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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

God Particle

In 1977, Steven Weinberg, then two years shy of the Nobel Prize in Physics, decided to do a little of what some theorists call “ambulance chasing.”

Peter Wynn Thompson for The New York Times
Jacobo Konigsberg, top, and Dmitri Denisov at Fermi.
He heard a rumor, while spending a year at Stanford, that collisions at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory were spitting out weird triplets of particles known as muons, which are sort of fat electrons. Dr. Weinberg canceled reservations at a lodge in Yosemite National Park to spend the weekend with his colleague Benjamin Lee, trying to concoct a theory to explain the trimuons.

But the only theory he and Dr. Lee could come up with was ugly. A few weeks later it turned out that the triplet effect wasn’t true.

“I’ve always been embarrassed that we managed to come up with a theory,” Dr. Weinberg, now at the University of Texas at Austin, said recently.

Dr. Weinberg said that 30 years later, he still has not gotten to Yosemite.

“And we never got trimuons either,” he added.

And therein lies a lesson — or not — for the world’s physicists.

Earlier this summer, the physics world was jolted by a rumor that a team of scientists from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill., had found a bump in their data that might be a legendary particle that has haunted physicists for a generation. It is known colloquially as the Higgs boson and sometimes grandly as the “God particle.” According to the Standard Model that has ruled physics for 30 years, the Higgs endows elementary particles in the universe with mass.

The history of physics is full of bumps that could have been revolutionary but have disappeared like ghosts in the night, and this rumor of a possible Higgs sighting was not even the first this year. Most physicists who have heard this rumor think that this bump is likely to be another of those disappearing anomalies, like the trimuons that frustrated Dr. Weinberg. But then these same physicists point out that you never know.

The team, known as the D Zero collaboration and numbering some 600 physicists from 19 countries and 88 institutions, will not even say whether there is a bump in its data until the scientists have decided for sure that it is nature calling and not just a random statistical fluctuation.

“It’s a rigorous process; we don’t want to make a trivial mistake,” explained Dmitri Denisov of Fermilab, one of the co-leaders, or spokesmen, of the team, which is named for the giant detector it built to record the remains of smashups of trillion-electron-volt protons and antiprotons in Fermilab’s Tevatron particle accelerator.

D Zero is the younger of two rival detectors at the accelerator. The other, known as the Collider Detector at Fermilab, or C.D.F., was built and staffed by an equally large group that is scouring its own data for the Higgs and other new phenomena.

As the analyses proceed and the Tevatron hums its trillion-electron-volt tune, this is a summer of rumors, hope and hype. Whatever the outcome for this particular Higgs rumor, the buzz about it illuminates the galloping expectations, tensions and rivalries roiling physicists as they await the inauguration next summer of the Large Hadron Collider, a giant accelerator at CERN, the nuclear laboratory outside Geneva expressly designed to find the Higgs particle and explore new realms of nature.

The excitement has been ratcheted up by the speed and ubiquity of information on the Internet.

“It is exciting even if you think the chances of it being true are only 0 or 10 percent,” said Tommaso Dorigo, from the University of Padua in Italy, who helped spread the D Zero rumor in June on his blog, A Quantum Diaries Survivor ( “It’s something you were looking for and would be very happy to find.”

Joe Lykken, a Fermilab theorist who said he first learned of the rumored bump the old-fashioned way, over lunch in the laboratory cafeteria, said: “Pre-blog, this sort of rumor would have circulated among perhaps a few dozen physicists. Now with blogs even string theorists who can’t spell Higgs became immediately aware of inside information about D Zero data.”

Jacobo Konigsberg, of the University of Florida, co-leader of the rival C.D.F. group, grumbled, “These blogs put a powerful loudspeaker in the mouths of a few people.”

Confirming the rumored bump would confirm a profound conjecture about how nature works, cementing into place the last missing piece of the so-called Standard Model and perhaps pointing the way to a deeper theory that could answer questions the current model leaves open — such as why the universe is full of matter but not antimatter — a New World of physics.

It would also be an enormous coup for American science, a last Hail Mary touchdown before the new European collider fires up its beams of protons, which will collide with seven trillion electron volts of energy apiece.

The CERN collider is the future of physics, Dr. Konigsberg said: “But it would be a fantastic feat to add one more jewel to the crown of discoveries from the Tevatron. We have our pride.”

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