By Kate Lunau - Wednesday, December 26, 2012 - 0 Comments
Science’s big bet paid off when the ‘God particle’ was discovered courtesy of the monstrous Hadron Collider
For nearly five decades, scientists have been searching for a missing piece of the universe—one that’s infinitesimally small, incredibly elusive, yet explains why everything as we know it exists. On July 4, an announcement came from Geneva, where the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is based: a team of thousands, working on a massive underground particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider, had confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson. The “God particle” had been found.
Named for theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, who dreamed it up in 1964, the Higgs boson particle has long been the missing piece of the Standard Model of particle physics, which describes the universe’s basic building blocks. It was Higgs’s answer to a question that had scientists stumped: where does mass come from? Mass gives shape to the universe, holding protons and neutrons together to make atoms, and then molecules, and then all of us. Higgs suggested particles obtain mass by passing through an invisible force field that stretches through the universe. “The [Higgs field] fills all of space,” says Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont. “It’s the medium in which we live,” and the Higgs boson particle is evidence of that field. Continue…
By Kate Lunau and Katie Engelhart - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
A special report from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland
For the past 22 years, Pierre Savard has, off and on, been searching for the Higgs boson particle. On the morning of July 4—shortly before physicists at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) were scheduled to present their historic findings—Savard, associate professor of experimental particle physics at the University of Toronto, awoke just outside Geneva, where CERN’s sprawling complex is nestled amidst lush vineyards, with the imposing peaks of Mont Blanc as backdrop. Buried 100 m underground is the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, built at a cost of $10 billion to help physicists unravel the mysteries of the universe.
By the time Savard arose (somewhat sluggishly, as he’d been working on “Higgs analysis” until 2 a.m.), the facility’s main auditorium was already full. The summer students at CERN had camped out all night. Aysha Abdel-Aziz, a University of Toronto undergraduate working on Higgs search data analysis, was monitoring Facebook at 12.30 a.m., which flashed news of a swelling crowd. “At 1:30, I thought, man, I’ve got to get over there,” she recalls. “I got there at 2 a.m., and I’m glad I did. Because by 4 it was too late.” Students hunkered down outside the auditorium to wait with sleeping bags and food and cameras.
Around 4:30 a.m., says Abdel-Aziz, a cluster of grey-haired physicists showed up. Discouraged by the lineup, which by then had snaked down the stairs and wound around the hall, they left. Savard, meanwhile, made his way to the lobby of his laboratory, where the morning’s events were being live streamed. The four screening rooms were full, but he managed to hustle a chair. Displaced by their youthful proteges, the world’s most seasoned particle physicists were relegated to back rooms, packed like sardines into satellite auditoriums around the complex. Some grasped bottles of champagne. Soon they would, most uncharacteristically, be shouting.
By Katie Engelhart - Monday, July 9, 2012 at 10:55 AM - 0 Comments
Hundreds of people, physics lovers and those that don’t know the difference between an electron and proton alike, are making the pilgrimage to Geneva
ON A RECENT MORNING at the airport in Geneva, a middle-aged North American man boards the bus that will take me to my hotel. “CERN. This goes to CERN?” The bus driver stares blankly. “CERN?” And shrugs. Not this bus.
A day after the long-awaited discovery of the Higgs boson was announced at CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research), pilgrimages to the ‘50s-era research site have already begun.
Later that morning, CERN’s main lobby swims with tourists. Visitors leaf through glossy brochures and browse a small gift shop, which sells slim volumes on particle physics and construction industry hard hats bearing the CERN logo.
In a few moments, my tour group gathers.
We are first ushered into a dark theatre to watch an introductory film. Those of us who have travelled to Geneva to bear witness to Higgs mania are quickly disappointed. The film was made in 2004 and is woefully outdated. Over ominous music and landscape shots of CERN’s sprawling research complex, a narrator speaks of an as-yet-to-be-discovered Higgs boson.
When the lights are switched on, Mohammed, our lanky tour guide, arrives to fetch us. He is dressed like many of CERN’s top researchers: in sneakers and a pastel blue t-shirt.
Onward, to the headquarters of ATLAS: one of the experiments that detected the boson. En route, two girls pause to take photos. Paean Sozoryoku, a 21-year-old physics student from Melbourne, has dragged her friend to Geneva’s outskirts to see the site: “to be inquisitive.” Her blue sundress flapping around her, she points—most inquisitively—to some equipment in the distance.
Her friend, who does not study physics, is less enthralled. Paean has had trouble explaining some basic concepts to her: “like, how do we know [the boson] exists if we can’t see it?”
Inside the main doors, we are separated from ATLAS’s “control room” by a single glass panel. We press our noses to the surface to watch a dozen or so graduate students at work. Computer screens flash lines of code and graphs. It is just as we imagined.
Breaking the silence, Edgar Valdez, a sturdily built American with a neatly shaved head, makes note of the building’s shabby facade. A philosophy teacher at Seton Hall University, Valdez is interested in the philosophy of science and math. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t philosophize about Higgs bosons; but he reads up about particle physics—when he is not busy teaching undergraduate classes on Locke, Hume and the like.
