Freedom from Symmetry: Six Years of the Higgs Particle

A “cephalopod diagram” of Higgs decay, with vector boson final states in red and fermion final states in blue. Solid lines correspond to final states we’ve definitely seen, and dashed lines represent final states still being hunted. The area of a circle represents its relative rate to that of the bottom-quark final state, which is expected to represent 60% of all Higgs boson decays.

Six years ago on this date, the Higgs boson was (probably) discovered by the ATLAS and CMS Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. I say “probably” because, at the time, all we really knew for sure was that we had discovered a new particle, with a particular mass (about 126 times the proton mass, at the time), that appeared in our experiments in ways consistent with, but not unique to, the predicted Higgs particle.

Well, it’s been 6 years and 1 Nobel Prize in physics since then, and we’re all pretty darn sure it is the Higgs boson predicted in the early 1960s.

But wait. Is it? ATLAS and CMS continue to map out its detailed properties, including one of the biggest sets of prizes in the current data set being collected right now: how much the Higgs boson interacts with the top quark, the heaviest of the 6 known quarks, and the bottom quark, the second-heaviest quark. It’s an unfolding story.

Meanwhile, check out these blog posts from me back in July of 2012, and remind yourself of how glorious it is to see something no one has ever seen before.

Relive the moments before and after the announcement of the “bump” in the data from my friend, Aidan Randle-Conde, who was at the time a post-doctoral researcher at SMU and an avid blogger and science communicator:

“Reality in the Shadows (or) What the Heck’s the Higgs?” is meant to help a new audience come to discover a love of science and especially physics, or to welcome to the frontier those who already discovered that love a long time ago.

And, of course, with further hindsight and many more years of data to inform the discussion, learn more about just what the heck’s the Higgs in our book, “Reality in the Shadows (or) What the Heck’s the Higgs?” by S. James Gates, Jr., Frank Blitzer, and me!

While we know more about this particle since discovering it in 2012-2013, there are many mysteries left. Some prizes are big, but hard to claim in all the noise. For instance, only just a year ago, we spotted the first strong hints of the direct interaction of the Higgs particle and the bottom quark… despite the fact that this should be its favored method of decay! Learn more here:

UPDATE (July 6, 2018): Added the really nice “post-seminar analysis video” from Aidan and some more words about how data in the intervening years has shed light on some questions but left others open.

A View from the Shadows: The Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. This drawing is by Markus Maurer.

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” could almost, taken at face value, be the plot of a movie in the “Saw” series [1]. Prisoners in a cave, born into chains and forced forever to face a single wall, know nothing of the reality of what lives behind them. A fire somewhere behind the prisoners cast shadows that play on the walls. Our poor prisoners try to make sense of the reality of the world behind them merely through interpreting these shadows, never able to turn as see the world as it truly is.

It’s has the potential to be a terrible image, but softened a bit it can be a useful metaphor for thinking about what it means to use scientific inquiry to understand the reality of the cosmos. When we discover something using scientific inquiry and describe it mathematically, is that mathematical statement one approximating reality or truly describing reality as it is?

That question aside, Plato himself was not big into what we would now call “science” – in fact, he held many core beliefs that suppressed scientific thinking. In this post, another personal journey into “Reality in the Shadows,” I reflect on the satisfaction of wresting this metaphor our of Plato’s hands and giving it to a new generation. It is my hope that such a generation might only ever know the tools of scientific investigation for use in understanding the natural world. The world is filled with shadows, crying for explanation; I hope a new generation can appreciate how the tools of science can be used to make sense of those shadows in a reliable and reproducible way.

Continue reading “A View from the Shadows: The Allegory of the Cave”

A View from the Shadows: Reading List

“Reality in the Shadows (or) What the Heck’s the Higgs” is meant to help a new audience come to discover a love of science and especially physics, or to welcome to the frontier those who already discovered that love a long time ago.

Reality in the Shadows” is a book that required years to write. I was the latest addition to the creative team, but it is very much a shared vision between three co-authors each with different perspectives on the subject matter. Jim Gates has a keen mathematical mind and delights in showing an audience that math is not as scary as they have been led to believe (or have wrongly convinced themselves). He sees the deeper connection between mathematics and reality. Frank Blitzer has a deep love of physics as a branch of science that seeks some of the deepest truths about the universe, and brings to bear on this a wealth of experience in computation, engineering, and modeling processes. I’m the experimental physicist and Higgs hunter, who believes that reliably gathered independent lines of evidence are the best way to support, or refute, an idea.

