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The Higgs boson is alive with the sound of music. rafeejewell

Higgs the musical: the sound of the ‘God particle’

The July 4 discovery of a particle that closely resembles the Higgs boson opens a new era in science: it should help us understand some fundamental mysteries, such as how microscopic particles attain their masses, or how gigantic galaxies and stars are formed.

The supposed importance of the Higgs boson in shaping our universe and, ultimately, our own existence is fully reflected in its popular nickname, the God particle.

But what do the recent results sound like? That’s a question we now have an answer to, thanks to a process called sonification.

It took 48 years from the theoretical prediction of the Higgs boson by British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, and independently by Robert Brout and Francois Englert, and Gerald Guralnik, C.R. Hagen and Tom Kibble, to its apparent discovery using two major detectors at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - the ATLAS detector and the CMS detector.

Chris Halderman

Largely because of its supposed universal role in generating masses for all the other particles, the Higgs boson is rather hard to detect. Once produced in high energy collisions of protons, it decays very quickly, long before we have a chance to photograph it. Scientists can’t catch the Higgs boson directly, but they can detect some particles the Higgs boson decay into.

Different product particles manifest themselves differently in the detector. By looking at which particles are detected, and tracing them back, one can infer that a Higgs boson was created in the detector.

This is an incredibly complicated process, because each second about a billion collisions happen at the LHC and many particles produced in those collisions behave similarly to the products of the Higgs boson decay.

Initial, raw data collected from the detectors are in the form of electronic signals (streams of ones and zeros). These raw data are analysed and processed using powerful computing software, and are converted step by step into more sensible data, such as the number of detector hits, energy deposited in the detector, and so on. Using this processed data, scientists are then able to identify particles in the detector.

Information collected this way is displayed in the form of various graphs and histograms, such as the one shown below.

Mass distribution for the two-photon channel. CERN

The clearly visible bump around 126 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) corresponds, it is believed, to a Higgs boson.

But are there ways to “witness” the supposed God particle other than in boring graphs? Enter sonification – the process of converting scientific data into sounds.

A team of researchers lead by Domenico Vicinanza from DANTE (Delivery of Advanced Network Technology to Europe) sonified the data collected by the ATLAS detector. As a result, the graph shown above has been turned into the sheet music you can see below.

Higgs boson sonification sheet music. GÉANT

Semiquavers in the sonification correspond to data points on the graph separated by 5 GeV intervals. As numerical values of data points increase or decrease, the pitch of the notes grows or diminishes accordingly.

The bump corresponding to the God particle is represented by an F (Fa) note which is two octaves above the preceding F (Fa) note, a C (Do) note which is the most acute note in the music (also two octaves above the subsequent C note) representing the peak of the Higgs, and a E (Mi) note.

The tune is surprisingly catchy and listenable, as you’ll discover below.

It may be hard to see how sonification would be useful for purely scientific purposes. Strange as it may sound, scientists in their studies are usually more comfortable with formal numbers and “boring” graphs than their musical representations.

But sonification can definitely help the general public feel and accept fundamental discoveries as a part of global knowledge, just as art or music masterpieces are associated with the cultural heritage of civilisations.

Sonification plays a role in public awareness of science. After all, significant discoveries, such as the potential discovery of the God particle, contribute to society by producing fundamental knowledge that ultimately shapes our understanding of the world around us and our place in it.

Further reading:
CERN discovers a Higgs-like particle: let the party (and head-scratching) begin Explainer: the Higgs boson particle

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