcement in a seminar that begins at 3 a.m. on the Fourth of July.
Are our friends in Geneva, Switzerland, unaware that every year on the Fourth of July we celebrate our independence from, and famous defeat of, their brutal empire? Show some respect for history, people!
Back to the Higgs: The big question at this point isn’t so much whether they found it (because they seem to have found something), but whether it’s literally “the Higgs” or something “Higgs-like” or perhaps something hinting at other Higgses out there. So this is a big day for a particle first hypothesized 48 years ago, but it will not end the discussion.
“Even if this is confirmed,” Brian Greene said to me the other day, “does it have all the detailed features that the Standard Model says it should have?”
He added that in his career as a physicist he’s always relied on the Higgs: “Everything I’ve ever done, directly or indirectly, has something to do with a Higgs-like field."
More to come in the hours ahead. A lot of this is challenging material, to say the least. It’s important, for example, to understand that the Higgs particle doesn’t spin, but explaining why that’s important may be beyond my abilities. May have to call in the cavalry on that one.