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Another one bites the dust

And so to the media scramble at Easter that scientists at the Large Hadron Collider had finally glimpsed the Higgs boson, or at least its fleeting footprint: a flicker of light in the giant Atlas detector.

You'll recall what happened. A leaked note from the Atlas collaboration pointed to an excess in one of the ways a Higgs particle might decay - that is, into two high energy photons. An excess means extra particles coming from somewhere beyond the Standard Model, and in this case, potentially from the Higgs (which is highly unstable) decaying into particles of light.

The internal note was just that, a very preliminary finding, and it was posted to a blog before it had been scrutinised in any serious detail.

This was not the first time researchers (if only a handful) had got their hopes up that a discovery was at last in the offing. Nor was it the first time there were serious doubts that the Higgs had suddenly popped up and been measured. See here for some of the previous incidents and a few early doubts raised over the latest Higgs signal.

Internal notes like these are not exceptional and there is a well-worked process for assessing them. The ones that point to evidence of the Higgs boson (and it's arguable that this one did) go to a bunch of specialists called the Higgs working group, who look at the claims in detail. If they are happy the analysis is sound, the abstract goes out to the whole Atlas collaboration for further scrutiny. That is some serious intellectual clout being brought to bear.

Since the fuss at Easter, researchers at Cern have been studying the latest claim. And what have they found? The answer, as you might have guessed, is nowt. In the latest analysis of Atlas data, there was no sign of a Higgs particle decaying into high energy photons at a mass of 115GeV (the mass indicated in the original note), or any other mass for that matter. The conclusion of the latest note, published earlier today, is this:

"No excess is observed, neither with the analysis criteria described in this note nor with other selections studied."

Read the full conference note here.

The knockdown doesn't come as a surprise and in these days of thousands-strong collaborations, scientists' blogs and a genuinely enthused media, nor does the mass coverage of the non-sighting. There will be more, and we can certainly expect some fun in the run up to the summer conferences. Or as the Economist put it, "expect plenty more herrings, red or otherwise."




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