Rumors in Physics Blogosphere Test Faith in 'God Particle'

For weeks, the physics world has been buzzing with rumors juicier -- at least in context -- than any Washington scandal: Researchers at Fermilab's Tevatron particle collider may have made one of the biggest scientific discoveries in decades, just months before a new European facility supplanted their position at the top of the field.

According to the rumors, researchers may have experimental results compatible with the discovery of a long-sought particle called the Higgs boson, sometimes dubbed the "God particle," which is widely regarded as giving all other particles mass. Depending on the details, this could be a Nobel-level discovery, and could lead to a reexamination of much of today's physics.

Nevertheless, the blog-spread buzz is polarizing the physics community. The tension, and the ongoing silence from researchers in the know, says much about a field on the brink of changes that will shape research for decades to come.

"There are a lot of ways that things can go wrong," said University of Padova's Tommaso Dorigo, who is also associated with Fermilab, but emphasized he has no direct knowledge of the data in question. "Seeing something maybe worth another prize is an extraordinary claim, and would require extraordinary evidence."

The latest round of rumors began spreading in late May, when an anonymous commenter on Dorigo's blog alluded to unannounced, but potentially significant Tevatron results.

News quickly spread across the physics blogosphere. Others weighed in with details, all second- or third-hand, while some criticized the premature speculation. One scientist associated with the Fermilab team confirmed exasperatedly that a significant analysis was ongoing, and pleaded for calm.

But this kind of enthusiasm has happened before, often enough to lead to a kind of Higgs fatigue. Just a few months ago, researchers from the same facility drew eager attention after releasing data some felt could be a Higgs fingerprint. As usual, researchers haven't yet found confirmation.

The difference is, this time there's no data at all. No charts, no graphs, no researchers who have yet stepped forward to offer up the usual tentative interpretations.

In one sense, this simply represents the physics community's collision with the irrepressible nature of the blogosphere. Like politicians or Apple executives used to controlling information, research physicists are uncomfortable with leaks, preferring to analyze complicated, often deeply confusing data sets exhaustively before making claims.

"We're delighted that there is this level of interest, but we can't say too strongly that there are some stringent criteria for being able to claim one has seen something in a particle physics experiment," said Fermilab spokeswoman Judy Jackson. "There are many examples of things that people thought they have seen that have promptly disappeared."

Yet it's no wonder that the Fermilab researchers are taking extra care to dot every i and cross every microscopic t. Much of today's leading-edge particle physics research hangs on the hunt for this elusive Higgs particle, and if it has indeed shown up in Fermilab's data, the international physics community could be forced to reevaluate its theories and plans.

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