Shining Light on the Higgs Boson

Hello Particle Nibblers,

This is my first Particlebites entry (and first ever attempt at a blog!) so you will have to bear with me =).

As I am sure you know by now, the Higgs boson has been discovered at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). As you also may know, discovering’ a Higgs boson is not so easy since a Higgs doesn’t just sit there’ in a detector. Once it is produced at the LHC it very quickly decays (in about $1.6 \times 10^{-22}$ seconds) into other particles of the Standard Model. For us to see’ it we must detect these particles into which decays. The decay I want to focus on here is the Higgs boson decay to a pair of photons, which are the spin-1 particles which make up light and mediate the electromagnetic force. By studying its decays to photons we are literally shining light on the Higgs boson (see Figure 1)!

The decay to photons is one of the Higgs’ most precisely measured decay channels. Thus, even though the Higgs only decays to photons about 0.2 % of the time, this was nevertheless one of the first channels the Higgs was discovered in at the LHC. Of course other processes (which we call backgrounds) in the Standard Model can mimic the decays of a Higgs boson, so to see the Higgs we have to look for bumps’ over these backgrounds (see Figure 2). By carefully reconstructing this bump’, the Higgs decays to photons also allows us to reconstruct the Higgs mass (about 125 GeV in particle physics units or about $2.2 \times 10^{-22}$ kg in real world’ units).

Furthermore, using arguments based on angular momentum the Higgs decay to photons also allows us to determine that the Higgs boson must be a spin-0 particle which we call a scalar $^1$. So we see that just in this one decay channel a great deal of information about the Higgs boson can be inferred.

Now I know what you’re thinking…But photons only talk to’ particles which carry electric charge and the Higgs is electrically neutral!! And even crazier, the Higgs only talks to’ particles with mass and photons are massless!!! This is blasphemy!!! What sort of voodoo magic is occurring here which allows the Higgs boson to decay to photons?

The resolution of this puzzle lies in the subtle properties of quantum field theory. More specifically the Higgs can decay to photons via electrically charged virtual particles $^2$. For present purposes its enough to say (with a little hand-waiving) that since the Higgs can talk to the massive electrically charged particles in the Standard Model, like the W boson or top quark, which in turn can talk to’ photons, this allows the Higgs to indirectly interact with photons despite the fact that they are massless and the Higgs is neutral. In fact any charged and massive particles which exist will in principle contribute to the indirect interaction between the Higgs boson and photons. Crucially this includes even charged particles which may exist beyond the Standard Model and which have yet to be discovered due to their large mass. The sum total of these contributions from all possible charged and massive particles which contribute to the Higgs decay to photons is represented by the blob’ in Figure 3.

It is exciting and interesting to think that new exotic charged particles could be hiding in the blob’ which creates this interaction between the Higgs boson and photons. These particles might be associated with supersymmetry, extra dimensions, or a host of other exciting possibilities. So while it remains to be seen which, if any, of the beyond the Standard Model possibilities (please let there be something!) the LHC will uncover, it is fascinating to think about what can be learned by shining a little light on the Higgs boson!

Footnotes:

1. There is a possible exception to this if the Higgs is a spin-2 particle, but various theoretical arguments as well as other Higgs data make this scenario highly unlikely.

2. Note, virtual particle is unfortunately a misleading term since these are not really particles at all (really they are disturbances in their associated quantum fields), but I will avoid going down this rabbit hole for the time being and save it for a later post. See the previous `virtual particles’ link for a great and more in-depth discussion which takes you a little deeper into the rabbit hole.