By Adam Mann
Next week is Higgs week.
On July 4, scientists at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider will present their latest results on the search for the Higgs boson, with many physics bloggers eagerly speculating that they will officially announce the discovery of this long-sought particle. Not to be outdone, U.S. researchers at Fermilab will be presenting their final analysis from Tevatron data regarding evidence for the Higgs. And precious more bits of information could come out during the International Conference on High Energy Physics in Melbourne, Australia, which runs July 4 to 11.
“Until pretty recently, there didn’t seem to be any real prospect of discovering the Higgs,” said Nobel-prize-winning theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg from the University of Texas at Austin. “Now the time is finally ripe for finding it.”
While the history books will likely remember the final announcement of the Higgs discovery at the LHC most clearly, the road to discovering this strange particle has been a long one, paved by many.
The Higgs boson was first predicted during the 1960s and theories about its workings were refined in subsequent decades. It is the final particle in the so-called Standard Model – physicists’ working theory of all known particle and force interactions in the universe – and is needed to provide the other elementary particles with their mass.
The $9 billion LHC was sold to lawmakers and taxpayers in part as a Higgs-finding machine. Though no one yet knows if the accelerator will capture its quarry for sure, there were good hints of a Higgs boson in December and the strongest rumors yet suggest that these will be confirmed next week.
One thing is clear: The Fermilab results will not be announcing the discovery of the Higgs. Scientists at the Tevatron have been chasing the Higgs for years, always keeping hope alive that they would see it before the more powerful LHC swooped in, and they have been sifting through its data since the machine’s shutdown last year. But there is just not enough there to qualitatively confirm the Higgs’ existence, said Fermilab spokesman Kurt Riesselmann.
This is likely a disappointment for American physicists. Before its shutdown, there had been hope that the Tevatron was powerful enough to find the Higgs boson. Had the United States gone ahead with building the Superconducting Supercollider, discovery of the Higgs would have solidly been an American achievement — and would have happened a decade ago.
Yet the Tevatron and other particle accelerators have laid the groundwork for the LHC’s Higgs discovery – whenever that should happen. An even earlier experiment at CERN’s Large Electron-Positron Collider set bounds on where the Higgs could exist. Many data analysis techniques and detector strategies were learned during these searches.
“There were a number of key experimental discoveries that have gone into confirming the Standard Model,” said Weinberg. “It’s difficult to sort out how much any one lab contributes.”
Things get trickiest when trying to come up with credit for the Higgs discovery. The two Tevatron experiments – CDF and DZero – engaged roughly 1,150 scientists while the dual LHC experiments – ATLAS and CMS – together employ more than 6,000 scientists. Physicists’ top prize, the Nobel, can go to at most three recipients. It would be a logistical nightmare trying to assign the glory and the Nobel committee may simply decide to forgo giving a prize for the Higgs.