that goddamn particle

Whisperings of the announcement floated in my direction two weeks prior.  And I mean literally, it was a whisper in my ear: “We found it.” Now that the world knows that we know, I’m writing just so I can say, and I can hardly believe this…”I was there”

……………………………………………………

I spent the night before battling poor particle lifetimes on nightshift with Club Italia; At seven we surrendered the beam and wandered down towards the auditorium. The foyer was already crawling with people and even if the queue was orderly (it’s CERN after all) it stretched out the back door of the restaurant. We did what we could. Oh, how we played all the good Italian tricks. First, we tried going in the back door. When we were turned away, we flirted with the security people. When we were turned away again, we looked for friends already in line.  None of this worked, predictably.

“Brrreakfast?” said the Italian on my right, rolling the ‘r’, of course.

“Brrreakfast?” said the Italian on my left.

“Brrrrrrrrreakfast.” I replied, as we all nodded in agreement.

At brrreakfast we learned from other unfortunate souls that even at four AM, there were already over a hundred people sleeping on the floor outside the auditorium. People foresaw that this seminar would be historic and CERN foresaw such overflow. Fortunately projections of the transmission of the seminar would play in several conference rooms and auditoriums around the site.

A nice breakfast, and then an ATLAS conference room it would be. The challenge: stay awake.*

……………………………………………………

“We conclude,” he begins, the CMS spokesperson (tall, American) with some ceremony. But he’s only reading what is on the slide, and surely, everyone in the room (and all the rooms) has already read what is written. At least I have; I’m fixated at the number at the end of the sentence. It is what we’ve been waiting for: the proof that all of this isn’t just a fluke, the number we all needed to convince ourselves that this is, this is for real. He goes on: “We have discovered a new boson with a mass of 125.3 GeV plus/minus 0.6 GeV at a certainty of 4.9 sigma.” 4.9 sigma. Something like electric shock runs through my body; the room erupts in applause.

ATLAS speaks next. The spokesperson is, of course, the deceptively slight Fabiola, who aside from having a fantastic name and a wonderfully frizzy mane, is somewhat of a force of nature. She speaks for a hour, culminating discreetly with 126.5 GeV, at 5 sigma. 5 sigma! Again, the shock, again, the thunderous applause. Oh, but Fabiola, she is perhaps the purest and most pragmatic among us; so much so that she doesn’t even give a damn that her presentation is in Comic Sans. “Why are you clapping?” she admonishes the crowd and the entire Physics community. “I’m not finished, there is still more to come.”

Oh, so, so much more. A new era of Physics: it begins today.

……………………………………………………

I’m all abuzz, wishing I knew more about particle physics (I don’t work on LHC), vowing to learn more about particle physics. I keep repeating to myself everything I could parse: H to gamma gamma, excess, four lepton, five sigma…surely the signals each experiment is observing, if  they are the Higgs or not, are coming from the same thing. Or are they? Are the results really compatible? 1 GeV, is, well, quite a lot.

But me, abuzz? Oh, how small I truly am in this worldwide community of hundreds of thousands, who were all (to think!) that morning tuned into the same channel. Many of these people have been working to complete this theory, to detect this boson, to bring the LHC up to the unfathomable energy it can now achieve, since well before I was even alive. Peter Higgs himself didn’t believe it would happen in his lifetime, I heard him say.

……………………………………………………

My landlady, doing her honest best to comprehend what all the fuss is about, emerges from her room after watching twenty minutes of the German news.

“So, help me understand,” She says, with a look in her eye betraying that this time, just maybe, she thinks she’s got it.  “You have discovered an X chromosome,” she begins cautiously, “which can help you find the weight of the Universe?”

I smile.

Exactly.

……………………………………………………

*Full disclosure: I fell asleep breifly during the CMS talk. Nightshift, ja.

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One Response to “that goddamn particle”

  1. michael9murray Says:

    Excellent stuff: first hand account of the big reveal!!

    So, it was a little guy in there after all, and not a big bad wizard? Ja?

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