After the Higgs-boson-like particle, what's next?

This article, as written by me, appeared in print in The Hindu on July 5, 2012.

The ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus) collaboration at CERN has announced the sighting of a Higgs boson-like particle in the energy window of 125.3 ± 0.6 GeV. The observation has been made with a statistical significance of 5 sigma. This means the chances of error in their measurements are 1 in 3.5 million, sufficient to claim a discovery and publish papers detailing the efforts in the hunt.

Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN since 2009, said at the special conference called by CERN in Geneva, “It was a global effort, it is a global effort. It is a global success.” He expressed great optimism and concluded the conference saying this was “only the beginning.”

With this result, collaborations at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the atom-smashing machine, have vastly improved on their previous announcement on December 13, 2011, where the chance of an error was 1-in-50 for similar sightings.

A screenshot from the Dec 13, 2011, presentation by Fabiola Gianotti, leader of the ATLAS collaboration, that shows a global statistical significance of 2.3 sigma, which translates to a 1-in-50 chance of the result being erroneous.

Another collaboration, called CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), announced the mass of the Higgs-like particle with a 4.9 sigma result. While insufficient to claim a discovery, it does indicate only a one-in-two-million chance of error.

Joe Incandela, CMS spokesman, added, “We’re reaching into the fabric of the universe at a level we’ve never done before.”

The LHC will continue to run its experiments so that results revealed on Wednesday can be revalidated before it shuts down at the end of the year for maintenance. Even so, by 2013, scientists, such as Dr. Rahul Sinha, a participant of the Belle Collaboration in Japan, are confident that a conclusive result will be out.

“The LHC has the highest beam energy in the world now. The experiment was designed to yield quick results. With its high luminosity, it quickly narrowed down the energy-ranges. I’m sure that by the end of the year, we will have a definite word on the Higgs boson’s properties,” he said.

However, even though the Standard Model, the framework of all fundamental particles and the dominating explanatory model in physics today, predicted the particle’s existence, slight deviations have been observed in terms of the particle’s predicted mass. Even more: zeroing in on the mass of the Higgs-like particle doesn’t mean the model is complete when, in fact, it is far from.

While an answer to the question of mass formation took 50 years to be reached, physicists are yet to understand many phenomena. For instance, why aren’t the four fundamental forces of nature equally strong?

The weak, nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces were born in the first few moments succeeding the Big Bang 13.75 billion years ago. Of these, the weak force is, for some reason, almost 1 billion, trillion, trillion times stronger than the gravitational force! Called the hierarchy problem, it evades a Standard Model explanation.

In response, many theories were proposed. One, called supersymmetry (SUSY), proposed that all fermions, which are particles with half-integer spin, were paired with a corresponding boson, or particles with integer spin. Particle spin is the term quantum mechanics attributes to the particle’s rotation around an axis.

Technicolor was the second framework. It rejects the Higgs mechanism, a process through which the Higgs boson couples stronger with some particles and weaker with others, making them heavier and lighter, respectively.

Instead, it proposes a new form of interaction with initially-massless fermions. The short-lived particles required to certify this framework are accessible at the LHC. Now, with a Higgs-like particle having been spotted with a significant confidence level, the future of Technicolor seems uncertain.

However, “significant constraints” have been imposed on the validity of these and such theories, labeled New Physics, according to Prof. M.V.N. Murthy of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMS), whose current research focuses on high-energy physics.

Some other important questions include why there is more matter than antimatter in this universe, why fundamental particles manifest in three generations and not more or fewer, and the masses of the weakly-interacting neutrinos. State-of-the-art technology worldwide has helped physicists design experiments to study each of these problems better.

For example, the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), under construction in Theni, will house the world’s largest static particle detector to study atmospheric neutrinos. Equipped with its giant iron-calorimeter (ICAL) detector, physicists aim to discover which neutrinos are heavier and which lighter.

The LHC currently operates at the Energy Frontier, with high-energy being the defining constraint on experiments. Two other frontiers, Intensity and Cosmic, are also seeing progress. Project X, a proposed proton accelerator at Fermilab in Chicago, Illinois, will push the boundaries of the Intensity Frontier by trying to look for ultra-rare process. On the Cosmic Frontier, dark matter holds the greatest focus.

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