I attended the “Particle Physics Evening” Hosted by Jon Butterworth (of Smashing Physics fame) at University College London yesterday evening. Altogether, including two streaming in from CERN, there were 7 speakers and reasonably lively Q&A with the 250ish audience, so I came away thinking I’d learned a bit.
[Post Note: I should add this public meeting was a part of the gathering of particle physicists at UCL for BOOST2014]
Given the more general title as advertised, I was expecting something like – forget the press banging on about Higgs, here’s the interesting stuff – but in fact the focus of this team, and hence the talk, was almost entirely on Higgs. The multiple correlation by multiple different test teams using different LHC experiments and technologies to detect Higgs-predicted multiple decay patterns meant a very high level of certainty that the new particle “discovered” was the real 126GeV mass particle predicted for Higgs. Their use of the D-word indicated this very high level of statistical certainty. They admitted that as well as planning new objectives for research when LHC restarts next year at its near doubled 14TeV capacity, there were plenty of things they still needed to test and confirm about the Higgs itself besides its mass and predicted decay patterns, and still masses (excuse the pun) of existing data to analyse before LHC restarts.
What struck me was that the “standard model” being talked about – for which the Higgs provided the missing piece – is really only “complete” for unifying Electro-Weak forces. Still nothing said about strong forces or even gravity, despite mass being the point of the Higgs interest, and therefore still less said about possible dark-matter and dark-energies and gravitational interactions between these masses. The cosmological model is far from complete, even with Higgs.
Someone did ask the question I’ve expressed many times. How logically can finding a massive particle explain why other particles have mass? The answer threw up another item I’d not recognised previously. Higg’s only explains the asymmetry of mass between the otherwise “identical” particle triplets, and it only explains how they came to acquire their different masses during the evolution of the universe, masses which no longer depend on any ongoing interactions with Higgs. Nowadays Higgs only exist in certain extreme conditions with extremely short decay life otherwise. This is the kind of explanation that depends on such a fine-tuned timing in the early post-big-bang universe, that the sceptic in me still finds it pretty far fetched. What they’re really establishing is internal consistency of their incomplete model.
Given the recognition that the standard EW model (completed by Higgs) was far from a complete cosmological model, what might exist beyond it came up only in the last throwaway remark of Jon’s closing comments. SuperSymmetry – a whole set of mirror equivalents of the standard model with complementary properties and much much higher masses. The same again and much more is still missing from the postulated model.
I did ask Jon afterwards (given the previous post) did he see anything in supersymmetry – or whatever lay beyond – that could yet unravel the standard EW model? Initially he said no, without being specific all the remaining gaps looked like things that should be confirmed and refined, but admitted that until they were (confirmed and detailed) technically it maybe could unravel. Supersymmetry was only one of the hypotheses for what lay beyond, though many of the others were as he put it, more philosophical than physical. Well said and very significant.
Two other interesting topics:
The whole question of data collection and data analysis – the algorithms used to select “interesting” data sets (few hundred per second) from the background noise (millions per second). Surely observer bias in the algorithms must skew the findings? David Miller’s role in this team was to address exactly that – ensuring sampling of the noise as well as the “interesting” signals checked they weren’t discarding significant sets. The sceptic in me again says, that since it’s patterns we’re really looking for – not standalone indications – that the results are still hugely at risk to this process. Hmmm.
And finally, meta, but maybe the most significant point: One thing I’ve been looking at creating is a forum based on moderated wisdom of real people with respect for each other, as opposed to the troll-addled offense-by-ridicule polarised threads of comments and social media. Well that was pretty much exactly how Jay Wacker described Quora. Wikipedia is great for non-contentious facts, as I’ve said many times, but Quora was set up to be a respect-mediated way to collect informed-wisdom. Excellent initiative, and a lesson to those “humanist” forums and threads that this initiative on wise opinion came from “real” geeky physicists, who clearly understand the reality of life more than either scientistic-atheist-humanists or religious-fundamentalists. Very interesting – I shall try it out and see how it works.
[Post Note : another write-up from UCL, focussing on Lily Asquith's "sonification" of the data, which I didn't mention above.]