Writing 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.