After the Higgs! | Bleader

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

After the Higgs!

Posted By on 09.05.07 at 08:29 PM

Fascinating reading in the Wednesday morning Tribune. The quest for the Higgs boson at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago has reached its end game. With just a few more months to bag the elusive boson, the Fermi lab is in what the Tribune called a "flat-out sprint." because next year the Large Hadron Collider comes on line outside Geneva, Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider is a particle accelerator 17 miles in circumference, some four times that of Fermi's, and it will bring seven times the subatomic-particle-smashing power to the Higgs campaign. From then on, all the action will be over there.

A colleague blew into my office today bubbling with pleasure at the Tribune story, in which the top quark is compared to a "giant jellyfish," massless particles to "tiny minnows," and the Higgs field of bosons to the "invisible ocean in which we swim." More than merely invisible, the Higgs boson might not exist at all: researchers assume it's there "only because modern physics would not make sense without it." This lends the hunt for the Higgs (AKA the "God particle") a certain piquancy.

Had I read the article? Certainly, I told my colleague, and there's a story behind the story. Later I turned to the Tribune archives to refresh my memory. Ah, yes. Back in the 80s Washington was plotting a "supercollider" -- a 54-mile-long ring 20 times as powerful as Fermi's. It would put not only Fermi but even the accelerator Europe was building to shame. Naturally, Fermi and Chicago wanted it built here.

Politics intervened. Soon after George H.W. Bush was elected president in 1988, the decision was made to locate the supercollider south of Dallas. Then more politics intervened. In 1993 Congress pulled the plug on the $13 billion project. With $2 billion already spent and nearly 15 miles of tunnel built, Congress allocated just enough new money to the project to shut it down. Scientists wept.

A sidebar to the latest Tribune article alluded to this history. "How did Europe manage to build a physics facility that is pushing Fermilab to the brink of obsolescence?" it asked. The answer --stability. The Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN) was created by treaty in 1954, is funded by 20 Europeans nations, and is so solid financially it can borrow from banks. "There are many days when I envy the situation in Geneva," the director of Fermilab told the Tribune.

Who wrote the Tribune article? I asked my colleague.

But she hadn't noticed. And neither had I. I'd meant to turn back to page one and find out, but --well, I hadn't. Now I went on online and looked.

Jeremy Manier. Journalists, like scientists, learn they will enjoy their work much more once they put aside thoughts of public acclaim.

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