The Higgs Comes Out of its Shell

Title : “First evidence for off-shell production of the Higgs boson and measurement of its width”

Authors : The CMS Collaboration

Link : https://arxiv.org/abs/2202.06923

CMS Analysis Summary : https://cds.cern.ch/record/2784590?ln=en

If you’ve met a particle physicist in the past decade, they’ve almost certainly told you about the Higgs boson. Since its discovery in 2012, physicists have been busy measuring as many of its properties as the ATLAS and CMS datasets will allow, including its couplings to other particles (e.g. bottom quarks or muons) and how it gets produced at the LHC. Any deviations from the standard model (SM) predictions might signal new physics, so people are understandably very eager to learn as much as possible about the Higgs.

Amidst all the talk of Yukawa couplings and decay modes, it might occur to you to ask a seemingly simpler question: what is the Higgs boson’s lifetime? This turns out to be very difficult to measure, and it was only recently — nearly 10 years after the Higgs discovery — that the CMS experiment released the first measurement of its lifetime.

The difficulty lies in the Higgs’ extremely short lifetime, predicted by the standard model to be around 10⁻²² seconds. This is far shorter than anything we could hope to measure directly, so physicists instead measured a related quantity: its width. According to the Heiseinberg uncertainty principle, short-lived particles can have significant uncertainty in their energy. This means that whenever we produce a Higgs boson at the LHC and reconstruct its mass from its decay products, we’ll measure a slightly different mass each time. If you make a histogram of these measurements, its shape looks like a Breit-Wigner distribution (Fig. 1) peaked at the nominal mass and with a characteristic width .

Fig. 1: A Breit-Wigner curve, which describes the distribution of masses that a particle takes on when it’s produced at the LHC. The peak sits at the particle’s nominal mass, and production within the width is most common (“on-shell”). The long tails allow for rare production far from the peak (“off-shell”).

So, the measurement should be easy, right? Just measure a bunch of Higgs decays, make a histogram of the mass, and run a fit! Unfortunately, things don’t work out this way. A particle’s width and lifetime are inversely proportional, meaning an extremely short-lived particle will have a large width and vice-versa. For particles like the Z boson — which lives for about 10⁻²⁵ seconds — we can simply extract its width from its mass spectrum. The Higgs, however, sits in a sweet spot of experimental evasion: its lifetime is too short to measure, and the corresponding width (about 4 MeV) cannot be resolved by our detectors, whose resolution is limited to roughly 1 GeV.

To overcome this difficulty, physicists relied on another quantum mechanical quirk: “off-shell” Higgs production. Most of the time, a Higgs is produced on-shell, meaning its reconstructed mass will be close to the Breit-Wigner peak. In rare cases, however, it can be produced with a mass very far away from its nominal mass (off-shell) and undergo decays that are otherwise energetically forbidden. Off-shell production is incredibly rare, but if you can manage to measure the ratio of off-shell to on-shell production rates, you can deduce the Higgs width!

Have we just replaced one problem (a too-short lifetime) with another one (rare off-shell production)? Thankfully, the Breit-Wigner distribution saves the day once again. The CMS analysis focused on a Higgs decaying to a pair of Z bosons (Fig. 2, left), one of which must be produced off-shell (the Higgs mass is 125 GeV, whereas each Z is 91 GeV). The Z bosons have a Breit-Wigner peak of their own, however, which enhances the production rate of very off-shell Higgs bosons that can decay to a pair of on-shell Zs. The enhancement means that roughly 10% of H → ZZ decays are expected to involve an off-shell Higgs, which is a large enough fraction to measure with the present-day CMS dataset!

Fig. 2: The signal process involving a Higgs decay to Z bosons (left), and background ZZ production without the Higgs (right)

To measure the off-shell H → ZZ rate, physicists looked at events where one Z boson decays to a pair of leptons and the other to a pair of neutrinos. The neutrinos escape the detector without depositing any energy, generating a large missing transverse momentum which helps identify candidate Higgs events. Using the missing momentum as a proxy for the neutrinos’ momentum, they reconstruct a “transverse mass” for the off-shell Higgs boson. By comparing the observed transverse mass spectrum to the expected “continuum background” (Z boson pairs produced via other mechanisms, e.g. Fig. 2, right) and signal rate, they are able to extract the off-shell production rate.

After a heavy load of sophisticated statistical analysis, the authors found that off-shell Higgs production happened at a rate consistent with SM predictions (Fig. 3). Using these off-shell events, they measured the Higgs width to be 3.2 (+2.4, -1.7) MeV, again consistent with the expectation of 4.1 MeV and a marked improvement upon the previously measured limit of 9.2 MeV.

Fig. 3: The best-fit “signal strength” parameters for off-shell Higgs production in two different modes: gluon fusion (x-axis, shown also in the leftmost Feynman diagram above) and associated production with a vector boson (y-axis). Signal strength measures how often a process occurs relative to the SM expectation, and a value of 1 means that it occurs at the rate predicted by the SM. In this case, the SM prediction (X) is within one standard deviation of the best fit signal strength (diamond).

Unfortunately, this result doesn’t hint at any new physics in the Higgs sector. It does, however, mark a significant step forward into the era of precision Higgs physics at ATLAS and CMS. With a mountain of data at our fingertips — and much more data to come in the next decade — we’ll soon find out what else the Higgs has to teach us.

