June 26, 2012

Indoor Fireworks

CERN announced that its next "scientific seminar" (read: live-streamed press conference) will take place on July 4, where ATLAS and CMS will announce the preliminary results of their 2012 data analysis. The stakes are pretty high, since the December data left many people with the impression that the Standard Model Higgs would be confirmed at a mass of 125 GeV, or else point to physics beyond the Standard Model: as I've mentioned before, this--despite its lack of immediate discovery--is an especially tantalizing possibility for physicists who suspect that moving our current scientific framework outside of the SM would yield really exciting, even revolutionary (and certainly Nobel-worthy) new knowledge about the particular makeup of the universe.

Importantly, if CERN presents data that hints at a BSM Higgs, this does not imply that the Higgs does not exist. Dennis Overbye, a writer I really admire, sort of missed the mark here when he writes that "If the December signal fades, it probably means that the Higgs boson, at least as physicists have envisioned it for the past 40 years, does not exist, and that theorists have to go back to their drawing boards." The Higgs can certainly still exist as physicists envision it--but outside of the SM parameters. A different set of search strategies will be implemented, more powerful particle smashing will occur, and science's most famous scavenger hunt will continue. (If you want to read more about this, Matt Strassler, as always, breaks it down with accuracy and patience.)

In any case, excitement is high, and the folks convening next week in Melbourne for the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP) probably have little else on their minds. It's all Higgs all the time these days, since the LHC is running even better than expected (thank you, experimentalists and engineers), and everyone wants to know whether the Standard Model will be upheld. Rumors have been swirling online for weeks that the 2012 data will support the 2011 numbers, and I'm inclined to believe them. In Sharon Traweek's excellent anthropological text Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High-Energy Physicists, she notes that information passed informally among peers (outside of publication, even in Letters) is 
often influential and accurate; compound that with the Internet (which physicists love to boast they invented) and apocryphal headlines like Overbye's ("New Data on Elusive Particle Shrouded in Secrecy") makes me think that CERN is about ready to pop the champagne. This absolutely does not mean that irrefutable proof of a 125 GeV Higgs is at hand: it will still take years to understand the particle and its implications. But it would guarantee funding for probably decades to come, and will bolster efforts to discover even more exotic particles at more elusive energies. The Higgs has become a sort of celebrity representative of the many exciting theories in HEP, and in some ways, allowing the fever of the Higgs "hunt" to subside may pave the way for scientists to focus on even more profound potential discoveries like supersymmetry and the makeup of dark matter.

Personally, I think celebrating the biggest international achievement in the history of science is a poetic way to spend our independence day, and maybe even a kick in the pants to our own government to fund high-energy physics on a competitive scale. Fermilab and Brookhaven are important but outdated; our research universities aren't attracting the talent they used to; and open-access publishing makes it less imperative that scientists be in a certain place doing a certain kind of physics. The US, instead of spending trillions of dollars pursuing pointless wars (at home and abroad), should invest in the kind of future that could sustain us, and inspire us, for generations: let's redefine the historical import behind those fireworks. The indoor kind is so much better.

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