Can you spot the Higgs?

In what can only be described as an atypical installment of the World Leaders Forum, yesterday afternoon a panel of physicists and science writers gathered in Low Library to discuss “What If We Find the Higgs Particle? And What If We Don’t?” Amateur Higgs Hunter Brian Wagner was in attendance.

An uncomfortably warm—and surprisingly crowded—Low Rotunda waited eagerly for the speakers to arrive. The panel featured theoretical physicist, author, and Columbia Professor Brian Greene; Professor of Physics and U.S. Operations Program Manager of the ATLAS project at CERN Michael Tuts; Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American Mariette DiChristina; New York Times science reporter Dennis Overbye; and was moderated by Dean of Science and Professor of Physics Amber Miller.

PrezBo stepped up to the podium and introduced the panelists. Remarking on the unusual choice of topic for a WLF event, he provided the predictable justification that the answer to the titular query “could have a profound impact on the understanding of the world.” He made a joke about iPhones with his traditional dry delivery, gave Dennis Overbye the faux title of Cosmic Affairs Correspondent of the Times, and then talked about how, like NoCo, this subject involved “linking academic disciplines to face questions,” although there’s no way the coffee at CERN could be as expensive as Joe.

Amber Miller kicked things off by explaining that the audience would have a chance to “see how science works” by including a theoretical physicist (Greene) and an experimental physicist (Tuts). Essentially, the people on the theory end develop mathematical models to explain and predict natural phenomena, and then the experimenters use high-tech machinery like the Large Hadron Collider to test the models.

On the experimental side, Professor Tuts gave an explanation of the ATLAS project at CERN with the help of a fancy animated video that included models of the detector and particle collisions. Basically: groups of protons are accelerated to near the speed of light in an underground tube and smack into each other with enough force to break apart and new particles are formed. A live feed of such “scattering events” was left on the viewscreens for the remainder of the discussion—attendees were jokingly instructed to “let [the panelists] know if you spot a Higgs.”

Greene spoke next, and first stated that the search for the Higgs has placed us in a “win-win situation” because if Higgs is found, another piece of our current model is confirmed, and we can have more confidence in the power of math to explain our world. If we’re wrong and the Higgs isn’t found, it’s still an “amazing moment” because physicists get to go back to the drawing board and try to come up with a new theory explaining the existence of mass.

Mariette DiChristina and Dennis Overbye were then given a chance to ask Tuts and Greene questions. DiChristina inquired where physics would go next if the Higgs were found. Greene postulated that the next question would be “Where did the Higgs come from?”—each discovery tends to beget the next investigation in the forward march of science. Overbye began with a slight jab at particle physics by claiming that the field “had not discovered anything in 40 years,” prompting a swift concerted rebuttal by Greene and Tuts (the top quark was discovered in 1995) that made the audience chuckle. The duo of physicists easily outshone the pair of writers in terms of elegance and showmanship; the dazzle of the journalists’ written work did not carry over in live performance.

The most interesting question Overbye posed was how the discovery of the Higgs would impact our understanding of the universe. Greene eagerly outlined the fact that the Higgs would be the first confirmed particle with a spin of 0, and that its existence may help explain why the “bang” portion of the Big Bang happened. DiChristina prodded Tuts to give an estimate of when CERN might be ready to announce the discovery of the Higgs, and Tuts slyly countered that “if I knew… I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you.”

The panelists then took questions from the audience, which ranged from “How long will you keep looking for the Higgs?” (they’ll have enough data at the end of 2012 to confirm or rule out its existence) to “Will there be a new, bigger LHC?” (nothing is planned since Congress put the kibosh on the Superconducting Super Collider; funding is hard to come by). One of the more interesting questions was “What do we say to people who don’t care about [things like] the origin of the universe?” Tuts responded that the questions physics tries to answer also pave the way for lots of technological advancements and help to inspire young students to pursue careers in the sciences. Greene chipped in that some people will never be interested–“one of them is my Mom”–but that one of the biggest challenges facing scientists today is to inspire the next generation of students and to excite them about physics at a young age.

After a few questions about the role of gravity in the standard model (physicists are still trying to fit it in—String Theory may help to provide answers but currently cannot be tested experimentally), the panelists all got to say a few closing words. When Dean Miller asked Greene what comes next for theoretical physics, he aptly responded that “I haven’t the slightest idea… but that’s the best place to be!”

Where science happens via Wikimedia