Hunting the Higgs is not a (D)Zero Sum Game

D0 data shotWriting in Slate magazine, James Owen Weatherall seems a little confused about how particle physics works. Based on a rumour that there’s a new and significant signal seen at the DZero detector at the Tevatron at Fermilab (Illinois), one of the article’s titles is “Why the rumored discovery of the Higgs Boson is bad news for particle physics”. Supposedly, the big new machine, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC – see more about it here, and what physicists are hoping for from it), about to switch on later this year, would have nothing to do, and would be a waste of billions of dollars. You can read about the original rumour here. (Above right: A random collision event I grabbed from the DZero experiment.)

Well, this is wrong for so many reasons. It is hard to know where to start with this. The major fallacy with the whole thing is that these machines are just somehow discovery devices (in the most naive sense) of some sort. You build it, switch it on, see what’s there, write the paper and the press release (not necessarily in that order) and then you’re done. Completely neglected is the notion of such an experiment as a device for careful study of a phenomenon (or several inter-related phenomena). This requires more than just switch-on and discovery, and journalists should pay a lot more attention to explaining the importance of this aspect of science to their audience. A discovery is meaningless without careful study. Always required are huge amounts of data gathering to establish the accuracy of measurements, to independently confirm things seen elsewhere. Science is checking and double checking. And then checking some more. And a bit more…This is what science actually is, as opposed to say… gathering anecdotes.

Either way, new data from DZero about some new phenomenon would constitute good news, not bad. If the signal that they were seeing was the Standard Model Higgs particle (Superweak argues why this is highly unlikely), then the LHC would still be a vital tool to understand and confirm this result, and to fully explore the broader parameter space the LHC has access to. If it is not the Standard Model Higgs particle, but still a real signal, then it’s really new exciting physics. What is it? Is it a herald of new phenomena? Guess what we’d need to explore it further and figure out what it is? The LHC.

So yes… We’re all hoping that DZero is seeing something new. It would be just great to see some new physics -of any sort- so much earlier than expected.

-cvj

[Update: More on this from Gordon Watts, who as a DZero member, is annoyed. Tommaso Dorigo, of CDF, also adds some more thoughts here.]

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9 Responses to Hunting the Higgs is not a (D)Zero Sum Game

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  3. John Branch says:

    I wonder whether anyone has submitted a letter to the editor at Slate to offer a more informed view of the matter. If I weren’t coming at this nearly a week late (as usual) and short of time, I’d do it myself.

  4. Clifford says:

    Would they listen, I wonder….

    Might not be too late to send something, I would say. You never know.

    -cvj

  5. anon says:

    As for writing to offer an informed view, you might first want to look at the comment thread at James Owen Weatherall‘s blog, where even after being criticized in rather strong terms by Nima he remains belligerently unapologetic….

  6. Clifford says:

    Gosh..I had not noticed that… It is a bit sad and frustrating, really.

    Thanks,

    -cvj

  7. Clifford says:

    In fact, Nima is so annoyed, and make such good points, I’ll link to it and also reproduce it:

    Hi James,

    Someone pointed out your slate article to me, and I have to say as your ex-undergrad advisor I was very disappointed. You got the physics 100% wrong, (which is all the more surprising to me given that I know you understand some subtle physics rather well). As some of the commenters above indicated, if there is anything at all to the D0 rumor, there is absolutely no way it can be the standard model higgs. It would instead be a remarkable indication of physics *beyond* the standard model, and would lead us to expect much more at the LHC, not less. One possible explanation might indeed be an MSSM higgs, though until there is an actual D0 paper and the details of the analysis are known one can only speculate; there is still a real chance that (like other significant excesses in the past) it will go away. BTW you say above that an MSSM higgs at 180 GeV isn’t plausible, but that is because you misunderstand: it is the SECOND Higgs of the MSSM, the one that is not the Standard Model Higgs, and 180 GeV is certainly OK for it’s mass. Your assertions to the contrary don’t change this fact; saying something with confidence doesn’t make it true.
    To add insult to (your) injury, if the D0 rumor turns out to be real, not only would we think that the LHC is more likely to see lots of extra new physics, even beyond confirming this second higgs, the LHC would also still be set to see the actual Standard Model higgs itself! So the entire logical structure of your article is completely wrong, indeed almost exactly the opposite of the truth.

    Of course in this bloggy, postmodern day and age, where people routinely pontificate on things they know nothing about, I suppose a little wild inaccuracy about physics in slate is a drop in the bucket. It is nonetheless irksome to me that the work of hundreds of amazingly talented experimental particle physicists gets characterized in such a profoundly incorrect way. They are charged now more than ever with moving fundamental physics forward, and are working around the clock to make it happen. They deserve a little fact-checking when you write about them. I strongly encourage you to do everything you can to set the record straight in this matter.

    Nima

    PS I will not be checking back here; I detest the blogosphere for reasons that this little fiasco make completely self-evident, and I have already wasted more time on this than it deserves. However I did feel the need to write something about it, especially since you invoked me as your ex-advisor, lest anyone get the impression that I condone this type of shoddy work in any way.

    And it is worth noting that ironically, the blog is the “Center for Science Writings” blog at the Stevens Institute for Technology. So some work needed there it seems….

    -cvj

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