Chasing the Higgs Boson

Vivek Sharma missed his daughter.
A professor at the University of California, San Diego, Dr. Sharma had to spend months at a time away from home, coordinating a team of physicists at the Large Hadron Collider, here just outside Geneva. But on April 15, 2011, Meera Sharma’s 7th birthday, he flew to California for some much-needed family time. “We had a fine birthday, a beautiful day,” he recalled.
Then Dr. Sharma was alerted to a blog post. There it was reported that a rival team of physicists had beaten his team to the discovery of the Higgs boson — the long-sought “God particle.”
If his rivals were right, it would mean a cascade of Nobel Prizes flowing in the wrong direction and, even more vexingly, that Dr. Sharma and his colleagues had missed one of nature’s clues and thus one of its greatest prizes; that the dream of any physicist — to know something that nobody else has ever known — was happening to someone else.
He flew back to Geneva the next day. “My wife was stunned,” he recalled.
He would not see them again for months.
Dr. Sharma and his colleagues had every reason to believe that they were closing in on the Great White Whale of modern science: the Higgs boson, a particle whose existence would explain all the others then known and how they fit together into the jigsaw puzzle of reality.
For almost half a century, physicists had chased its quantum ghost through labyrinths of mathematics and logic, and through tons of electronics at powerful particle colliders, all to no avail.
Now it had come down to the Large Hadron Collider, where two armies of physicists, each 3,000 strong, struggled against each other and against nature, in a friendly but deadly serious competition.
In physics tradition, they were there to check and complement each other in a $10 billion experiment too valuable to trust to only one group, no matter how brilliant and highly motivated.
The stakes were more than just Nobel Prizes, bragging rights or just another quirkily named addition to the zoo of elementary particles that make up nature at its core. The Higgs boson would be the only visible manifestation of the Harry Potterish notion put forward back in 1964 (most notably by Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh) that there is a secret, invisible force field running the universe. (The other theorists were François Englert and Robert Brout, both of Université Libre de Bruxelles; and Tom Kibble of Imperial College, London, Carl R. Hagen of the University of Rochester and Gerald Guralnik of Brown University.)
Elementary particles — the electrons and other subatomic riffraff running around in our DNA and our iPhones — would get their masses from interacting with this field, the way politicians draw succor from cheers and handshakes at the rope line.
Without this mystery field, everything in the universe would be pretty much the same, a bland fizz of particles running around at the speed of light. With it, there could be atoms and stars, and us.
Leon Lederman, the former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, in Illinois, where the boson was being sought, once called it “the God particle,” scandalizing his colleagues but delighting journalists, who kept using the name. Dr. Lederman later said that he wanted to call it the “goddamn particle.”
The “Easter Bump Hunt” of April 2011, as it came to be called, was only one episode in a roller coaster of sleepless nights, bright promises, missed clues, false alarms, euphoria, depression, gritty calculation, cooperation and envy, all the tedium and vertiginous notions of modern science.
On the way to fulfill what they thought was their generation’s rendezvous with scientific destiny, the physicists dangled from harnesses in hard hats to construct detectors bigger than apartment buildings in underground caverns. They strung wires and cranked bolts to coax thousand-ton magnets to less than a thousandth of an inch of where they needed to be. They wrote millions of lines of code to calibrate and run devices that would make NASA engineers stand by the track with their hats in their hands in admiration.
In their down time, they proposed marriage and made rap videos in the tunnels where subatomic particles collided. They ate, slept and partied, threw snowballs and worried that an unguarded smile in the cafeteria or a glance at a friend’s laptop could bias a half-billion-dollar experiment or give away cosmic secrets.
Maria Spiropulu, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, put it this way in an e-mail, “The experiments are very large collaborations and they have the good, the bad, the crooks, the Sopranos, the opportunists — a prototype of the world as we know it.”

By Dennis Overbye

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