By Rick Wingrove, Published: July 11
The author is a contributor to The Washington Post’s local faith leader network.
A lot of people don’t know that many of the great discoveries in particle physics are largely exercises in statistical analysis. Flipping a coin a dozen times will provide a very limited understanding of probability. A run of a million tosses will sharply define the limits of probability. Getting seven heads in ten tosses is not especially noteworthy. Getting seven hundred thousand heads out of a million tosses would reveal something real at work on the coin.
So it goes in particle physics. Small things need lots of samples to paint a complete picture. Instead of flipping coins in the air, the physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, use two beams of protons traveling in a vacuum at 99.9999% of the speed of light around a 17-mile-long magnetic ring. The two beams are traveling in opposite directions and are magnetically maneuvered to collide within a detector the size of a house. Each experimental run produces hundreds of quadrillions of collisions. Those collisions are individual data points that, cumulatively show the presence of… something, right where the Higgs boson, and nothing else, ought to be. To paraphrase Joe Biden, it’s really kind of a big deal.…