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Archive for July, 2014

ICHEP at a distance

Friday, July 11th, 2014

I didn’t go to ICHEP this year.  In principle I could have, especially given that I have been resident at CERN for the past year, but we’re coming down to the end of our stay here and I didn’t want to squeeze in one more work trip during a week that turned out to be a pretty good opportunity for one last family vacation in Europe.  So this time I just kept track of it from my office, where I plowed through the huge volume of slides shown in the plenary sessions earlier this week.  It was a rather different experience for me from ICHEP 2012, which I attended in person in Melbourne and where we had the first look at the Higgs boson.  (I’d have to say it was also probably the pinnacle of my career as a blogger!)

Seth’s expectations turned out to be correct — there were no earth-shattering announcements at this year’s ICHEP, but still a lot to chew on.  The Standard Model of particle physics stands stronger than ever.  As Pauline wrote earlier today, the particle thought to be the Higgs boson two years ago still seems to be the Higgs boson, to the best of our abilities to characterize it.  The LHC experiments are starting to move beyond measurements of the “expected” properties — the dominant production and decay modes — into searches for unexpected, low-rate behavior.  While there are anomalous results here and there, there’s nothing that looks like more than a fluctuation.  Beyond the Higgs, all sectors of particle physics look much as predicted, and some fluctuations, such as the infamous forward-backward asymmetry of top-antitop production at the Tevatron, appear to have subsided.  Perhaps the only ambiguous result out there is that of the BICEP2 experiment which might have observed gravitational waves, or maybe not.  We’re all hoping that further data from that experiment and others will resolve the question by the end of the year.  (See the nice talk on the subject of particle physics and cosmology by Alan Guth, one of the parents of that field.)

This success of the Standard Model is both good and bad news.  It’s good that we do have a model that has stood up so well to every experimental test that we have thrown at it, in some cases to startling precision.  You want models to have predictive power.  But at the same time, we know that the model is almost surely incomplete.  Even if it can continue to work at higher energy scales than we have yet explored, at the very least we seem to be missing some particles (those that make up the dark matter we know exists from astrophysical measurements) and it also fails to explain some basic observations (the clear dominance of matter over antimatter in the universe).  We have high hopes for the next run of the LHC, which will start in Spring 2015, in which we will have higher beam energies and collision rates, and a greater chance of observing new particles (should they exist).

It was also nice to see the conference focus on the longer-term future of the field.  Since the last ICHEP, every region of the world has completed long-range strategic planning exercises, driven by recent discoveries (including that of the Higgs boson, but also of various neutrino properties) and anchored by realistic funding scenarios for the field.  There were several presentations about these plans during the conference, and a panel discussion featuring leaders of the field from around the world.  It appears that we are having a nice sorting out of which region wants to host which future facility, and when, in such a way that we can carry on our international efforts in a straightforward way.  Time will tell if we can bring all of these plans to fruition.

I’ll admit that I felt a little left out by not attending ICHEP this year.  But here’s the good news: ICHEP 2016 is in Chicago, one of the few places in the world that I can reach on a single plane flight from Lincoln.  I have marked my calendar!

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C’est en chantant joyeux anniversaire en faussant un peu mais dans la bonne humeur générale que plusieurs centaines de physicien-ne-s ont terminé la journée du 4 juillet lors de la 37ème Conférence internationale de physique des hautes énergies qui se tenait à Valence, en Espagne du 2 au 9 juillet. Il y a deux ans, les expériences ATLAS et CMS avaient annoncé la découverte du boson de Higgs à la veille de la même conférence tenue alors à Melbourne, en Australie. Beaucoup échangeaient des souvenirs sur où ils et elles étaient lors de cette annonce historique.

gateau

A peine deux années plus tard, les deux expériences ont déjà acquis une quantité impressionnante de connaissances sur le boson de Higgs. Les deux groupes ont maintenant mesuré avec haute précision sa masse, comment il est produit et comment il se désintègre. ATLAS a présenté son résultat récemment publié pour la masse combinée du boson Higgs, soit 125.36 ± 0.41 GeV en parfait accord avec la valeur présentée pour la première fois à cette conférence par CMS de 125.03 ± 0.30 GeV.

