Thursday, 15 December 2011

Here, Higgsy, Higgsy..



It's almost the end of the civic year, and although the Fraud Department should never relax its vigilance – perhaps especially now, when people tend to throw their money around a bit – I found myself on Tuesday with an hour or two to spare at work.

And so I tuned in to the streaming public conference from CERN where – so we were promised – we would finally hear news on the existence or otherwise of that damned elusive god particle, the Higgs Boson. I don't suppose there are many people around the internet by now who haven't heard that this is one Very Important Particle, able, it is said, to bestow the property of Mass – which, when you think about it, is practically the same as Existence in our material world – upon all other particles. Quite a big deal for a boson, and it arises from the odd fact that the electromagnetic boson, or photon, is not only massless but is very much in evidence, whereas the intermediary vessels of energy transfer for the Strong and Weak nuclear forces, the Z and W Bosons, appear to have mass and moreover cannot account quite for the mechanisms of those Strong and Weak nuclear forces.( Err. These are the forces which, respectively, keep the nucleus of an atom together and keep the electrons bound to the nucleus.)

Well, anyway, this conference promised to be a truly historic moment, so I thought I'd like to catch it. I obtained the stream quite easily, but, having no sound card in my computer at work (why would the Fraud programmer need to hear anything, after all?) I could only watch the action, and try to follow along with the Twitter feed from Everybody Else. It was quite entertaining, in silence. Professor Higgs himself was there, seated in the front row with a bunch of other elderly White Dudes, and the auditorium was quite full,although nowhere near as hectically overstuffed as pre-conference tweets had led us all to believe. I mean, have these Physics People actually been to Edgars at Red Hanger Sale Day? Or any concert by a marginally popular band in Joburg? But there they were, elder statesmen in the front, younger scientists up in back,each with a laptop or notebook open and smoking, waiting for the words which would shape or break our view of the Universe as we know it.

The lady spokesperson, Fabiola Gianotti, was apparently a treat to listen to. Although of course I couldn't hear her. But when the slideshow started (Powerpoint! Microsoft!) the internet erupted in mirth as we realised we were looking at this Very Important Announcement in Comic Sans font. It was probably an astute move, for, after the team-congratulations and a sketchy outline of how the LHC works, we were all left with the impression that she said nothing very much, although indeed she had said it well.
(Her colleague who took over from her, and spent some time looking for the bloody keyboard was another point of hilarity. Way to go, high-tech dudes – can run a billion-dollar particle collider but can't locate a keyboard. Confidence inspiring).

Bottom line on the Higgs: we still don't know if it has any existence, or not. The data did not include a high degree of statistical confidence-over 2 sigma but less than five, for those of you who find that sort of thing meaningful – and there was an admission, given rather sotto voce to my eyes (remember, this was all in Golden Silence), that the data could be interpreted just as easily as evidence of the Higgs' non existence.

So there we are – no real news, but a fairly loud circus to announce it in. Perhaps, after all, we're just looking to retain our funding? I didn't say that – no, I didn't.