By Kate Lunau and Katie Engelhart - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - 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 - 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.