The December solstice has come and gone at 11:11 a.m. London time (6:11 a.m New York time). That’s the moment when the north pole of the Earth points most away from the sun, and the south pole points most toward it. Because it’s followed by a weekend and then Christmas Eve, it marks the end of the 2012 blogging season, barring a major event between now and year’s end. But although 11:11 London time is the only moment of astronomical significance during this day (clearly the universe does not care where humans set our international date line and exactly how we set our time zones, so destruction was never going to be at local midnight — something the media doesn’t seem to get) it obviously wasn’t the end of the world.
A lot of people do put a lot of stock in prophecy, including prophecies of the end of the world that nobody ever made (such as the one not made for today by the Mayans, through their calendar) and others that people made but were wrong (such as those made by Harold Camping last year and by many throughout history who preceded him.) If anyone were any good at prophecy they’d be able to use their special knowledge to become billionaires, so maybe we should be watching Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg and the Koch brothers and people like that. I haven’t heard any rumors of them building bunkers or spaceships yet. Of course at the end of the year they may get a small tax hike, but that wouldn’t be the end of the world.
The Large Hadron Collider [LHC], meanwhile, has triumphantly reached the end of its first run of proton-proton collisions. Goal #1 of the LHC was to allow physicists at the ATLAS and CMS experiments to discover the Higgs particle, or particles, or whatever took their place in nature; and it would appear that, in a smashing success, they have co-discovered one. But no Higgs particles, or anything like them, will be produced again until 2015. Although the LHC will run for a short while in early 2013, it will do so in a different mode, smashing not protons but the nuclei of lead atoms together, in order to study the properties of extremely hot and dense matter, under conditions the universe hasn’t seen since the earliest stages of the Big Bang that launched the current era of our universe. Then it will be closed down for repairs and upgrades. So until 2015, any additional information we’re going to learn about the Higgs particle, or any other unknown particle that might have been produced at the LHC, is going to be obtained by analyzing the data that has been collected in 2011 and 2012. The total amount of data is huge; what was collected in 2012 was about 4.5 times as much as in 2011, and it was taken at 8 TeV of energy per proton-proton collision rather than 7 TeV as in 2011. I can assure you there will be many new things learned from analyzing that data throughout 2013 and 2014.
Of course a lot of people prophesied confidently that we’d discover supersymmetry, or something else dramatic, very early on at the LHC. Boy, were they wrong! Those of us who were cautioning against such optimistic statements are not sure whether to laugh or cry, because of course it would have been great to have such a discovery early in the LHC program. But there was ample reason to believe (despite what other bloggers sometimes say) that even if supersymmetry exists and is accessible to the LHC experiments, discovering it could take a lot longer than just two years! For instance, see this paper written in 2006 pointing out that the search strategies being planned for seeking supersymmetry might fail in the presence of a few extra lightweight particles not predicted in the minimal variants of supersymmetry. As far as I can tell at present, this very big loophole has only partly been closed by the LHC studies done up to now. The same loophole applies for other speculative ideas, including certain variants of LHC-accessible extra dimensions. I am hopeful that these loopholes can be closed in 2013 and 2014, with additional analysis on the current data, but until they are, you should be very cautious believing those who claim that reasonable variants of LHC-accessible supersymmetry (meaning “natural variants of supersymmetry that resolve the hierarchy problem”) are ruled out by the LHC experiments. It’s just not true. Not yet. The only classes of theories that have been almost thoroughly ruled out by LHC data are those predict on general grounds that there should be no observable Higgs particle at all (e.g. classic technicolor).
While we’re on the subject, I’ve been looking back at how I did on prophecy this year. It’s been a remarkably good year, probably my best ever — though admittedly I only made very easy (though not necessarily common) predictions. First, the really easy one: I assured you, as did most of my colleagues, that 2012 would be the Year of the Higgs — at least, the Year of the Simplest Possible Higgs particle, called the “Standard Model Higgs”. It would be the year when Phase 1 of the Higgs Search would end — when we’d either find a Higgs particle of Standard Model type (or something looking vaguely like it), or, if not, we’d know we’d have to move to a more aggressive search in Phase 2, in which we’d look for more complicated versions of the Higgs particle that would have been much harder to find. We started the year with ambiguous hints of the Higgs particle, too flimsy to be sure of, but certainly tantalizing, at around a mass of 125 GeV/c2. In July the hints turned into a discovery — somewhat faster than expected for a Standard Model Higgs particle, because the rate for this particle to appear in collisions that produce two photons was higher than anticipated. The excess in the photon signal means either the probability for the Higgs particle to decay to photons is larger than predicted for a Higgs of Standard Model type, or both CMS and ATLAS experienced a fortunate statistical fluctuation that made the discovery easier. We still don’t know which it was; though we’ll know more by March, this ambiguity may remain with us until 2015.
