The Mail takes “God Particle” too literally

Last month, scientists at the LHC and Tevatron particle accelerators both announced that they’d seen spikes in the data which could be evidence for the long sought Higgs boson. However, these were, they stressed, fairly small spikes – the LHC data was at the “three sigma” level of uncertainty, meaning there was roughly a 1 in 1,000 chance that what appeared to be a spike was actually just random noise in the data that was clustered to look like a spike. 1 in 1,000 sounds like good odds, but the LHC has hundreds or even thousands of different pieces of research going on, each analysing the data in a different way. It’s almost certain that you’ll get a few of these 1 in 1,000 events popping up.

A bit more data’s been presented, and the spikes have got slightly smaller. They’ve not melted away altogether, and the change in their size might not be especially significant, but it’s a bit of a setback for finding the Higgs. What is good however is that we’ve narrowed down the range of possible energies that the Higgs might have (although it’s a bit out of date now, there’s a nice diagram on Wikipedia showing how data from different experiments is combined to do this). In other words, it’s just another step along the road of science.

How does The Mail cover this?

God particle that would explain the creation of the universe 'Might not exist' by Graham Smith

(Although it’s under Graham Smith’s by-line, the article is almost word-for-word identical to a Reuters piece from yesterday, which seems to be where these mistakes came from)

Oh dear. The so-called God particle isn’t that godly; the Higgs boson will not “explain the creation of the universe”. The Higgs boson is related to the Higgs field which, according to the theory, explains where the universe gets some of its mass from. This has nothing to do with the creation of the universe – indeed, the Higgs boson did not exist before the universe began.

It looks like the idea that the Higgs created the universe comes from the faulty idea that the Higgs gave the universe all its mass (and therefore allowed stars and planets to form) – in fact, most of the mass of everyday particles from nuclear forces inside atoms, not the Higgs field. Where the Higgs is important is in explaining where rarer particles – W and Z bosons – get their mass from, and why the force they represent – the weak nuclear force – is not simply the same as the electromagnetic force.

Also, that quote in the headline? They’re not quoting a scientist – it’s taken from the article itself! No scientist would say “The Higgs boson might not exist after all” (and as far as I can tell, no-one has), especially not based on this data. For one thing, there’s always been a chance that the Higgs doesn’t exist – there’s no “after all” about it – and furthermore this data doesn’t prove the Higgs doesn’t exist, it just narrows the range of possible masses that the boson might have.

These results are interesting, but they’re not the death-knell for the Higgs that The Mail and Reuters are making them out to be. For more balanced coverage, there’s good pieces from Pallab Ghosh at the BBC and Ian Sample and the always-excellent Jon Butterworth at The Guardian.

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