Ohio State’s Christopher Hill joked he was showing scenes of an impending i-Product launch, and it was easy to believe him: young people were setting up mats in a hallway, ready to spend the night to secure a space in line for the big reveal. Except the date was July 3 and the location was CERN—where the discovery of the Higgs boson would be announced the next day.
It’s clear the LHC worked as intended and has definitively identified a Higgs-like particle. Hill put the chance of the ATLAS detector having registered a statistical fluke at less than 10-11, and he noted that wasn’t even considering the data generated by its partner, the CMS detector. But is it really the one-and-only Higgs and, if so, what does that mean? Hill was part of a panel that discussed those questions at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
As theorist Joe Lykken of Fermilab pointed out, the answers matter. If current results hold up, they indicate the Universe is currently inhabiting what’s called a false quantum vacuum. If it were ever to reach the real one, its existing structures (including us), would go away in what Lykken called “fireballs of doom.”
We’ll look at the less depressing stuff first, shall we?
Zeroing in on the Higgs
Thanks to the Standard Model, we were able to make some very specific predictions about the Higgs. These include the frequency with which it will decay via different pathways: two gamma-rays, two Z bosons (which further decay to four muons), etc. We can also predict the frequency of similar looking events that would occur if there were no Higgs. We can then scan each of the decay pathways (called channels), looking for energies where there is an excess of events, or bump. Bumps have shown up in several channels in roughly the same place in both CMS and ATLAS, which is why we know there’s a new particle.
But we still don’t know precisely what particle it is. The Standard Model Higgs should have a couple of properties: it should be scalar and should have a spin of zero. According to Hill, the new particle is almost certainly scalar; he showed a graph where the alternative, pseudoscalar, was nearly ruled out. Right now, spin is less clearly defined. It’s likely to be zero, but we haven’t yet ruled out a spin of two. So far, so Higgs-like.
The Higgs is the particle form of a quantum field that pervades our Universe (it’s a single quantum of the field), providing other particles with mass. In order to do that, its interactions with other particles vary—particles are heavier if they have stronger interactions with the Higgs. So, teams at CERN are sifting through the LHC data, checking for the strengths of these interactions. So far, with a few exceptions, the new particle is acting like the Higgs, although the error bars on these measurements are rather large.
As we said above, the Higgs is detected in a number of channels and each of them produces an independent estimate of its mass (along with an estimated error). As of the data Hill showed, not all of these estimates had converged on the same value, although they were all consistent within the given errors. These can also be combined mathematically for a single estimate, with each of the two detectors producing a value. So far, these overall estimates are quite close: CMS has the particle at 125.8GeV, Atlas at 125.2GeV. Again, the error bars on these values overlap.
Oops, there goes the Universe
That specific mass may seem fairly trivial—if it were 130GeV, would you care? Lykken made the argument you probably should. But he took some time to build to that.
Lykken pointed out, as the measurements mentioned above get more precise, we may find the Higgs isn’t decaying at precisely the rates we expect it to. This may be because we have some details of the Standard Model wrong. Or, it could be a sign the Higgs is also decaying into some particles we don’t know about—particles that are dark matter candidates would be a prime choice. The behavior of the Higgs might also provide some indication of why there’s such a large excess of matter in the Universe.
But much of Lykken’s talk focused on the mass. As we mentioned above, the Higgs field pervades the entire Universe; the vacuum of space is filled with it. And, with a value for the Higgs mass, we can start looking into the properties of the Higgs filed and thus the vacuum itself. “When we do this calculation,” Lykken said, “we get a nasty surprise.”
It turns out we’re not living in a stable vacuum. Eventually, the Universe will reach a point where the contents of the vacuum are the lowest energy possible, which means it will reach the most stable state possible. The mass of the Higgs tells us we’re not there yet, but are stuck in a metastable state at a somewhat higher energy. That means the Universe will be looking for an excuse to undergo a phase transition and enter the lower state.
What would that transition look like? In Lykken’s words, again, “fireballs of doom will form spontaneously and destroy the Universe.” Since the change would alter the very fabric of the Universe, anything embedded in that fabric—galaxies, planets, us—would be trashed during the transition. When an audience member asked “Are the fireballs of doom like ice-9?” Lykken replied, “They’re even worse than that.”
Lykken offered a couple of reasons for hope. He noted the outcome of these calculations is extremely sensitive to the values involved. Simply shifting the top quark’s mass by two percent to a value that’s still within the error bars of most measurements, would make for a far more stable Universe.
And then there’s supersymmetry. The news for supersymmetry out of the LHC has generally been negative, as various models with low-mass particles have been ruled out by the existing data (we’ll have more on that shortly). But supersymmetry actually predicts five Higgs particles. (Lykken noted this by showing a slide with five different photos of Higgs taken at various points in his career, in which he was “differing in mass and other properties, as happens to all of us.”) So, when the LHC starts up at higher energies in a couple of years, we’ll actually be looking for additional, heavier versions of the Higgs.
If those are found, then the destruction of our Universe would be permanently put on hold. “If you don’t like that fate of the Universe,” Lykken said, “root for supersymmetry”