The quiet moments of the day can typically permit deep, existential questions to steep in the mind and, allowed enough time, germinate into severe contemplations that can change the tone of your day. Questions arise like: What goals do I need to pursue this coming year? Am I dying? Do I have time to make coffee this morning? Do these boots make my hips look round?
If you’re a physicist, your ruminations might gravitate towards bigger questions, like why people have mass:
Without mass, the universe would be a very different place. For example, if the electron had no mass, there would be no atoms. Hence there would be no ordinary matter as we know it, no chemistry, no biology and no people. In addition, the Sun shines thanks to a delicate interplay among the fundamental forces of nature, which would be completely upset if some of those force particles did not have large masses.
No mass? No people! Nice!
In fact, the search for why objects have mass was the topic of a presentation today at CERN where the ATLAS and CMS experiments presented the status of the search for the Standard Model Higgs boson. If that sentence intimidates the pants off of you, don’t worry – most of humanity is clutching their britches right along with you. You see, the Higgs boson is a proposed particle that might give other particles mass. I know, that statement screws my mind a bit, as well, because haven’t we laity always been taught that mass is an innate quality of all matter? Not exactly. Physicists suspect that there is an entity – the Higgs boson – that imparts mass to other particles simply by interacting and passing by them.
Okay, just… just stop right there before you give yourself a nosebleed. In order to better understand exactly what the Higgs boson is (or is expected to be), consider this analogy. Suppose, like today at CERN, the Higgs boson is a famous celebrity on whom all admirers and fans cannot wait to arrive:
Imagine you’re at a Hollywood party. The crowd is rather thick, and evenly distributed around the room, chatting. When the big star arrives, the people nearest the door gather around her. As she moves through the party, she attracts the people closest to her, and those she moves away from return to their other conversations. By gathering a fawning cluster of people around her, she’s gained momentum, an indication of mass. She’s harder to slow down than she would be without the crowd. Once she’s stopped, it’s harder to get her going again.
This clustering effect is the Higgs mechanism.
Everybody got that? Okay, good. So, did CERN actually find proof that the Higgs boson exists today? Not exactly. While they have made significant progress in their search for the Higgs boson, no definitive proof has been attained to confirm that the Higgs boson does in fact exist. So the search continues:
The main conclusion is that the Standard Model Higgs boson, if it exists, is most likely to have a mass constrained to the range 116-130 GeV by the ATLAS experiment, and 115-127 GeV by CMS. Tantalising hints have been seen by both experiments in this mass region, but these are not yet strong enough to claim a discovery.
The physicists continue to explain that, if the Higgs boson particle does exist, they could have a very short existence and also decay in many different ways. It is important, they say, to be able to observe the particles the Higgs decays into rather than the Higgs itself. The Higgs boson is not expected to be able to be seen directly so instead researchers are focusing for the effects that the Higgs has on other particles, such as the presence of excessive decay products, as a more reliable detector for the existence of the Higgs boson.
As if realizing the confusing vernacular wound up in that statement, the researchers decided to throw a bone to us rubes and explain that “none of these excesses is any more statistically significant than rolling a die and coming up with two sixes in a row.” So basically, the existence of the Higgs boson is no more guaranteed than being able to confidently predict rolling the same number on a dice twice in a row. Not good odds, really, but so it goes.
(At this point, I want to personally congratulate you, dear reader, for sticking with this article so far.)
The fact that the Higgs boson might exist was enough to excite the physics world today, which was observed on Twitter during CERN’s webcast of the findings. Viewers were encouraged to post questions to the researchers using the #Higgsupdate hashtag, but the trend was continued afterwards for tweeters to follow the aftermath. Reactions ranged from the learned:
#higgsupdate watched in full Lecture Theatre at IC. Fantastic to see such beautiful results from the two experiments.
#higgsupdate that I’ve barely even touched my breakfast in the last hour.Darn, I’ve been so enticed by today’s
#Higgsupdate : If lightweight Higgs reinforces supersymmetry, can the LHC find SUSY particles?Question for
To the practical:
#higgsupdate feed, I feel content there will always be work for science writers…Watching the jerky, confusing, over-powerpointed
To the jocular and wry:
#Higgsupdate. Trying to understand but it just won’t go in… the lack of a physics degree might be a problemListening to the
#higgsupdate is that they’re using comic sans at the seminar – trying to distract from the fact they haven’t found it?What I’m getting from
Essentially, though, the entirety of the conclusions presented today at CERN can be succinctly summarized as such:
And by this cozy limerick provided by The Guardian:
A physicist saw an enigma
And called to his mum “Flying pig, ma!”
She said “Flying pigs?
Next thing you’ll see the Higgs!”
He said “Nah, not until it’s five sigma!”
So did anybody else follow the presentation from CERN today? What’d you think, were you disappointed by the findings (if you even understood them at all)? Were you excited? Do you really not care and still just wanna complain about the fact that there’s no flying cars yet? Comment below!