Machine learning for event selection in high energy physics
The field of high energy physics aims to discover the underlying structure of matter by searching for and studying exotic particles, such as the top quark and Higgs boson, produced in collisions at modern accelerators. Since such accelerators are extraordinarily expensive, extracting maximal information from the resulting data is essential. However, most accelerator events do not produce particles of interest, so making effective measurements requires event selection, in which events producing particles of interest (signal) are separated from events producing other particles (background). This article studies the use of machine learning to aid event selection. First, we apply supervised learning methods, which have succeeded previously in similar tasks. However, they are suboptimal in this case because they assume that the selector with the highest classification accuracy will yield the best final analysis; this is not true in practice, as such analyses are more sensitive to some backgrounds than others. Second, we present a new approach that uses stochastic optimization techniques to directly search for selectors that maximize either the precision of top quark mass measurements or the sensitivity to the presence of the Higgs boson. Empirical results confirm that stochastically optimized selectors result in substantially better analyses. We also describe a case study in which the best selector is applied to real data from the Fermilab Tevatron accelerator, resulting in the most precise top quark mass measurement of this type to date. Hence, this new approach to event selection has already contributed to our knowledge of the top quark's mass and our understanding of the larger questions upon which it sheds light.