En présentant son résultat final sur les désintégrations de bosons de Higgs en deux photons, la Collaboration CMS a maintenant complété l’analyse de toutes les données récoltées jusqu’à maintenant. La valeur combinée pour la force du signal, une quantité mesurant le nombre de bosons de Higgs observés comparé au nombre prévu par la théorie, est de 1.00 ± 0.13. ATLAS obtient 1.3 ± 0.18. Ces deux mesures indiquent qu’avec la précision expérimentale actuelle, ce boson est compatible avec celui prévu par le Modèle standard.

On connaît aussi son spin et sa parité, deux caractéristiques propres aux particules fondamentales et équivalant à leurs empreintes digitales. Leur détermination révèle l’identité d’une particule et c’est ainsi que nous savons que le boson découvert il y a deux ans est bel et bien un boson de Higgs.

Reste encore à savoir s’il s’agit de l’unique boson de Higgs prévu par Robert Brout, François Englert et Peter Higgs en 1964 dans le cadre de la théorie actuelle, le Modèle standard. Car ce boson pourrait aussi être le plus léger des cinq bosons de Higgs prévus par une des autres théories plus inclusives comme la supersymétrie proposées pour combler plusieurs lacunes du Modèle standard. Une telle découverte ouvrirait la porte vers ce qu’on appelle communément « la nouvelle physique ».

ATLAS-Higgs-couplingsPlusieurs mesures d’ATLAS sur la force du signal, i.e. une quantité mesurant le nombre de bosons de Higgs produits dans différents canaux et se désintégrant en différentes particules, comparé au nombre prévu par la théorie. Le résultat devrait donc être égal à 1.0 si la théorie est juste. Le symbole “+” en noir indique la valeur théorique prévue tandis que les divers cercles délimitent la zone où on s’attend à trouver la valeur réelle avec un niveau de confiance de 68 % ou 95 %.

Presque toutes les données rassemblées jusqu’à la fin de 2012 – avant l’arrêt technique du Grand collisionneur de hadrons (LHC) pour maintenance et consolidation – ont maintenant été analysées. Et tout ce qui a été mesuré jusqu’ici est en accord avec les prédictions du Modèle standard en tenant compte des marges d’erreur. Non seulement les expériences ont-elles amélioré la précision dans la plupart des mesures, mais elles examinent sans cesse de nouveaux aspects. Par exemple, les expériences CMS et ATLAS ont aussi montré la distribution de la quantité de mouvement du boson de Higgs et de ses produits de désintégrations. Toutes ces mesures testent le Modèle standard avec une précision accrue. Les physicien-ne-s cherchent justement la moindre déviation par rapport aux prédictions théoriques dans l’espoir de trouver la brèche qui révèlerait en quoi consiste la « nouvelle physique », celle qui permettra d’aller au-delà du Modèle standard.

CMS-muUne série de mesures de la force du signal correspondant à différents modes de désintégrations obtenus par la Collaboration CMS. Toutes les valeurs mesurées n’ont révélé aucun écart par rapport à la valeur de 1.0 prévue par le Modèle standard, du moins dans l’état actuel des marges d’erreurs expérimentales. Une déviation suggérerait la manifestation de quelque chose allant au-delà du Modèle standard.

Mais aucune des nombreuses tentatives directes entreprises pour trouver des particules liées à cette nouvelle physique ne s’est avérée fructueuse jusqu’à maintenant. Bien qu’on ait vérifié des centaines de possibilités correspondant à autant de scénarios différents impliquant des particules hypothétiques de supersymétrie, on n’a encore détecté aucun signe de leur présence.

Tout cela s’apparente beaucoup à des fouilles archéologiques : on doit souvent pelleter longtemps avant d’extraire quelque chose de spécial. Chaque analyse effectuée correspond à un seau de terre enlevé. Et chaque petit bout d’information récoltée contribue à fournir une vue d’ensemble. Aujourd’hui, grâce aux dizaines de nouveaux résultats présentés à la conférence, les théoricien-ne-s sont en bien meilleure position pour tirer des conclusions générales, éliminer les modèles erronés et trouver la bonne solution.

