The expectations game

Blogs drive MSM speculation about Higgs announcement

Excited speculation about the discovery of one of physics’ most sought-after particles is coming in waves now, with media outlets trying to substantiate online gossip about an announcement happening July 4 at the Large Hadron Collider.

Officially, it’s just the “latest update in the search for the Higgs boson,” according to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research that runs the atom smasher. The so-called God Particle is thought to endow other matter with mass and is the last, missing piece of the Standard Model of physics, which describes the fundamental building blocks of nature and the forces that govern interactions between them. CERN’s press release is rosy about physicists’ improving ability to discern traces of the Higgs, but it’s still “if and when” discovery-wise.

Bloggers, and now news outlets, expect more than that, however.

Scientists are looking for vestiges of the short-lived Higgs in the trillions of collisions that happen in the particle accelerator. It’s the classic needle-in-a-haystack problem, but last year, the teams that run two of the collider’s main detectors said they’d both seen hints of the boson at a mass somewhere around 125 GeV (billion electron volts). Their data weren’t in perfect agreement, however, and not strong enough to be sure that the signal they’d spotted wasn’t a fluke.

Then, on June 17, Peter Woit, a lecturer in the math department at Columbia University, wrote in a blog post that he’d heard “reliable rumors” indicating that the two detector teams were “seeing much the same thing as last year in this year’s new data: strong hints of a Higgs around 125 GeV,” and that they were much more confident about their results.

In short order, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Wired, and other mainstream outlets kicked out stories, based on Woit’s post, about rumors of a discovery. “Just before 3 p.m. on Wednesday, June 20, 2012, the elusive Higgs boson made science history: it topped the list of trending Twitter topics via the hashtag #HiggsRumors,” Jennifer Ouellette reported at the time.

On Monday, scientists at Fermilab in Chicago added fuel to the fire when they released the final data from the Tevatron collider, which shutdown in September 2011. They supported the conclusions that the CERN teams made last year about the mass range of the Higgs, but likewise lacked the confidence to call it an official discovery.

Physicists measure confidence in terms of statistical “sigma” levels, with 5-sigma being the generally accepted threshold for celebration. With Fermilab’s announcement, anticipation that CERN is toeing that line has hit “fever pitch,” as New Scientist put it. (’s Alan Boyle has posted two useful roundups of chatter at the most popular physics blogs.)

Reporters have made earnest, if clumsy, attempts to fact-check the speculation. On Monday, The Associated Press caused a stir with the headline, “Proof of ‘God Particle’ Found,” and quickly changed it to, “Evidence … Found.”

“I can hear the scientists’ screams from here,” Alexandra Witze, a contributing editor for Science News, wrote in a tweet, responding to the AP’s original headline.

The AP quoted a handful of physicists at CERN, along the Swiss-French border, and Fermilab in Chicago, who expressed both confidence and caution. Their comments don’t seem to justify the unequivocal statement that scientists at CERN plan to announce “that they have nearly confirmed” the Higgs particle’s existence, however. If the AP was privy to any actual details about what was found, it didn’t give them away.

Like The Christian Science Monitor, the AP cited a “credible” blogger that used data from the Atlas and CMS detectors to make his own calculation that a Higgs discovery is close at hand, but the wire also quoted a CERN spokesman saying “he would be ‘very cautious’ about unofficial combinations of Atlas and CMS data.”

The most convincing report that a significant announcement is the offing has come from Nature. Based on two anonymous sources, it reported that CERN “will present evidence of an entirely new particle on Wednesday,” although “more data will be needed to officially confirm whether it is the long-awaited Higgs boson…”

“Without a doubt, we have a discovery,” a member of the Atlas team told the journal.

We’ll see. The blog-fuelled expectations game has become a standard part of science reporting, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it. Discovery of the Higgs, or anything like it, would be a major triumph, to say the least. But anything less than that would be a huge disappointment at this point, given the media buildup. And news outlets should be aware that dragging readers through too many cycles of lift and letdown will eventually cause fatigue.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,