Higgs decays to photon pairs!:Hot and Latest News
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Higgs decays to photon pairs!

It was with great pleasure that I found yesterday, in the public page of the DZERO analyses, a report on their new search for Higgs boson decays to photon pairs. On that quite rare decay process -along with another not trivial decay, the reaction- the LHC experiments base their hopes to see the Higgs boson if that particle has a mass close to the LEP II upper bound, i.e. not far from 115 GeV. And this is the first high-statistics search for the SM Higgs in that final state to obtain results that are competitive with the more standard searches!

My delight was increased when I saw that results of the DZERO search are based on a data sample corresponding to a whooping 4.2 inverse-femtobarns of integrated luminosity. This is the largest set of hadron-collider data ever used for an analysis. 4.2 inverse femtobarns correspond to about three-hundred trillion collisions, sorted out by DZERO. Of course, both DZERO and CDF have so far collected more than that statistics: almost five inverse femtobarns. However, it always takes some time before calibration, reconstruction, and production of the newest datasets is performed… DZERO is catching up nicely with the accumulated statistics, it appears.

The most interesting few tens of billions or so of those events have been fully reconstructed by the software algorithms, identifying charged tracks, jets, electrons, muons, and photons. Yes, photons: quanta of light, only very energetic ones: gamma rays.

When photons have an energy exceeding a GeV or so (i.e. one corresponding to a proton mass or above), they can be counted and measured individually by the electromagnetic calorimeter. One must look for very localized energy deposits which cannot be spatially correlated with a charged track: something hits the calorimeter after crossing the inner tracker, but no signal is found there, implying that the object was electrically neutral. The shape of the energy deposition then confirms that one is dealing with a single photon, and not -for instance- a neutron, or a pair of photons traveling close to each other. Let me expand on this for a moment.

Background sources of photon signals

In general, every proton-antiproton collision yield dozens, or even hundreds of energetic photons. This is not surprising, as there are multiple significant sources of GeV-energy gamma rays to consider.

Electrons, as well as in principle any other electrically charged particle emitted in the collision, have the right to produce photons by the process called bremsstrahlung: by passing close to the electric field generated by a heavy nucleus, the particle emits electromagnetic radiation, thus losing a part of its energy. Note that this is a process which cannot happen in vacuum, since there are no target nuclei there to supply the electric field with which the charged particle interacts (one can have bremsstrahlung also in the presence of neutral particles, in principle, since what matters is the capability of the target to absorb a part of the colliding body’s momentum; but in that case, one needs a more complicated scattering process, so let us forget about it). For particles heavier than the electron, the process is suppressed up to the very highest energy (where particle masses are irrelevant with respect to their momenta), and is only worth mentioning for muons and pions in heavy materials.
By far the most important process for photon creation at a collider is the decay of neutral hadrons. A high-energy collision at the Tevatron easily yields a dozen of neutral pions, and these particles decay more than 99% of the time into pairs of photons, . Of course, these photons would only have an energy equal to half the neutral pion mass -0.07 GeV- if the neutral pions were at rest; it is only through the large momentum of the parent that the photons may be energetic enough to be detected in the calorimeter.
A similar fate to that of neutral pions awaits other neutral hadrons heavier than the : most notably the particle called eta, in the decay . The eta has a mass four times larger than that of the neutral pion, and is less frequently produced.
And other hadrons may produce photons in de-excitation processes, albeit not in pairs: excited hadrons often decay radiatively into their lower-mass brothers, and the radiated photon may display a significant energy, again critically depending on the parent’s speed in the laboratory.
All in all, that’s quite a handful of photons our detectors are showered with on an event-by-event basis! How the hell can DZERO sort out then, amidst over three hundred trillion collisions, the maybe five or ten which saw the decay of a Higgs to two photons ?

And the Higgs signal amounts to…

Five to ten events. Yes, we are talking of a tiny signal here. To eyeball how many standard model Higgs boson decays to photon pairs we may expect in a sample of 4.2 inverse femtobarns, we make some approximations. First of all, we take a 115 GeV Higgs for a reference: that is the Higgs mass where the analysis should be most sensitive, if we accept that the Higgs cannot be much lighter than that: for heavier higgses, their number will decrease, because the heavier a particle is, the less frequently it is produced.

The cross-section for the direct-production process (where with X we denote our unwillingness to specify whatever else may be produced together with the Higgs) is, at the Tevatron collision energy of 1.96 TeV, of the order of one picobarn. I am here purposedly avoiding to fetch a plot of the xs vs mass to give you the exact number: it is in that ballpark, and that is enough.

The other input we need is the branching ratio of H decay to two photons. This is the fraction of disintegrations yielding the final state that DZERO has been looking for. It depends on the detailed properties of the Higgs particle, which likes to couple to particles depending on the mass of the latter. The larger a particle’s mass, the stronger its coupling to the Higgs, and the more frequent the H decay into a pair of those: the branching fraction depends on the squared mass of the particle, but since the sum of all branching ratios is one -if we say the Higgs decays, then there is a 100% chance of its decaying into something, no less and no more!- any branching fraction depends on ALL other particle masses!!!


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