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Théo Le Bret

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Finding The Higgs (Or Not...)

Posted: 12/16/2011 1:57 pm

"(Finding the) Higg's boson": the elusive particle and the search for it has become so popular among scientists that it is now a recurring theme in scientific in-jokes but, more seriously, the Higg's boson is (if you haven't yet been told a hundred times), the "missing piece" of the Standard Model of Particles, the not-yet-observed particle responsible for the mass of matter, and so it is little wonder that its discovery would cause quite a stir...

And the question that has been on every scientific blog on the net, is: have the scientists at CERN (Centre for European Nuclear Research) finally found it?

In a word, no. As a matter of fact, it can't be stressed enough that the scientists at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider, where the research is taking place) themselves are not saying that they have. The most optimistic among them believe that they are only on the verge of finding conclusive proof of the existence of the Higgs boson, while the others' stance is something along the lines of : "We have observed to a relatively good level of certainty intriguing patterns in the data that could be attributed to the decay of Higg's bosons, but we do not have conclusive evidence that this is the case, and further data is needed to rule out the possibility that the patterns observed may be, in fact, random fluctuations of experimental error in the data collected." Admittedly, that sounds like quite a lot of waffling to say that they are not sure...But, unfortunately this is a necessary part of the scientific process : the first duty of a scientist is to doubt his own results, and abstain from premature conclusions, especially on such an important matter.

So, is this just, as a journalist from the French scientific press agency : "the best publicised non-discovery in the history of science?"

Well, not really either: although the evidence remains inconclusive, the data is intriguing nonetheless, and it is the best attempt at finding the mysterious boson so far (if only an attempt, until further data is provided). As to the possibility, suggested by the same journalist, as well as numerous bloggers, that this whole business might just be a coup to boost CERN's public relations, I must say I find it quite unfair, since the scientists themselves have shown such prudence in revealing the results, and have repeatedly emphasised that they had reached no conclusion as to their validity (this doesn't sound to me like the researchers are blowing their own trumpets).

In the end, I think the gist of this has nothing to do with physics, but with communication, and the way in which science and the media (Internet especially) interact. Indeed, the whole boson business started a few weeks ago, when rumours spread on blogs (and in the LHC coffee rooms) that the Higg's had been observed.

So, suddenly the boson was buzzing... although the actual data was still inconclusive to those who ran the experiment themselves ! Which explains why we ended up being presented with a lot of waffling from the scientists : what was merely a step in the search had been hyped into the discovery of the century, and researchers had to provide some kind of "inconclusive conclusion" to the media. However, I don't think this was necessarily a bad thing : after all, it is perhaps healthy for the public to know how science works "behind the scenes", how doubts and mistakes are involved in making science, how uncertain any result is at first, and such things as are not necessarily evident when you are just looking at the 'finished product', i.e. a neat little discovery, well-packaged and groomed into a tidy magazine article.

 
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