So the media are getting all speculative and excited about the latest results from the LHC at CERN (Geneva) and the Tevatron at Fermilab (US), and all of a sudden the announcement has gone from being “New data in the search for the Higgs” to something along the lines of “Scientists about to make or break the standard model”. The media does seem to lack a sense of proportion when it comes to the LHC, which does make sense, I mean when you spend a lot of money on a bit of kit you expect it to do amazing things. It’s reminiscent though of last years neutrino data debacle, and I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed (though then again, it could be a new era of physics…).

For anyone that doesn’t know, the Higgs Boson is a theoretical particle in something we call the standard model of particle physics. It’s kind of needed so that the whole idea works, and if it doesn’t exist it has big implications for particle physics. It was theorised by a physicist named Peter Higgs back in the 60’s and basically gives particles mass. So if we have a definite yes or no on this it does have very important consequences. That’s a big if.

The big test of any data is the errors on it, and the significance of these errors are measured in what’re called sigma, the more sigma, the less reliable the result. If we get a result within four or five sigma then we have officially discovered a new particle and we can happily say we have enough data to say it exists. As with any experiment, physicists across the world are hoping for this as it progresses physics, but it’s going to be a while before we know if this is what we have (double checking these errors can take a lot of time, see the OPERA experiment errors) .

Skepticism aside, pretty much every element of particle physics is based on the standard model, and Higgs based physics has been worked on since the particle came on the scene, it’s a fairly straightforward solution to this issue in the standard model, which we like. If it turns out that it doesn’t exist, two things will (probably) happen:

1) I will find getting jobs in theoretical physics easier.

2) A lot of my lecturers may be quite pissed off.

Which means I have a vested interest in next weeks announcement.

What I find very interesting about this is that it shows how physics has changed over time. For example, when Einstein first proposed special relativity (by the way, if you had to click the Einstein link you should be hanging your head in shame right now) a lot of things had to be looked at, but in the current paradigm, there are things that have to work on ideas that we can only assume are completely correct. Theoretical physics moves so fast these days that we have to come up with ideas based on ideas, it’s a fascinating paradigm.

In a maybe slightly twisted way it’ll be fascinating to see what happens if the LHC, either next Wednesday or further down the line, tells us that the Higgs mechanism isn’t quite right.

More next Wednesday I suppose…

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