What does it take to get physicists to queue up overnight just to attend a morning seminar? In the case of CERN, the high-energy physics laboratory near Geneva, it takes the discovery of the decade.
On July 4, in an event timed to coincide with a big physics conference in Australia, CERN unveiled strong evidence that it had found a particle known as the Higgs boson. If you’ve heard the joke about the bishop and the Higgs, you know that this is the particle responsible for giving mass. (Although that’s a bit of an oversimplification — the Higgs particle is a byproduct of the Higgs field, which is the thing responsible, in the very early days of the universe, for slowing down particles zipping around at light speed and hence imbuing them with mass.)
Like other American reporters not fortunate enough to have scored a plane ticket to CERN or to Australia, I got up in the wee hours of the holiday morning to cover the announcement via webcast. I didn’t really mind losing sleep, though; I’d been wondering about the Higgs since the early 1990s, when I was a science writing intern at the Dallas Morning News. That was back in the days when Congress had promised billions to construct a Higgs-hunting machine below Waxahachie, south of Dallas. This Superconducting Super Collider employed a lot of people in North Texas, but Congress cancelled the project in 1993 after only one-quarter of the tunnel had been dug. Today the SSC is a hole filled with water, and a set of abandoned buildings on the prairie. As I watched the CERN physicists proudly announce their data, I couldn’t help but remember all the Texans who had invested years of their lives in the SSC, only to see it slip away on a single Congressional vote.
Science News has put together a series of stories about the Higgs discovery and its significance, including a basic news story from me here, and a nice essay from Tom Siegfried (my former boss in both Dallas and at Science News) here.