Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
“Where do you want to sit for History?” one passing American asks another, before they settle on front row seats. It’s 4 July 2012; the venue is a bland convention centre auditorium in Melbourne. We’re waiting for scientists at the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire in Switzerland, better known as CERN, to announce that they’ve found the Higgs boson. The Higgs, in the standard journalistic précis, is the particle that gives everything mass. It was proposed almost 50 years ago (by Peter Higgs and several others), and particle-hungry experimentalists have been after it ever since the less famous W and Z bosons were tracked down in 1983.
Earlier, the Melbourne conference’s media liaison, standing on a chair in a cramped room upstairs, had briefed a group of physicists on talking to the press. Don’t assume they’re specialist science journalists, he said. In fact, don’t assume they know anything about science. There were chuckles. Emphasise this is not the end, he went on. It’s a historic milestone, but we’re only at the beginning. A balding, pony-tailed German slurped loudly from his paper cup of coffee.
In the auditorium a retired nuclear theorist sits to one side of me; a youngish Spaniard with a mop of curly hair checks his email on the other. The retired theorist isn’t quite sure why the press need be here at all: to him it’s strictly a scientific affair. Above the stage a screen shows a similar auditorium at CERN, the scene of the main event. The camera scans for something to look at: a Higgs boson soft toy on a desk (popular in certain quarters around the time the Large Hadron Collider, CERN’s gargantuan particle accelerator, was first switched on in 2008); a woman snapping a phone photo of herself with the stage in the background. The assembled physicists have come with a legitimate professional interest in the results from the LHC. I’ve come to satisfy what Wittgenstein called “one of the lowest desires of modern people, namely the superficial curiosity about the latest discoveries of science”.
Scientists always bemoan the simplifications and outright errors endemic to science journalism, though it’s easy to see why they occur. You’d need to cover at least quantum field theory, electroweak unification and symmetry breaking in the early universe before you could give an explanation of the Higgs boson that’s neither inaccurate nor at the level of a just-so story. Add to that the necessary mathematical scaffolding, and it’s no wonder journalists write articles “intended to make you believe that you understand a thing which actually you don’t understand” (Wittgenstein again). Tomorrow’s papers will be full of ‘God particle’ this and ‘cosmic molasses’ that; the headline will be ‘ORIGIN OF UNIVERSE REVEALED’, not ‘HIGGS MASS 125.3 ± 0.6 GeV’.
Geoff Taylor, the dapper head of Australia’s Large Hadron Collider contingent, takes the stage briefly to announce that the presentations will be longer than planned. On screen, Peter Higgs enters the room at CERN to cheers.
In late June, physics blogs had lit up with rumours that LHC scientists had some news. It could only mean one thing: the Higgs. Last December they had released what a physicist would describe unwinkingly as ‘highly suggestive’ results, but had refrained from making definite claims. The word was there were now enough data to cross the line into certainty, or what passes for it given the distressingly probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics. People were talking 5-sigma significance.
Eventually there is a hush in the auditorium, and Rolf-Dieter Heuer, CERN’s avuncular director general, appears on screen. “Today is a special day,” he begins, before trotting out a couple of diligently constructed jokes and introducing Joe Incandela, a slick American from the Compact Muon Solenoid LHC experimental team. Incandela walks us through the experimental set-up, the data-processing arrangements and the statistical methodology before getting down to graphs and numbers. The statement that inspires the crowd to frenzied applause: “If we combine the Z–Z and the gamma–gamma, this is what we get. They line up extremely well in the region of 125 GeV. They combine to give us a combined significance of five standard deviations.” He stumbles and stutters getting the words out.
From a physicist’s point of view, particle hunting is the extreme sport. There’s a rakish disregard for common sense in the lengths to which they will go. Take the IceCube neutrino telescope, a kilometre-a-side cubic grid of detectors buried deep in the Antarctic ice, or Holland’s MiniGRAIL (Gravitational Radiation Antenna In Leiden), a perfect 1400-kilo copper sphere chilled to just above absolute zero in the hope of observing tiny ripples in the fabric of the universe caused by far-off stellar cataclysms. The LHC is the wildest of all: a particle accelerator whose 27-kilometre circumference takes the better part of a day to walk around, built by thousands of scientists from across the world at a cost of $9 billion (a month’s worth of US spending in Afghanistan, by comparison) to hunt truly exotic game – dark matter, extra dimensions, magnetic monopoles, the Higgs.
After Incandela has said the magic words, the rest is appendices. He hands over to Fabiola Gianotti from the ATLAS experiment (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS), which runs in parallel with Incandela’s team so that the two can cross-check each other’s results. Gianotti’s data provide further confirmation of the Higgs’s existence. After she finishes, Heuer returns to the stage. “I think we have it,” he says. “You agree?” The rooms at CERN and in Melbourne erupt with affirmative cries. “It’s a historic milestone today, but we are only at the beginning.” It’s the approved take-home message.
The retired nuclear theorist is dubious. He’ll allow that they’ve found a boson; he’s not convinced it’s the Higgs. It’s sad science is going this way, he says – releasing results before publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, courting media coverage, dumbing it down for popular consumption. Later, an unidentified American on screen puts the contrasting view: “It’s wonderful to be at a physics event where there’s applause like there is at a football game.” He too has a point: is there harm in celebrating a scientific discovery? Accurate or not, the media coverage will at least remind people for a moment that they live in a universe.