Tout le monde attend maintenant avec impatience la reprise du LHC prévue pour le début de 2015 afin de récolter de nouvelles données à plus haute l’énergie et explorer tout un monde de nouvelles possibilités. Tous les espoirs de découvrir la nouvelle physique seront alors renouvelés.

Pauline Gagnon

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Happy birthday, dear boson!

Friday, July 11th, 2014

Singing happy birthday slightly off-key but in good spirit. This is how several hundred physicists gathered for the 37th International Conference on High Energy Physics in Valencia, Spain closed the day on July 4th. Two years before, the CMS and ATLAS experiments had announced the discovery of the Higgs boson on the eve of the same conference that was then held in Melbourne, Australia. Lots of people reminisced about the day of the announcement, where they were when they heard the news since many were traveling.

gateau

Two years later, the two experiments have now gathered an impressive amount of knowledge on the Higgs boson. Both groups have measured with high precision the Higgs boson mass, how it is produced and how it decays. ATLAS presented its published Higgs boson mass combination, namely 125.36 ± 0.41 GeV also in perfect agreement with the  CMS measurement, presented for the first time at this conference, of 125.03 ± 0.30 GeV.

By presenting its final Higgs boson decay to two photons results, the CMS Collaboration has now completed its analysis of all the data taken so far. The obtained value for the combined signal strength, which is how many Higgs bosons are observed compared to the number predicted by the theory, is 1.00 ± 0.13. ATLAS measured 1.3 ± 0.18. Both results indicate that, within errors, this boson is compatible with what the Standard Model predicts.

Its spin and parity, two properties of fundamental particles, are also known. These are like fingerprints. Knowing them reveals the identity of a particle and that is how we know the boson discovered two years ago is really a Higgs boson.

The question is still open though to see if this is the unique Higgs boson that was predicted by Robert Brout, François Englert and Peter Higgs in 1964 in the framework of the current theory, the Standard Model. But it could also be the lightest of the five Higgs bosons predicted by a more encompassing theory like Supersymmetry that would fix some problems of the Standard Model and open the door to the so-called “new physics”.

ATLAS-Higgs-couplingsSeveral measurements from ATLAS on the signal strength, i.e. how often Higgs bosons are produced in different ways, and decay into different types of particles, compared to the theoretical predictions. The result should therefore be equal to 1.0 if the theoretical predictions are right. The black “+”symbol indicates the predicted value while the various circles give the zone where the experiment expects the real value to be with 68% or 95% confidence level.

Nearly all the data collected up to the end of 2012 – before the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was shutdown to undergo a massive consolidation and maintenance program – were used for the many analyses presented at the conference. Everything measured so far agrees within experimental uncertainties with the predictions of the Standard Model. Not only did the experiments improve the precision on most measurements, but they are also looking at new aspects all the time. For example, CMS and ATLAS also showed the distribution of the momentum of the Higgs boson and its decay products afterwards. All these measurements test the Standard Model with increasing precision . Experimentalists are looking for any deviation from the theoretical predictions in the hope of finding the key to reveal what is the more encompassing theory lying beyond the Standard Model.

 CMS-mu

A series of results by the CMS Collaboration on the signal strength. With the current level of precision, all these measurements agree with a value of 1.0, as predicted by the Standard Model. A deviation would suggest the manifestation of something beyond the Standard Model.

But none of the numerous direct attempts to find particles related to this new physics has proved successful yet. Despite having looked at hundreds of different possibilities, each one corresponding to a particular scenario involving one of the hypothetical particles of Supersymmetry, no sign of their presence has been discovered yet.

However, this is quite similar to doing archaeology: one needs to shovel a lot of dirt before extracting something meaningful. Each analysis is like one bucket of dirt removed. And each small piece of information found helps get the bigger picture. Today, with the wealth of new results, theorists are in a much better position to draw general conclusions, eliminate wrong models and zoom in on the right solution.

