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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

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How to tell a Higgs from another boson?

On July 4, when CERN announced “the observation of a new particle” and not the discovery of the Higgs boson, many wondered why be so cautious. It was simply too early to tell what kind of boson we had found. The Higgs boson is the last missing piece of the Standard Model of particle physics, a model that has enabled theorists to make extremely precise predictions. But to fully trust this model, it should have all its pieces. Who would want to complete a 5000-piece puzzle with the wrong piece?

Both the CMS and ATLAS experiments have been conducting several checks since July:

1) Are all possible decay modes predicted by the Standard Model observed?

2) Is each observed decay happening at the right rate?

3) What are the fundamental properties of the new boson?

The first checks (based on half the data now available) indicate that the new boson is compatible with being the Higgs boson. But the precision is still too low to tell as shown on the plots below (the signal strength and σ/σSM H are the same quantity).

The Higgs boson can decay in many ways and the plot shows which decays have been observed and at what rates. A signal strength (of 1 means the signal corresponds exactly to what is expected for a Higgs boson.  Zero would mean there is no signal seen for this particular decay channel. The black points represent the measured values and the horizontal bar, the error margin.

At this point, we cannot tell unambiguously if the first two measurements are more compatible with 0 (the decay does not exist) or 1 (yes, it decays at the predicted rate).  Both CMS and ATLAS need to analyze more data to say if the new boson decays into two b quarks (H → bb) and two tau leptons (H → ττ).

The other three decay modes, namely WW, two photons (H → γγ) and ZZ occur at about the rate or slightly more often than expected by the Standard Model.

The decisive test will come by measuring its spin and parity, two “quantum numbers” or properties of fundamental particles. The spin is similar to the angular momentum of a spinning object. But for fundamental particles, only discrete values can be used. For bosons (the particles carrying the various forces), these values can be 0, ±1, ±2 and so on. For fermions, the building blocks of matter like quarks and leptons (electron, muon, tau and neutrinos), it can only be +½ or -½.

Aidan Randle-Conde has compiled all possibilities on his blog. A particle with spin 1 cannot decay into two photons. Since we have seen the new boson decaying into photons, spin 1 is already ruled out in the table below. Moreover, a spin 2 boson could not decay into two taus, which is why it is so important to look for this decay in the latest data.

(from Aidan Randle-Conde’s blog)

The Standard Model predicts that the spin and parity of the Higgs boson will be 0+. To distinguish between 0+ and 0, as well as 2+ and 2, the only way is to carefully measure the angles at which all the decay products fly apart. So if we observe the new boson decaying into photons, we must measure the angle between the photons and the beam axis. If it decays into two Z, each one going into two electrons or two muons, we must carefully measure the angles of these four particles and their combined mass. Here is what Sara Bolognesi and her colleagues predict for Higgs bosons decaying into ZZ, WW or two photons. We must measure specific quantities, namely the mass and angles of the decay products, to distinguish them. If they match the red curve, we will know it is the Higgs boson, but it they look like one of the other curves, it will mean the new boson corresponds to a different theoretical model.

Each experiment now has about 14 fb-1 of data on tape and expects about 25 fb-1 in total by the end of the year. With the 5 fb-1 collected last year, it should be sufficient to unmask the new comer. “All” we need to do is measure these extremely complex quantities.

Pauline Gagnon

To be alerted of new postings, follow me on Twitter: @GagnonPauline or sign-up on this mailing list to receive and e-mail notification.

For more info, see these two CERN news videos  on CERN YouTube (part 1 and part 2) on the Higgs boson spin.

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