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.