The whole community is eagerly awaiting the restart of the LHC in early 2015 to collect more data at higher energy to open up a new world of opportunities. All hopes to discover this new physics will then be renewed.

Pauline Gagnon

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How Can We Hangout Better?

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Yesterday we had one of our regular Hangouts with CERN, live from ICHEP, at which we took questions from around the Internet and updated everyone on the latest results, live here at the ICEHP 2014 conference. You can see a replay here:

I sent it to my wife, like I usually do. (“Look, I’m on ‘TV’ again!”) And she told me something interesting: she didn’t really get too much out of it. As we discussed it, it became clear that that was because we really did try to give the latest news on different analyses from ICHEP. Although we (hopefully) kept the level of the discussion general, the importance of the different things we look for would be tough to follow unless you keep up with particle physics regularly. We do tend to get more viewers and more enthusiasm when the message is more general, and a lot of the questions we get are quite general as well. Sometimes it seems like we get “Do extra dimensions really exist?” almost every time we have a hangout. We don’t want to answer that every time!

So the question is: how do we provide you with an engaging discussion while also covering new ground? We want people who watch every hangout to learn something new, but people who haven’t probably would prefer to hear the most exciting and general stuff. The best answer I can come up with is that every hangout should have a balance of the basics with a few new details. But then, part of the fun of the hangouts is that they’re unscripted and have specialist guests who can report directly on what they’ve been doing, so we actually can’t balance anything too carefully.

So are we doing the best we can with a tough but interesting format? Should we organize our discussions and the questions we choose differently? Your suggestions are appreciated!

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Since model building is the essence of science, this quote has a bit of a bite to it. It is from George E. P. Box (1919 – 2013), who was not only an eminent statistician but also an eminently quotable one.  Another quote from him: One important idea is that science is a means whereby learning is achieved, not by mere theoretical speculation on the one hand, nor by the undirected accumulation of practical facts on the other, but rather by a motivated iteration between theory and practice.  Thus he saw science as an iteration between observation and theory. And what is theory but the building of erroneous, or at least approximate, models?

To amplify that last comment: The main point of my philosophical musings is that science is the building of models for how the universe works; models constrained by observation and tested by their ability to make predictions for new observations, but models nonetheless. In this context, the above quote has significant implications for science. Models, even those of science, are by their very nature simplifications and as such are not one hundred per cent accurate. Consider the case of a map. Creating a 1:1 map is not only impractical[2] but even if you had one it would be one hundred per cent useless; just try folding a 1:1 scale map of Vancouver. A model with all the complexity of the original does not help us understand the original.  Indeed the whole purpose of a model is to eliminate details that are not essential to the problem at hand.

By their very nature, numerical models are always approximate and this is probably what Box had in mind with his statement. One neglects small effects like the gravitational influence of a mosquito. Even as one begins computing, one makes numerical approximations, replacing integrals with sums or vise versa, derivatives with finite differences, etc. However, one wants to control errors and keep them to a minimum. Statistical analysis techniques, such as Box developed, help estimate and control errors.

To a large extent it is self-evident that models are approximate; so what? Again to quote George Box: Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a “correct” one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity. What would he have thought of a model with twenty plus parameters, like the standard model of particle physics? His point is a valid one. All measurements have experimental errors. If your fit is perfect you are almost certainly fitting noise. Hence, adding more parameters to get a perfect fit is a fool’s errand. But even without experimental error, a large number of parameters frequently means something important has been missed. Has something been missed in the standard model of particle physics with its many parameters or is the universe really that complicated?

There is an even more basic reason all models are wrong. This goes back at least as far as Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804). He made the distinction between observation of an object and the object in itself. One never has direct experience of things, the so-called noumenal world; what one experiences is the phenomenal world as conveyed to us by our senses. What we see is not even what has been recorded by the eye.  The mind massages the raw observation into something it can understand; a useful but not necessarily accurate model of the world. Science then continues this process in a systematic manner to construct models to describe observations but not necessarily the underlying reality.

