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Physicists on alert for Higgs announcement

New data on hunt for elusive particle to be presented at Australia conference

4:45pm, June 21, 2012
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Unless you’re the Higgs boson, don’t expect much attention in July when the International Conference on High Energy Physics convenes in Melbourne, Australia.

Rumors of an impending Very Important Higgs Announcement at the physics meeting have already begun invading the Internet, ignited by blogs saturated with speculation and incomplete information about a possible Higgs discovery.

The two teams searching for the elusive particle at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, are keeping quiet.

“Please be patient for a few more weeks,” says physicist Guido Tonelli, a member of and past spokesman for the Compact Muon Solenoid team. “We have just finished data taking, and people work day and night including weekends to reach a scientifically validated result.” Tonelli expects that CMS will have results ready to present, but says that “the pressure is huge.”

Tonelli cautions that the analysis is morphing almost constantly, saying, “I am very surprised that rumors appear on a subject that is really evolving daily.”

Like Bigfoot, the Higgs boson has evaded detection for decades, despite repeated efforts to flush the particle from its quantum homeland. Physicists invoked the particle in the 1960s as a by-product of the mechanism that explains how other basic particles acquire mass. Now, among the characters in the standard model of particle physics, the Higgs is the last remaining holdout, the only particle still unwilling to reveal itself in particle accelerator experiments.

At CERN, scientists are looking for the boson by smashing streams of protons together, then searching through the debris for the remnants of Higgs bosons. A Higgs produced from the energy of the colliding protons remains intact for so short a time that it can’t be observed directly. Instead, scientists infer its presence from the rubble produced when it falls apart. If enough of these rubble piles add up to a particle of the same mass, scientists can conclude that they’ve seen evidence of the Higgs boson.

Although earlier results from the LHC teams, presented in December, hinted at a Higgs boson with a mass around 125 billion electron volts, there weren’t enough rubble piles to build a statistically significant result. Physicists would feel confident claiming a discovery only when the piles amass to something produced by chance less than once out of 3.5 million times.

So persistent are hints of the boson’s rumored unveiling that it even trended on Twitter for a short time. The social media site now contains a stream of tweets hashtagged #HiggsRumors, with such statements as, “The Council of Troyes originally sanctioned the Knights Templar in order to protect the secrets of the Higgs boson.#HiggsRumors,” by user @seanmcarroll (the Caltech cosmologist), and “The Higgs boson *does* give particles mass, except in North Carolina, where it is banned from doing so.#HiggsRumors,” by user @lukedones.

Further Reading

A. Witze. Higgs running out of hiding places. Science News, published online February 23, 2012. [Go to]

D. Powell. Tantalizing hints of long-sought particle. Science News. Vol. 180, December 31, 2011, p. 10. [Go to]

D. Powell. Last words. Science News. Vol. 180, September 24, 2011, p. 22. [Go to]

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