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Steve Likes to Curse
Writing, comics and random thoughts from really a rather vulgar man
Quashed Higgs boson discovery underlines the importance of deliberate, careful science 
Monday, April 25th, 2011 | 04:48 pm [commentary, science]
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For a few hours there, things looked pretty interesting. When I woke up this morning, I heard on the radio that physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, may have finally discovered the elusive Higgs boson.
 
The Higgs, predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics, but never observed, is theorized to impart mass to other elementary particles. The particle’s importance, at least as perceived by non-physicists in the media, has led to it being nicknamed “the God particle.” Most scientists insist it isn’t quite that important, though it would still be nice to find it. 
 
They’ll have to keep looking, it seems. The excitement from this morning was based on a leaked memo from four members of the ATLAS project, an ongoing particle detection experiment at the LHC:
 

This channel H→γγ is of great importance because the presence of new heavy particles can enhance strongly both the Higgs production cross section and the decay branching ratio. This large enhancement over the standard model rate implies that the present result is the first definitive observation of physics beyond the standard model. Exciting new physics, including new particles, may be expected to be found in the very near future.

 
A few hours later a spokesperson for ATLAS, Fabiola Gianotti, told Nature that any celebrations are premature: “Only official ATLAS results, i.e. results that have undergone all the necessary scientific checks by the Collaboration, should be taken seriously.”
 
The text of the memo was pasted into a comment on an entry at Peter Woit’s
Not Even Wrong blog. The sudden excitement and subsequent disappointment surrounding the apparent discovery of the Higgs should remind all us scientifically inclined laypeople of why science works the way it does, with experiments repeated ad nauseum and discoveries only made public after they have been confirmed time and time again, and peer reviewed. For every monumental, perspective-altering discovery, there are hundreds of false-starts. There is a big difference between a leaked internal memo and a published scientific paper, and there ought to be.
 
Still . . . it’d be cool if the result mentioned in that memo was the Higgs, wouldn’t it?

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