Both the ATLAS and CMS collaborations at CERN have now shown solid evidence that the new particle discovered in July 2012 behaves even more like the Higgs boson, by establishing that it also decays into particles known as tau leptons, a very heavy version of electrons.
Why is this so important? CMS and ATLAS had already established that the new boson was indeed one type of a Higgs boson. In that case, theory predicted it should decay into several types of particles. So far, decays into W and Z bosons as well as photons were well established. Now, for the first time, both experiments have evidence that it also decays into tau leptons.
The decay of a particle is very much like making change for a coin. If the Higgs boson were a one euro coin, there would be several ways to break it up into smaller coins, but, so far, the change machine seemed to only make change in some particular ways. Now, additional evidence for one more way has been shown.
There are two classes of fundamental particles, called fermions and bosons depending on their spin, their value of angular momentum. Particles of matter (like taus, electrons and quarks) belong to the fermion family. On the other hand, the particles associated with the various forces acting upon these fermions are bosons (like the photons and the W and Z bosons.).
The CMS experiment had already shown evidence for Higgs boson decays into fermions last summer with a signal of 3.4 sigma when combining the tau and b quark channels. A sigma corresponds to one standard deviation, the size of potential statistical fluctuations. Three sigma is needed to claim evidence while five sigma is usually required for a discovery.
For the first time, there is now solid evidence from a single channel – and two experiments have independently produced it. ATLAS collaboration showed evidence for the tau channel alone with a signal of 4.1 sigma, while CMS obtained 3.4 sigma, both bringing strong evidence that this particular type of decays occurs.
Combining their most recent results for taus and b quarks, CMS now has evidence for decays into fermions at the 4.0 sigma level.
The data collected by the ATLAS experiment (black dots) are consistent with coming from the sum of all backgrounds (colour histograms) plus contributions from a Higgs boson going into a pair of tau leptons (red curve). Below, the background is subtracted from the data to reveal the most likely mass of the Higgs boson, namely 125 GeV (red curve).
CMS is also starting to see decays into pairs of b quarks at the 2.0 sigma-level. While this is still not very significant, it is the first indication for this decay so far at the LHC. The Tevatron experiments have reported seeing it at the 2.8 sigma-level. Although the Higgs boson decays into b quarks about 60% of the time, it comes with so much background that it makes it extremely difficult to measure this particular decay at the LHC.
Not only did the experiments report evidence that the Higgs boson decays into tau leptons, but they also measured how often this occurs. The Standard Model, the theory that describes just about everything observed so far in particle physics, states that a Higgs boson should decay into a pair of tau leptons about 8% of the time. CMS measured a value corresponding to 0.87 ± 0.29 times this rate, i.e. a value compatible with 1.0 as expected for the Standard Model Higgs boson. ATLAS obtained 1.4 +0.5 -0.4, which is also consistent within errors with the predicted value of 1.0.
One of the events collected by the CMS collaboration having the characteristics expected from the decay of the Standard Model Higgs boson to a pair of tau leptons. One of the taus decays to a muon (red line) and neutrinos (not visible in the detector), while the other tau decays into a charged hadron (blue towers) and a neutrino. There are also two forward-going particle jets (green towers).
With these new results, the experiments established one more property that was expected for the Standard Model Higgs boson. What remains to be clarified is the exact type of Higgs boson we are dealing with. Is this indeed the simplest one associated with the Standard Model? Or have we uncovered another type of Higgs boson, the lightest one of the five types of Higgs bosons predicted by another theory called supersymmetry.
It is still too early to dismiss the second hypothesis. While the Higgs boson is behaving so far exactly like what is expected for the Standard Model Higgs boson, the measurements lack the precision needed to rule out that it cannot be a supersymmetric type of Higgs boson. Getting a definite answer on this will require more data. This will happen once the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) resumes operation at nearly twice the current energy in 2015 after the current shutdown needed for maintenance and upgrade.
Meanwhile, these new results will be refined and finalised. But already they represent one small step for the experiments, a giant leap for the Higgs boson.
For all the details, see:
Presentation given by the ATLAS Collaboration on 28 November 2013
Presentation given by the CMS Collaboration on 3 December 2013
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