Despite being by definition at least partially wrong, models are frequently useful. The scale model map is useful to tourists trying to find their way around Vancouver or to a general plotting strategy for his next battle. But, if the maps are too far wrong the tourist will get lost and fall into False Creek and the general will go down in history as a failure. Similarly, the models for weather predictions are useful although they are certainly not a hundred per cent accurate. However, they do indicate when it safe to plan a picnic or cut the hay; provided they are right more than by chance and the standard model of particle physics, despite having many parameters and not including gravity, is a useful description of a wide range of observations. But to return to the main point, all models, even useful ones, are wrong because they are approximations and not even approximations to reality but to our observations of that reality. Where does that leave us? Well, let us save the last word for George Box: Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.

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[1] Hence the foolishness of talking about theoretical breakthroughs in science. All breakthroughs arise from pondering about observations and observations testing those ponderings.

[2] Not even Google could produce that.

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My First Day at ICHEP (Again)

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

ICHEPstartICHEP 2014 started today in Valencia, Spain. This is one of particle physics’s biggest conferences, held every two years. The last one, in 2012, coincided with the discovery of the Higgs boson. This year, we’re probably going to have more in the way of careful measurements than big new surprises. ATLAS and CMS have already released Higgs updates, and the pesky boson looks more and more like the Standard Model Higgs all the time.

This is the second ICHEP I’ve attended in person. I showed a poster at the first one, and wrote a blog post about it – which is a scary reminder of just how long I’ve been blogging. (I also still have my lanyard from that conference, which I’m wearing with my badge because it’s cooler than the boring black one we got this time.) This year, I’m here to give a parallel talk about the potential for even better measurements of the Higgs at the High-Luminosity LHC, which is a possible upgrade for the LHC that could take us well into the 2030s. By then, I suppose I should aspire to give an ICHEP plenary talk. 😉

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Joe Lykken

Joe Lykken

Joe Lykken is a familiar name not only at Fermilab, where he has worked as a theorist since 1989, but to people across the country who have seen him on PBS or have read his words in Scientific American.

His vast experience in researching and communicating particle physics led Director Nigel Lockyer to select Lykken as Fermilab’s new deputy director. Lykken began in the new position on July 1.

Although Lykken is very familiar with the laboratory’s science, he hopes to become better acquainted with other aspects of Fermilab as he starts out in the directorate role.

“I’m really looking forward to having as many conversations one on one with as many people as I can,” he said.

In helping lead the laboratory, one of Lykken’s tasks will be to implement the P5 vision.

“P5 gave us a very strong push that we want to take advantage of,” he said. Part of that will be to work with international partners to put together the best possible neutrino program, for which LBNE has laid the groundwork, he said.

Implementing the P5 plan also involves communicating Fermilab’s scientific goals with its employees, decision makers and general audiences alike. Lykken is well suited to the task, having become one of the lab’s go-to scientists for talking with the public. He was one of the guest scientists on the PBS television series “The Elegant Universe” and has been interviewed for stories in publications such as The New York Times and Science, as well as on NPR.

“Part of my job is to help both this laboratory and the rest of the world understand Nigel’s vision and the program that we’re trying to implement — our ambitions and dreams,” Lykken said. “I’ll help explain the science, why it’s exciting and how it all fits together. It’s not just a laundry list of topics, but that’s not so obvious to most people.”

Prior to his arrival at the lab, Lykken was at the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics, having completed his Ph.D. at MIT. Both an APS and a AAAS fellow, he started out at Fermilab as a string theorist and then became more involved in the CMS experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. He continued theoretical work on Higgs physics and supersymmetry while gaining interest in the experimental side.

In addition to his deputy director position, Lykken will serve as the laboratory’s chief research officer; Greg Bock will serve as deputy CRO. Lykken will also continue to work in the Theory Group, supervising postdoctoral students.

“Joe has an envious track record in scientific research as well as in translating science for the public,” said Director Nigel Lockyer. “He is adept at problem solving and enjoys combining his analytic thinking with keen intuition when solving challenging situations — and we have lots of them here at Fermilab for him to practice on. I very much look forward to his talents being applied to helping Fermilab achieve its goals.”

Leah Hesla

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