Despite our existing expertise, this book didn’t spring fully formed from the minds of the authors. It was a labor, and that labor benefited from learning. We, too, depended on those who had written things down before us. We drew from many sources to tell the story of the past, present, and possible futures of physics.

Below, find a reading list of material I used to support my writing contributions to the book. I hope some of these will allow you a much deeper and more technical exploration of some subjects in the book. Many are highly technical, but they provided the raw scientific material that I tried to communicate to a general audience.

Continue reading “A View from the Shadows: Reading List”

What Did You Expect?

“It’s here!”

Mandy came running into the house, waving a letter in the air. Levar looked up from reading the news and forced a smile. They’d been waiting for this day for months… hopeful for some good news, but mostly dreading it.

Mandy plopped down on the couch next to Levar, poring over the letter. Her hope faded. A frown lit in its place. Even this was but a torch held aloft in distant warning. The firestorm of her eventual grimace was almost too much for Levar to bear.

“So… how bad is it?”

“It’s bad.”

Mandy let the letter fall into her lap. She was lost in thought. How would they move money around to make the commute work? How early would they have to get up in the morning if they couldn’t afford the fast lane? They’d moved to this suburb to have an affordable, high-quality of life. The neighbors were kind. But the jobs were downtown, and that was their life. Get up in the morning. Commute 45 minutes. Work a day. Commute home. If there was an accident, add 15 minutes to the commute either way.

She hadn’t even realized she dropped the letter. Levar snatched it up. “Well… I’ll be shitted.”

“We shouldn’t have bought that Tayata,” Mandy lamented.

Levar grunted. “It was a good investment. It’s a good car. We needed that car.”

“I know, but…”

Her voice just faded away.

The letter made it clear. The interstate highway upon which they depended for a speed commute had been carved up by a bunch of companies. Hondo Motor Company owned the stretch that went halfway to downtown from their house; the other half was owned by Chrestler. The latter wasn’t a surprise; they had their big headquarters downtown. They were always buying this or that and branding the hell out of it. When the feds sold off the interstate highways to private companies, ending their era of regulation of these precious open freeways, everyone in the metroplex knew Chrestler would grab up something.

All the companies had taken to installing the lane radio markers right away. They had some clever process for getting them into the roadways every half-mile or so, and they did it over a month’s worth of nights in what seems like no real time at all. Cars already had transmitters with unique codes¬† (good for theft and tracking purposes, the car companies told us). The combination was inevitable. Now that car companies owned the on-ramps, off-ramps, and all the lanes in between, everyone knew what was coming: progressive lane tolling.

“Why did we buy a fucking Tayata? They don’t own shit anywhere we normally go.”

Mandy was past depression and into the standard “losing your shit” phase. Levar was muttering aloud. “Slow lane is fifty cents a mile if you own a Hondo, five cents more a mile for any other make. Lanes increase in price to the fast lane by 10 cents per mile. Add five more cents a mile for other makes.”

“Chrestler is worst. They own everything close to downtown. It will cost even more once we get halfway to work.”

Levar dropped the letter too. This was the last goodbye from the feds as they abandoned interstate highway regulation. Congress had ceded by law the ownership of highways to private companies. The sales happened fast and furious. The plans went from general tolling to lane-tolling. Want to drive fast? Pay more. Want to drive a car not owned by the company in charge of your highway? Pay more.

“This is shit. This is fuck shit.”

Mandy was losing it. Levar was doing the math now, too.

“We’ll car pool,” he said.

“Everyone is going to try that. We can sell seats in our car but we only have two seats to sell. It will be a race to the bottom to sell seats to get money for the tolling. We’ll wind up giving them away just to get tolling money.”


They sat in silence for a while. The house creaked, but no other sounds met them. They weren’t listening, anyway. All they heard was the blood rushing in their ears.

“What did we expect?” Levar asked, breaking the silence.

Mandy looked at him. Levar pressed on.

“They did this to the internet. Remember? Want to visit Goggle instead of the search page that pays that cable company? Pay more for your bits. Want to use Factbook instead of Tweeter to talk? Pay more. Want to visit Netshows instead of our streaming site? Pay more.¬† Made cable companies billions.

It was only a matter of time before somebody tried this bull in the real world.”