Next is a 3D video that chronicles, in excruciating detail, the difficulty of moving heavy machinery around the research site. And then a video game, which lets us take turns playing the role of a Large Hydron Collider (LHC) sensor.
Erik Hoogendorp, a 43-year-old artist from the Netherlands, doesn’t play along. He is too busy pressing Mohammed for more detailed information on “Z particles.” Tall and wearing the required uniform of the Euro artiste—plaid shirt and skinny jeans—Erik has travelled to Geneva to meet with a CERN physicist, with whom he hopes to collaborate on a physics-inspired art project. I peer at Erik’s iPhone, as he flips through images of his work: dotted representations of a tree, a sock. Erik says he wants his work to address “dark matter and the exotic stuff that touches the fantasy.”
On the way out, I bump into Caroline Walsh, an Irish woman who has just left a museum exhibit on the “History of the Universe.” A chemist, Caroline came to central Geneva for a UN conference on “the globally harmonized system of classification and labeling of chemicals.” She didn’t stick around.
“I skipped out of the UN early,” she whispers, with hyperbolic furtiveness. “Don’t tell my boss!”
Back in the lobby, the tourists disperse. Lazing about out on the couches, awaiting the next tour, is a high school physics group from King Edwards School in England. Henry Matthews, 17, tells me he plans to pursue “particle physics and cosmology” at university, and wants to be the scientist who discovers dark matter. If all that doesn’t work out, Henry hopes to become a music technician. (He sings backup and plays drums and guitar.) I ask him if he will write songs about dark matter. He looks bored; “I’ll write dark music.”
At reception, Marc, a calm Frenchman in charge of the information desk, confirms a spike in tourists following Wednesday’s big announcement. Weekend tours of CERN, he says, are now booked solid until early September.
But it’s not just the quantity of tourists that has changed, Marc adds. “There are tourists here now who… otherwise would not be here. In French, we would call them Monsieur et Madame tout le monde.”
With a curt nod, I rejoin the ranks of the Higgs-hunting Joe Shmoes.
By Katie Engelhart - Friday, July 6, 2012 at 3:26 PM - 0 Comments
Or rather, ‘restaurant,’ where CERN physicists can eat three meals a day—and talk science
A few days after the discovery of the Higgs boson was announced, the physicists who “found” it could be spotted sitting in patio chairs outside their main research site, eating heaping plates of cafeteria-prepared moules frites under a scorching Swiss sun.
Inside the massive cafeteria at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva), gaggles of 20-something graduate students navigate between breathtakingly overpriced food stations. Seated along smooth white tables, multi-generational and multi-ethnic clusters of physicists talk excitedly. Most are male; and most wear some variation of short-sleeved button-down and sneakers. Approaching 1pm, conversations linger over slices of cake and jars of apple juice.
The cafeteria is often where the magic happens, says Dr. Manuella Vincter, a physicist who works on ATLAS, one of the experiments that detected the Higgs boson. Offices at CERN are almost disconcertingly shabby, and the world’s top scientific theoreticians are often packed three or four to a cavernous, concrete room. The cafeteria offers physicists a respite from the darkness, and an open place to talk.
In fact, CERN physicists bristle when I offhandedly refer to the space as a “cafeteria.” It’s a “restaurant:” or “R1,” in the characteristically to-the-point parlance of its frequent customers.
The physicists, perhaps, have a right to be touchy about language. Many eat three meals a day in their “restaurant.” Just hours after the existence “the God particle” was announced to the public, most researchers found themselves back at R1, eating especially quickly to make up for time lost that morning. They were not, as one Maclean’s editor hypothesized, feting the long-sought-after boson with “nerd Mardi Gras” celebrations. They were, instead, back at work.
CERN, a massive complex of 1950s-era buildings that sits atop the Large Hadron Collider, is like a summer camp. Many researchers live on site: in one of a few “hostels” that are visible from R1’s patio. In the hostel occupied by summer students, residents are not permitted food or alcohol in their rooms. Longer-term researchers generally live off-site, but within walking distance, in apartment complexes occupied almost entirely by physicists. Dr. Anadi Canepa, a research scientist who works on antimatter, used to live a few kilometers away—but she moved back into a CERN hostel “to save time.” Canepa’s daily stops—office, cafeteria, and apartment building—are within steps of each other. In her first two years at CERN, the petite physicist took only seven days off.
So everyone relishes small vacations at R1. About a week ago, Dr. Peter Higgs himself, the boson’s namesake, was spotted at one of the restaurant’s tables. He was eating lunch alone.
Because they admittedly don’t get out much, many CERN physicists, like Canepa, are married to other CERN physicists. (Canepa’s husband also works in antimatter). They shake their heads when I ask if their first-borns will be named “Higgs.”