One prophecy I made all the way back at the beginning of this blog, July 2011, was that the earliest search strategy for the Higgs, through its decays to a lepton, anti-lepton, neutrino and anti-neutrino, wouldn’t end up being crucial in the discovery; it was just too difficult. (In this experimental context, “lepton” refers only to “electron” or “muon”; taus don’t count, for technical reasons.) In the end, I said, it would be decays of the Higgs to two photons and to two lepton/anti-lepton pairs that would be the critical ones, because they would provide a clean signal that would be uncontroversial. And that prophesy was correct; the photon-based and lepton-based searches were the signals that led to discovery.
Now we’ve reached December, and the data seems to imply that except possibly for this overabundance of photons, which still tantalizes us, the various measurements of how the Higgs-like particle is produced and decays are starting to agree, to a precision which is still only moderate, with the predictions of the Standard Model for a Higgs of this mass. Fewer and fewer experts are still suggesting that this is not a Higgs particle. But it will be some years yet — 2018 or later — before measurements are precise enough to start convincing people that this Higgs particle is really of Standard Model type. Many variants of the Standard Model, with new particles and forces, predict that the difference of the real Higgs from a Standard Model Higgs may be subtle, with deviations at the ten percent level or even less. Meanwhile, other Higgs-like particles, with different masses and different properties, might be hiding in the data, and it may take quite a while to track them down. Many years of data collecting and data analysis lie ahead, in Phase 2 of the Higgs search.
Another prophecy I made at the beginning of the year was that Exotic Decays of the Higgs would be a high priority for 2012. You might think this prophesy was wrong, because in fact, so far, there have been very few searches at ATLAS, CMS and LHCb for such decays. But the challenge that required prioritizing these decays wasn’t data analysis; it was the problem of even collecting the data. The problem is that many exotic decays of the Higgs would lead to events that might not be selected by the all-important trigger system that determines which tiny fraction of the LHC’s collisions to store permanently for analysis! At the beginning of 2012 there was a risk that some of these processes would have been dumped by the trigger and irretrievably lost from the 2012 data, making future searches for such decays impossible or greatly degraded. At a hadron collider like the LHC, you have to think ahead! If you don’t consider carefully the analyses you’ll want to do a year or two from now, you may not set the trigger properly today. So although the priority for data analysis in 2012 was to find the Higgs particle and measure its bread-and-butter properties, the fact that the Higgs has come out looking more or less Standard Model-like in 2012 means that focusing on exotic possibilities, including exotic decays, will be one of the obvious places to look for something new, and thus a very high priority for data analysis, in 2013 and 2014. And that’s why, for the trigger — for the collection of the data — exotic decays were a very high priority for 2012. Indeed, one significant use of the new strategy of delayed data streaming at ATLAS and of data parking at CMS (two names for the same thing) was to address this priority. [My participation in this effort, working with experimentalists and with several young theorists, was my most rewarding project of 2012.] As I explained to you, a Higgs particle with a low mass, such as 125 GeV/c2, is very sensitive to the presence of new particles and forces that are otherwise very difficult to detect, and it easily could exhibit one or more types of exotic decays. So there will be a lot of effort put into looking for signs of exotic decays in 2013 and 2014! I’m very excited about all the work that lies ahead of us.
Now, the prophecy I’d like to make, but cannot — because I do not have any special insight into the answer — is on the question of whether the LHC will make great new discoveries in the future, or whether the LHC has already made its last discovery: a Higgs particle of Standard Model type. Even if the latter is the case, we will need years of data from the LHC in order to distinguish these two possibilities; there’s no way for us to guess. It’s clear that Nature’s holding secrets from us. We know the Standard Model (the equations we use to describe all the known particles and forces) is not a complete theory of nature, because it doesn’t explain things like dark matter (hey, were dark matter particles perhaps discovered in 2012?), and it doesn’t tell us why, for example, there are six types of quarks, or why the heaviest quark has a mass that is more than 10,000 times larger than the mass of the lightest quarks, etc. What we don’t know is whether the answers to those secrets are accessible to the LHC; does it have enough energy per collision, and enough collisions, for the job? The only way to find out is to run the LHC, and to dig thoroughly through its data for any sign of anything amiss with the predictions of the Standard Model. This is very hard work, and it will take the rest of the decade (but not until the end of the world.)
In the meantime, please do not fret about the quiet in the tunnel outside Geneva, Switzerland. The LHC will be back, bigger and better (well, at least with more energy per collision) in 2015. And while we wait during the two year shutdown, the experimentalists at ATLAS, CMS, and LHCb will be hard at work, producing many new results from the 2011 and 2012 proton collision data! Even the experiments CDF and DZero from the terminated Tevatron are still writing new papers. In short, fear not: not only isn’t the December solstice of 2012 the end of the world, it doesn’t even signal a temporary stop to the news about the Higgs particle!
One last personal note (just for those with some interest in my future.)