[UPDATE: in the comments below, Dennis Overbye (the article's author) explains what his wording was intended to imply, and that his article contains no error, just wording that was perhaps a little too simple. I have also replied, with a request for much greater clarity in future, and explaining why I feel this is such an important issue.]
The New York Times has an article about the search for the Higgs particle! (Using the scientific jargon of physicists, it calls this particle the Higgs “boson”. If you want to know what a boson is, click here.)
Although a lot of the article is pretty good (though I can’t vouch for its accuracy in describing what’s going on inside the experiments) it does contain a HUGE conceptual and factual error that is vastly misleading. [According to the author Dennis Overbye, this is not an error, but phraseology that is perhaps not entirely clear; see his comment below.] Here’s what it says about the Higgs particle:
“The new data will show whether [the hint in the December data] was a fluke or whether they are really on the road to discovering the long-lost [Higgs] boson, physicists say. They are racing to make a deadline to report the results at the International Conference on High Energy Physics, or Ichep, in Melbourne, Australia, starting July 4.
This, all agree, is the boson’s last stand. If the December signal fades, it probably means that the Higgs boson, at least as physicists have envisioned it for the past 40 years, does not exist, and that theorists have to go back to their drawing boards.”
This is misinformation — completely wrong — and in the interest of its readers, I do hope the Times would publish a correction. [Again, I refer you to Overbye's comment.]
This is NOT “the boson’s last stand”, and NOBODY agrees that it is the case. What everyone agrees (with one caveat about heavier Higgs particles that actually haven’t been ruled out yet) is that it is the last stand of the Standard Model Higgs particle. The Standard Model Higgs particle is only the SIMPLEST possible type of Higgs particle. Read about this form of Higgs particle here, if you like.
Let me say that again. There is a big difference between ruling out the Standard Model Higgs particle and ruling out all possible forms of the Higgs particle.
Not finding the Standard Model Higgs particle — in Phase 1 of the Higgs search — just means that Phase 2 of the Higgs search has to involve a wider set of search strategies. The two phases of the Higgs search was one of the main topics of my Cosmic Variance guest-post article and of this slightly more detailed article (both articles a bit out of date now as far as the data, but the basic point about the two phases still holds). And in fact I pointed out in a related article, linking to some scientific lectures I gave on the topic, that it will take ten years to be confident there is no Higgs particle of any type. I’m not telling you anything radical; ask any theorist in the field who has worked on Higgs physics and they will tell you the same thing.
So to say that “theorists will have to go back to their drawing boards” if the Higgs does not show up by December 2012 is badly mistaken. There are hundreds of theory papers, going back decades, on versions of the Higgs particle (or particles) that would not show up by December 2012. Here are some examples of such papers by well-known authors: http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-ph/0009158 ; http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-ph/0608310 ; http://arxiv.org/abs/1012.1316; there are plenty of such papers from the 1990s and even the 1980s. Heck, I even wrote some myself.
One other minor error, caused by out-of-date information: the discrepancy between the masses of the possible Higgs signal seen at ATLAS and at CMS (which made the statistical combination of the two data sets unstable to small shifts) did indeed shift when the CMS data was reanalyzed in March. The shift went in the “right direction”, eliminating the discrepancy and increasing confidence in the consistency of the ATLAS and CMS results. On the other hand, the significance of the signal seen at ATLAS and CMS went down in March, too. A complicated story; but these details won’t matter in the long run.
Of course, all of this may be moot, if more evidence for the Higgs shows up at the ICHEP conference in July. But please, NY Times, get your facts straight on this very important point, which lies at the heart of the LHC program! No discovery of the Higgs particle in 2012 absolutely will not mean that we know there is no Higgs particle at all. It just means we would give up on the simplest version of the Higgs (which would be great news!), and that the Higgs search would move on to Phase 2.