By Michael Moyer

A month ago scientists at the Large Hadron Collider released the latest Higgs boson results. And although the data held few obvious surprises, most intriguing were the results that scientists didn’t share.

The original Higgs data from back in July had shown that the Higgs seemed to be decaying into two photons more often than it should—an enticing though faint hint of something new, some sort of physics beyond our understanding. In November, scientists at the Atlas and LHC experiments updated everything except the two-photon data. This week we learned why.

Yesterday researchers at the Atlas experiment finally updated the two-photon results. What they seem to have found is bizarre—so bizarre, in fact, that physicists assume something must be wrong with it. Instead of one clean peak in the data, they have found two. There seems to be a Higgs boson with a mass of 123.5 GeV (gigaelectron volts, the measuring unit that particle physicists most often use for mass), and another Higgs boson at 126.6 GeV—a statistically significant difference of nearly 3 GeV. Apparently, the Atlas scientists have spent the past month trying to figure out if they could be making a mistake in the data analysis, to little avail. Might there be two Higgs bosons?

Although certain extensions of the Standard Model of particle physics postulate the existence of multiple Higgs bosons, none of them would predict that two Higgs particles would have such similar masses. They also don’t predict why one should preferentially decay into two Z particles (the 123.5 GeV bump comes from decays of the Higgs into Zs), while the other would decay into photons.

The particle physicist Adam Falkowski (under the nom de plume Jester) writes that the results “most likely signal a systematic problem rather than some interesting physics.” (By “systematic problem” he means something like a poorly-calibrated detector.) The physicist Tommaso Dorigo bets that it’s a statistical fluke that will go away with more data. Indeed, he’s willing to bet $100 on it with up to five people, in case you’re the kind of person who likes to wager on the results of particle physics experiments with particle physicists. The Atlas physicists are well aware of both of these possibilities, of course, and have spent the past month trying to shake the data out to see if they can fix it. Still, the anomaly remains.

But let’s not let this intriguing blip distract us from the original scent of new physics. Back when the preliminary data seemed to show that the Higgs was decaying into two photons more often than it should, I wrote that it could be “a statistical blip that would wash away in the coming flood of data.” But more data has now arrived, and the blip hasn’t gone anywhere. The Higgs boson continues to appear to be decaying into two photons nearly twice as often as it should.

All the more reason to stay tuned for the next big data release, currently scheduled for March.

Higgs boson

The latest results from the Atlas experiment indicate that there may be two different Higgs bosons—one that weighs 123.5 GeV (in blue) and another that's 126.6 GeV (in red).

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  • The Higgs Boson will be discovered—or not CERN scientists have estimated that, by the end of 2012 they will have narrowed down the range of possible masses of this elusive particle enough that they'll either find it or discover that they can't find it with the technology available. In either case, 2012 will be a huge year for particle physics and for human understanding of the universe in general.

  • China will ramp up its space program China will send two manned missions into space in 2012 for its Shenzhou program, which looks to flourish next year. These launches will be part of the same initiative that took Yang Liwei into orbit in 2003 and made China only the third country in the world to independently send a person into space. With NASA still soul-searching after the recent end of the Space Shuttle program, the Shenzhou program may be the beginning of a push to level the playing field, and 2012 will bring hints of how much success China can expect.

  • IBM will complete Sequoia supercomputer IBM expects that the device will set new records for processing rates, reaching a speed of 20 petaflops and doubling the processing speed of the current record holder. In 2009, <a href="" target="_hplink">PCWorld reported</a> that Sequoia will be "located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and used primarily to manage the U.S.'s aging stockpile of nuclear weapons." IBM has stated that the computer, which will occupy an area slightly larger than a tennis court, will also be used to study "astronomy, energy, the human genome and climate change." Image: A similar IBM supercomputer, via Argonne National Laboratory.

  • Alan Turing Year Alan Turing, perhaps the single most important figure in the history of computers, would turn 100 in 2012, and an international consortium has designated 2012 as Alan Turing Year. Turning is well-known for his key contributions to British cryptography during World War II; following his death, he became an important figure in the LGBT movement, having been driven to suicide after he was persecuted for being gay.

  • The Mars Science Laboratory will touch down NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) will become the largest Mars rover ever to touch the red planet's surface when it lands on or around August 6, 2012. <a href="" target="_hplink">According to NASA</a>, the purpose of the mission is to assess the habitability of the planet, conducting chemical, geological and meteorological analysis of data that its advanced equipment can gather. For more details on the equipment, see <a href="" target="_hplink">the mission's website</a>.

  • The Piltdown Man hoax marks its 100-year anniversary In December, 1912, an amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson presented fragments of a skull purportedly belonging to a 'missing link' to the Geological Society of London. It took over 40 years for the specimen to be conclusively labeled a hoax, and it turned out that the 'Piltdown Man' was nothing more than a human cranium, an orangutan's jaw and chimpanzee teeth. As one of the most famous scientific hoaxes of all time, this date was a landmark in the history of the dark side of science. The above video goes into further detail.

  • More science anniversaries In 1912, Casimir Funk first described vitamins and Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift (pictured). In 1812, Napoleon first authorized the use of what would become the metric system, Pierre-Simon Laplace laid the groundwork for much of statistics in his 'Théorie analytique des probabilités.'

  • More science birthdays In 1912, science celebrates the birth of Nobelists <a href="" target="_hplink">Glenn Seaborg</a> (pictured), <a href="" target="_hplink">Milton Friedman</a>, <a href="" target="_hplink">George Emil Palade</a>, <a href="" target="_hplink">Julius Axelrod</a>, <a href="" target="_hplink">Edward Mills Purcell</a>, <a href="" target="_hplink">Leonid Kantorovich</a>, <a href="" target="_hplink">Konrad Emil Bloch</a>, <a href="" target="_hplink">Herbert C. Brown</a> and <a href="" target="_hplink">Salvador Luria</a>, as well as rocket scientist <a href="" target="_hplink">Werner von Braun</a>

  • <strong>The world won't end</strong> When December 21, 2012 comes and goes without the earth <a href="" target="_hplink">colliding into a planet</a> or getting sucked into a black hole (as some predictions suggest) it will be a good day for science. Ever since theories of the 2012 armageddon came into public consciousness, astronomers have been hard at work dispelling the claims. The ancient Mayan calendar (a part of which is pictured above), which will complete a cycle of its longest measurement of time on that date, is used as evidence of the impending doomsday scenarios. <a href="" target="_hplink">Scholars of ancient Mayan culture</a> (link in PDF), however, have noted the absurdity of this claim and its <a href="" target="_hplink">similarity</a> to the panic surrounding Y2K.