Tevatron Data Strengthens Hints of the Higgs Boson

By Chelsea Whyte on July 2, 2012 6:02 PM EDT

fermilab tevatron
The Tevatron typically produced about 10 million proton-antiproton collisions per second. Each collision produced hundreds of particles. The CDF and DZero experiments recorded about 200 collisions per second for further analysis. (Photo: Fermilab)

Looking for the Higgs boson - the most sought-after particle in physics these days - is like trying to find a specific deer in the woods just by recognizing its hoof prints in the dirt.

The Higgs is tracked not by seeing the particle itself, but by seeing the debris it leaves behind, and particle colliders like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, or the Tevatron at Fermilab in Illinois were created to smash particles together in the hopes that the trails they left behind would hint at the Higgs.

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As the world waits for CERN scientists to reveal whether they have enough data to claim a true discovery of the elusive particle, physicists at Fermilab have released their own data analysis after combing through 500 trillion collisions created over more than a decade.

"Our data strongly point toward the existence of the Higgs boson, but it will take results from the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe to establish a discovery," said Fermilab's Rob Roser, cospokesperson for the CDF experiment at DOE's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

The final results from the Tevatron indicate that the Higgs particle, if it exists, has a mass between 115 and 135 GeV, or about 130 times the mass of the proton.

So what is it that we've seen tantalizing hints of? The Higgs boson is a proposed particle that makes up a Higgs field that permeates everything and gives every other particle mass. Imagine a man walking across the bottom of a swimming pool full of water. If he's in just a swim suit, he can move through fairly quickly, just as photons (or light particles) move through our world relatively uninhibited. But something like an electron would be slowed down even more, as if the man were wearing a suit. The water would create drag on the fabric just like the Higgs field would create drag on particles, ultimately giving them mass.  

Finding the particle would fill a glaring hole in what is called the Standard Model, the most successful theory to explain the physics of our universe.

The Tevatron and the LHC look for the boson in different ways, reports BBC News. While the LHC can most easily observe the existence of the Higgs particle by searching for two photons it would leave behind, the Tevatron looks for the decay of a Higgs into a pair particles known as bottom quarks.

Combining information from both accelerators will provide vital clues about the nature of this potential new particle, and whether it is really the Higgs boson scientists expect, according to BBC News.

These results from the Tevatron are a warm-up for the big news from CERN on Wednesday, when the experiments hosted at the Large Hadron Collider will present their most recent results.

The physicists will present any 'discovery' with a kind of statistical caveat  that gives an idea of how likely an event is to occur as a fluke versus truly being representative of something that can be identified as a new particle. According to Wired, they use terms like 3-sigma results, which indicates that an event has only a 0.13 percent chance of happening randomly. The ideal situation is a 5-sigma result, which has only a 0.000028 percent probability of happening by chance.

The new Tevatron data are 2.9-sigma - which means there is roughly a 1 in 1000 chance that the data are due to a statistical quirk - and though that's a relatively low significance, the Tevatron's findings could help bolster confidence in any signals of the Higgs boson reported in two days time from the LHC.

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