Read More

“Life of the Higgs Boson” – Coverage of this result from the CMS Collaboration

“Most Particles Decay — But Why?” – An interesting article by Matt Strassler explaining why (some) particles decay

“The Physics Still Hiding in the Higgs Boson” – A Quanta article on what we can learn about new physics by measuring Higgs properties

LIGO and Gravitational Waves: A Hep-ex perspective

The exciting Twitter rumors have been confirmed! On Thursday, LIGO finally announced the first direct observation of gravitational waves, a prediction 100 years in the making. The media storm has been insane, with physicists referring to the discovery as “more significant than the discovery of the Higgs boson… the biggest scientific breakthrough of the century.” Watching Thursday’s press conference from CERN, it was hard not to make comparisons between the discovery of the Higgs and LIGO’s announcement.

 

 

The gravitational-wave event GW150914 observed by the LIGO Collaboration
The gravitational-wave event GW150914 observed by the LIGO Collaboration

 

Long standing Searches for well known phenomena

 

The Higgs boson was billed as the last piece of the Standard Model puzzle. The existence of the Higgs was predicted in the 1960s in order to explain the mass of vector bosons of the Standard Model, and avoid non-unitary amplitudes in W boson scattering. Even if the Higgs didn’t exist, particle physicists expected new physics to come into play at the TeV Scale, and experiments at the LHC were designed to find it.

 

Similarly, gravitational waves were the last untested fundamental prediction of General Relativity. At first, physicists remained skeptical of the existence of gravitational waves, but the search began in earnest with Joseph Webber in the 1950s (Forbes). Indirect evidence of gravitational waves was demonstrated a few decades later. A binary system consisting of a pulsar and neutron star was observed to release energy over time, presumably in the form of gravitational waves. Using Webber’s method for inspiration, LIGO developed two detectors of unprecedented precision in order to finally make direct observation.

 

Unlike the Higgs, General Relativity makes clear predictions about the properties of gravitational waves. Waves should travel at the speed of light, have two polarizations, and interact weakly with matter. Scientists at LIGO were even searching for a very particular signal, described as a characteristic “chirp”. With the upgrade to the LIGO detectors, physicists were certain they’d be capable of observing gravitational waves. The only outstanding question was how often these observations would happen.

 

The search for the Higgs involved more uncertainties. The one parameter essential for describing the Higgs, its mass, is not predicted by the Standard Model. While previous collider experiments at LEP and Fermilab were able to set limits on the Higgs mass, the observed properties of the Higgs were ultimately unknown before the discovery. No one knew whether or not the Higgs would be a Standard Model Higgs, or part of a more complicated theory like Supersymmetry or technicolor.

 

Monumental scientific endeavors

 

Answering the most difficult questions posed by the universe isn’t easy, or cheap. In terms of cost, both LIGO and the LHC represent billion dollar investments. Including the most recent upgrade, LIGO cost a total $1.1 billion, and when it was originally approved in 1992, “it represented the biggest investment the NSF had ever made” according to France Córdova, NSF director. The discovery of the Higgs was estimated by Forbes to cost a total of $13 billion, a hefty price to be paid by CERN’s member and observer states. Even the electricity bill costs more than $200 million per year.

 

The large investment is necessitated by the sheer monstrosity of the experiments. LIGO consists of two identical detectors roughly 4 km long, built 3000 km apart. Because of it’s large size, LIGO is capable of measuring ripples in space 10000 times smaller than an atomic nucleus, the smallest scale ever measured by scientists (LIGO Fact Page). The size of the LIGO vacuum tubes is only surpassed by those at the LHC. At 27 km in circumference, the LHC is the single largest machine in the world, and the most powerful particle accelerator to date. It only took a handful of people to predict the existence of gravitational waves and the Higgs, but it took thousands of physicists and engineers to find them.

 

Life after Discovery

 

Even the language surrounding both announcements is strikingly similar. Rumors were circulating for months before the official press conferences, and the expectations from each respective community were very high. Both discoveries have been touted as the discoveries of the century, with many experts claiming that results would usher in a “new era” of particle physics or observational astronomy.

 

With a few years of hindsight, it is clear that the “new era” of particle physics has begun. Before Run I of the LHC, particle physicists knew they needed to search for the Higgs. Now that the Higgs has been discovered, there is much more uncertainty surrounding the field. The list of questions to try and answer is enormous. Physicists want to understand the source of the Dark Matter that makes up roughly 25% of the universe, from where neutrinos derive their mass, and how to quantize gravity. There are several ad hoc features of the Standard Model that merit additional explanation, and physicists are still searching for evidence of supersymmetry and grand unified theories. While the to-do list is long, and well understood, how to solve these problems is not. Measuring the properties of the Higgs does allow particle physicists to set limits on beyond the Standard Model Physics, but it’s unclear at which scale new physics will come into play, and there’s no real consensus about which experiments deserve the most support. For some in the field, this uncertainty can result in a great deal of anxiety and skepticism about the future. For others, the long to-do list is an absolutely thrilling call to action.

 

With regards to the LIGO experiment, the future is much more clear. LIGO has only published one event from 16 days of data taking. There is much more data already in the pipeline, and more interferometers like VIRGO and (e)LISA, planning to go online in the near future. Now that gravitational waves have been proven to exist, they can be used to observe the universe in a whole new way. The first event already contains an interesting surprise. LIGO has observed two inspriraling black holes of 36 and 29 solar masses, merging into a final black hole of 62 solar masses. The data thus confirmed the existence of heavy stellar black holes, with masses more than 25 times greater than the sun, and that binary black hole systems form in nature (Atrophysical Journal). When VIRGO comes online, it will be possible to triangulate the source of these gravitational waves as well. LIGO’s job is to watch, and see what other secrets the universe has in store.