Particle Battleships

All the buzz in physics today is around results from CERN. Have they found a hint of a Higgs particle, have they found a hint of no Higgs particle? It is difficult to tell on a very broken-up webcast but, from what I can gather, there may be a hint of something with an energy of 126 GeV (with a level of confidence that doesn't let them claim a discovery yet).

Earlier, John Humphreys on the Today programme seemed to suggest that if nothing was found today the whole exercise (ATLAS/CMS) had been a waste of time. This view (he may have been playing devil's advocate) misunderstands how science works. The process of science is one of exploration. Things aren't always as you expected. Regardless of if you get the expected answer, the result tells you something about the universe that you didn't know (or were very unsure of) before. That's science.

Hunting for the Higgs particle is a bit like the game Battleships. You start off with a huge area of unexplored sea (or energy ranges) and you gradually place pegs in the board trying to locate the opponent's battleships (the Higgs particle). Your initial pegs are pretty unlikely to find your opponent's ships but you have to start searching somewhere. Searches that find nothing are still telling you something. As time goes on you start to really limit the places where the battleships can be. Gradually you start to spot battleship shaped holes in your search - some will be empty but some should contain what you're looking for*.

* Of course, your opponent might have cheated and not put down any battleships at all. As you rule out more and more sea you'll spot that too.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 13th Dec 2011 (14:02 GMT) | Permalink
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