A press release from CERN cautiously announces the discovery of what may be the long-sought Higgs boson, with a spokesperson being quoted as saying, “The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found.”

Note that they are not saying it definitely is the Higgs. The release goes on to say, “The next step will be to determine the precise nature of the particle and its significance for our understanding of the universe. Are its properties as expected for the long-sought Higgs boson, the final missing ingredient in the Standard Model of particle physics? Or is it something more exotic?”

This is usually the way with scientific discoveries. It is never a clean event. The data is collected over a long time, the analyses can take months if not years, and the initial claims are almost always tentative and await corroborative evidence. If that evidence comes about, and that process could also take years, then the community will retrospectively label this day as the day on which the Higgs was discovered, even though the process took so long and cannot be pinned to any single event.

While popular writing on science often emphasizes the unexpected discovery, of finding something while looking for something else (like in the case of X-rays or the cosmic microwave background), that is actually quite rare. Most discoveries are those which were predicted accurately and were not surprises at all. That should not take away from the fact that they are tremendous achievements.


  1. slc1 says

    Given the neutrino contretemps, one should be cautious here and await confirmation.

  2. ollie says

    You raise a point that I sometimes forget; in this way, physics is very, very different from mathematics.

    Thank you.

  3. Doug Little says

    The difference here is that you have 2 different experiments agreeing with one another.

  4. jamessweet says

    Bah, you stole the point I was going to make. (Luckily I just thought of a second point to make!)

    As to the first point: While it’s still possible that CMS and ATLAS have the same flaw, that’s much more of a longshot. If CMS, say, was showing an excess at 125 GeV, but not ATLAS, then we’d suspect something was broken or ill-designed or whatnot with CMS. But the results are consistent, so that increases our confidence tremendously.

    My second point I just thought of: Looking at this from a Bayesian point of view, we had a lot more reason to be skeptical of the OPERA result than of either of the CMS or ATLAS results — and this goes even if there had been only one detector (if the detectors showed conflicting results, that’s another story, but I’m talking about if there were only one experiment operating). Given what we know about physics, the prior probability of FTL neutrinos is pretty remote; and the prior probability of a Higgs or Higgs-like particle around 125 GeV is relatively high. Due skepticism about precisely what this particle is is warranted, but as to there being a boson of approximately this mass, that seems relatively certain at this point.

  5. Doug Little says

    Yeah I was thinking that the FTL neutrinos would have required a much more convincing result as it violates such a big piece of physics, really is a good example of an extraordinary event requiring extraordinary evidence.

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