The Higgs Boson is an elementary particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. It is associated with the Higgs mechanism that was theorized by British physicist Peter Higgs in 1964. This mechanism proposed an elegant solution to one of the standing problems in particle physics – how particles acquire mass. The elementary particles of nature have masses varying by many orders of magnitude. For instance, the top quark, the heaviest known particle yet, has a mass that is roughly 340000 times that of the electron. Neutrinos on the other hand, have masses that are constrained by experiment to only a small fraction of the electron mass. The Higgs mechanism suggests that all particles acquire their mass by the strength of their couplings to a field that permeates the whole universe – the Higgs field. The top quark does not get its higher mass because it is bigger in size; in fact it is probably no larger than an electron. It simply couples more strongly to the Higgs field to get its enormous mass at around 173 GeV. Photons do not couple to this field at all and hence are massless. The much sought after Higgs boson is the quanta of this hypothetical field, very similar to the photon being the quanta of the electromagnetic field. One of the main goals of the LHC physics program is to find evidence of this quanta, the Higgs boson.
Higgs bosons, if they exist, can be created in proton – proton collisions at the LHC but would decay instantaneously. Any search for them has to be carried out by analyzing data for signatures of Higgs decay. This is not a trivial task however, because such decays are impossible to distinguish from some other well known Standard Model processes. Collision data from LHC would have to be analyzed, and deviations from known background processes would point towards some form of new physics and possibly the existence of the Higgs boson. One would then have to compare the rates in different Higgs decay channels to see if the observed rates match those from predictions for a Higgs decay.
In December 2011, ATLAS and CMS, the two main experiments at LHC, announced their 2011 Higgs search results which led to much hype in the physics world and the media – both experiments were indeed seeing some excess in several Higgs decay channels around 125 GeV. The mass of a proton is about 0.94 GeV, so the finding suggests a Higgs boson mass that is about 133 times heavier than the proton (notice the bump in the below plot from ATLAS at around 125 GeV).
However, it is still very early to come to a conclusive statement about a discovery. Standard Model backgrounds are subject to statistical fluctuations which show themselves at various levels in experiments. A discovery would only be claimed if the deviations from expected backgrounds are over 5 standard deviations. The results announced by CMS and ATLAS in December 2011 were 1.9 and 2.6 standard deviations above expected backgrounds respectively. Though this is interesting, it is far from sufficient to provide a conclusive answer about the existence of the Higgs boson. The search will have to continue in 2012 as more data from LHC becomes available, and physicists will finally be able to give a conclusive answer to either confirm or exclude the Standard Model Higgs boson, ending a puzzle that has been around for several decades.
Serdar Gozpinar is a 5th year graduate student in the high-energy physics group at Brandeis working on the ATLAS experiment at CERN.