When it detected the Higgs, what did the LHC see, exactly?
The first problem is that the Higgs, like most particles produced in particle colliders, is unstable. In a very short amount of time the Higgs transforms into two or more lighter particles. Often, these particles will decay in turn, possibly many more times. So when the LHC sees a Higgs boson, it doesn’t really “see the Higgs”.
The second problem is that you can’t “see” the lighter particles either. They’re much too small for that. Instead, the LHC has to measure their properties.
Does the particle have a charge? Then its path will curve in a magnetic field, and it will send electrical signals in silicon. So the LHC can “see” charge.
Can the particle be stopped, absorbed by some material? Getting absorbed releases energy, lighting up a detector. So the LHC can “see” energy, and what it takes for a particle to be absorbed.
And that’s…pretty much it. When the LHC “sees” the Higgs, what it sees is a set of tracks in a magnetic field, indicating charge, and energy in its detectors, caused by absorption at different points. Everything else has to be inferred: what exactly the particles were, where they decayed, and from what. Some of it can be figured out in real-time, some is only understood later once we can add up everything and do statistics.
On the face of it, this sounds about as impossible as astrophysics. Like astrophysics, it works in part because what the colliders see is not the whole story. The strong force has to both be consistent with our observations of hadrons, and with nuclear physics. Neutrinos aren’t just mysterious missing energy that we can’t track, they’re an important part of cosmology. And so on.
So in the sense of that massive, interconnected web of ideas, the LHC sees the Higgs. It sees patterns of charges and energies, binned into histograms and analyzed with statistics and cross-checked, implicitly or explicitly, against all of the rest of physics at every scale we know. All of that, together, is the collider’s eye view of the universe.
I always liked the description that it’s like smashing a pocket watch at very high speed against a hard wall and then trying to deduce the design of the watch from the pieces. Almost more like trying to deduce the design by looking only at how the pieces flew away from impact and what dents they made when they hit things. :
Indeed it is probably not worth worrying about that within QFT an unrecognizably different model turns out to be “the right one”. Thanks for your patient explanation.