Rumours are again swirling that the Higgs boson, the missing subatomic particle of the Standard Model, has been found at last. But where did these reports come from, and should we believe them? Let's take a look at the evidence.
Reports like this circulate every few months or so, usually the result of an interesting but non-Higgs discovery being misinterpreted by those outside the physics community. So under the circumstances, it's not exactly encouraging that these latest Higgs rumours originated less in the way you'd expect the scientific discovery of the decade to, and more in the way, say, the latest rumour about how Joseph Gordon-Levitt is totally playing Hugo Strange in the new Batman movie gets started.
That's right - it's all from an anonymous internet commenter. LiveScience's Mike Wall explains:
The controversial rumour is based on what appears to be a leaked internal note from physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 17-mile-long particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland. It's not entirely clear at this point if the memo is authentic, or what the data it refers to might mean - but the note already has researchers talking. The buzz started when an anonymous commenter recently posted an abstract of the note on Columbia University mathematician Peter Woit's blog, Not Even Wrong. Some physicists say the note may be a hoax, while others believe the "detection" is likely a statistical anomaly that will disappear upon further study. But the find would be a huge particle-physics breakthrough, if it holds up.
That's cause for some immediate scepticism - honestly, anything to do with the Higgs is grounds for some scepticism - but let's look at what this result is purported to be. According to the note, the Large Hadron Collider's ATLAS particle-detection experiment possibly detected the signal of the Higgs, and this signal appears to match several key characteristics that we expect for the Higgs.
However, the particle appears to have a much higher production rate that what the Higgs should have, according to Syracuse University physicist Sheldon Stone, who is not involved with the LHC's work. That means it might not be the Higgs but some other particle, which Stone says could point to some new physics beyond our current understanding of the Standard Model.
That said, all this speculation is very premature and, according to Stone, not in keeping with good scientific practice. He explains:
"It is actually quite illegitimate and unscientific to talk publicly about internal collaboration material before it is approved. So this 'result' is not a result until the collaboration officially releases it."
So then, all we can really do is wait for the full release of the ATLAS results to see what's going on, assuming the whole thing isn't just a hoax. But at least one CERN particle physicist - who is associated with the LHC but is not involved this particular experiment - is pretty much convinced that there won't be anything to see here once the dust clears. Tommaso Dorigo lays out his detailed reasoning in this post, but his conclusion is quite simple and a little bit bold:
"I bet $US1,000 with whomever has a name and a reputation in particle physics (this is a necessary specification, because I need to be sure that the person taking the bet will honour it) that the signal is not due to Higgs boson decays. I am willing to bet that this is NO NEW PARTICLE. Clear enough?"
There's plenty of reason to still be optimistic that the Large Hadron Collider will find the Higgs boson. But, as a general rule, it's not a bad idea to assume that, when the news does come, it probably won't be from a random note posted anonymously on the internet. But hey, stranger things have happened - just give me a moment to think of one...
Republished from io9