Around 7pm, the patio outside R1 is bustling again. Perhaps the next major discovery to come out of CERN is being plotted. But it doesn’t look like that.
If their shirts had sleeves, it would be fair to say the physicists have rolled them up for the evening. With no pubs within easy distance of the research facility, physicists often spend their evenings sipping beer in R1’s garden, with the peaks of Mount Blanc as a backdrop.
Some tell me they will go back to work later.
By Kate Lunau - Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 10:28 AM - 0 Comments
Scientists at the world’s biggest atom smasher have announced the discovery of a brand-new…
Scientists at the world’s biggest atom smasher have announced the discovery of a brand-new particle—and it looks an awful lot like the long-sought Higgs boson, also known as the “God particle,” without which the universe as we know it wouldn’t exist.
“We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature,” Rolf Heuer, director of the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN), told a crowd of scientists, to cheers and a standing ovation. The existence of this particle was confirmed in two separate experiments at the Large Hadron Collider—a massive underground particle accelerator that spans the border of France and Switzerland—and there’s less than a one-in-a-million chance that the data is a fluke. Peter Higgs, the Edinburgh-based physicist who theorized the existence of the Higgs boson, was there as the announcement was made, and wiped away a tear. The 83-year-old told the crowd: “It is an incredible thing that has happened in my lifetime.”
Higgs and other theorists first proposed the existence of the Higgs boson more than half a century ago to explain a mystery: Why do most elementary particles have mass? Without mass, as CERN notes, there would be no atoms; no chemistry; no biology—and certainly none of us. But the concept of mass has long been a sticking point in the Standard Model, which describes all known elementary particles, and how they interact.
To help explain it, physicists came up with the Higgs mechanism: an invisible field that stretches across space and gives mass to these particles. The Higgs boson particle is a manifestation of this, but of all the particles predicted by the Standard Model, it was the only one that hadn’t been observed. To search for the Higgs boson, the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider—called the world’s biggest science experiment—smashed protons together, recreating conditions that existed just after the Big Bang, when Higgs boson particles were theorized to exist.
This new particle looks startlingly like the Higgs boson—but what if it’s something even more strange and exotic? After all, just a measly four per cent of the entire universe is made up of matter we can see. The remaining 96 per cent is believed to be dark matter and dark energy, which we still know almost nothing about. As scientists learn more about this new subatomic particle—whether it’s a Higgs boson or something previously unimagined—it will open a new door on our understanding of the universe.
By Kate Lunau - Friday, February 17, 2012 at 4:42 PM - 0 Comments
Scientists promise new results on the God particle in the next few months
Kate Lunau is covering the 2012 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, a gathering of some of the world’s finest brains and celebrities of science. On Feb. 16-20, Lunau will bring you a sneak peak of the latest research and findings, posting to Macleans.ca on anything from healthcare and climate change, to food security, and more. Follow Kate on Twitter: @Katelunau, #AAAS, #AAASmtg.
The AAAS meeting began at the crack of 8 a.m. today, with seminars, symposiums and press briefings already competing for attention. One big announcement came not from Vancouver, but Geneva: World Health Organization officials agreed to extend a temporary moratorium on research into a lab-modified strain of the H5N1 flu virus, which will keep the controversial work secret for now. A morning meeting to talk about the decision had to compete with another star attraction: a briefing about the latest results from the Large Hadron Collider and Fermilab, which is where I ended up.
By Colby Cosh - Friday, June 17, 2011 at 11:05 AM - 0 Comments
There isn’t much antimatter in the universe, but a team of Canadians is trapping atoms of it
Particle physicist Makoto Fujiwara has been studying antimatter professionally for 12 years. But his interest in the exotic mirror-image of ordinary matter dates back to a Japanese boyhood full of science fiction and pop-sci expository literature. “Experimenting with antimatter means peeking into a missing other side of our universe,” he says. “Nobody, for instance, has ever been able to measure what happens to antimatter in a gravity field. When you drop an apple, it falls down. What would happen to an anti-apple?” Physicists, he says, would expect it to behave exactly like its twin; but until they watch it happen, they can never be certain.
Fujiwara (who is affiliated with the University of Calgary and the national TRIUMF particle-physics consortium) and other Canadians are moving ever closer to planting one of those anti-apple trees. There isn’t much antimatter around in our universe. Tiny amounts are being created all the time by cosmic-ray and radioactive-decay processes, but when antimatter comes into contact with ordinary “positive” matter, both are annihilated instantly. Beams of antimatter particles can be created in a vacuum, however, and the ALPHA Collaboration, an international team that includes the Canadians, has been working on the next step: combining those particles into atoms and molecules of actual antistuff, and magnetically trapping that stuff long enough to study it.
The natural starting point is with the simplest of the elements: hydrogen. A hydrogen molecule has just one electron and one proton, and so an antihydrogen atom can be made from one anti-electron (a “positron”) and one antiproton. These particles are exotic little beasts, but if you have ever had a PET scan you have already benefited from the routine use of antimatter. Positrons are what the “P” stands for.