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Pauline Gagnon | |

View Blog | Read Bio

Many small steps but no giant leap

Giant leaps are rare in physics. Scientific research is rather a long process made of countless small steps and this is what will be presented throughout the week at the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP) in Chicago. While many hoped for a major breakthrough, today, both the CMS and ATLAS experiments reported that the promising effect observed at 750 GeV in last year’s data has vanished. True, this is not uncommon in particle physics given the statistical nature of all phenomena we observe.


On both plots, the vertical axis gives the number of events found containing a pair of photons with a combined mass given in units of GeV (horizontal axis) (Left plot) The black dots represent all data collected in 2016 and analysed so far by the CMS Collaboration, namely 12.9 fb-1, compared to the 2.7 fb-1 available in 2015. The vertical line associated with each data point represents the experimental error margin. Taking these errors into account, the data are compatible with what is expected from various backgrounds, as indicated by the green curve. (Right) A new particle would have manifested itself as a peak as big as the red one shown here if it had the same features as what had been seen in the 2015 data around 750 GeV. Clearly, the black data points pretty much reproduce the background. Hence, we must conclude that what was seen in the 2015 data was simply due to a statistical fluctuation.

What was particularly compelling in this case was that the very same effect had been observed by two independent teams, who worked without consulting each other and used different detectors and analysis methods. This triggered frantic activity and much expectation: to date, 540 scientific theory papers have been written on a hypothetical particle that never was, so profound the implications of the existence of such a new particle would be.

But theorists were not the only ones to be so hopeful. Many experimentalists had taken strong bets, one of my colleagues going as far as putting a case of very expensive wine on it.

If many physicists were hopeful or even convinced of the presence of a new particle, both experiments nevertheless had been very cautious. Without unambiguous signs of its presence, neither the ATLAS nor the CMS Collaborations had made claims. This is very typical of scientists: one should not claim anything until it has been established beyond any conceivable doubt.

But many theorists and experimentalists, including myself, threw some of our caution to the air, not only because the chances it would vanish were so small but also because it would have been a much bigger discovery than that of the Higgs boson, generating much enthusiasm. As it stands, we all suspect that there are other particles out there, beyond the known ones, those described by the Standard Model of particle physics. But despite years spent looking for them, we still have nothing to chew on. In 2015, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN raised its operating energy, going from 8 TeV to the current 13 TeV, making the odds for a discovery stronger than ever since higher energy means access to territories never explored before.

So far, the 2015 data has not revealed any new particle or phenomena but the amount of data collected was really small. On the contrary, this year, the LHC is outperforming itself, having already delivered five times more data than last year. The hope is that these data will eventually reveal the first signs of something revolutionary. Dozens of new analyses based on the recent data will be presented until August 10 at the ICHEP conference and I’ll present some of them later on.

It took 48 years to discover the Higgs boson after it was first theoretically predicted when we knew what to expect. This time, we don’t even know what we are looking for. So it could still take a little longer. There is more to be found, we all know it. But when will we find it, is another story.

Pauline Gagnon

To find out more about particle physics, check out my book « Who Cares about Particle Physics: making sense of the Higgs boson, the Large Hadron Collider and CERN ».

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