When I did my undergraduate studies in physics at UC Berkeley, the textbooks (always a generation behind) celebrated the accomplishments of great particle physicists of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The author lists on the papers, typically eight people, offered a picture of personal and meaningful participation in revealing the mysteries of the universe.
When I stood one step down on the stage at Wheeler Hall, giving my thesis adviser a height assist when passing the Ph.D. sash over my head, the realities of research in the field of particle physics had completely changed. While I had worked on an eight-person experiment, the theorists had dismissed the results even before they were published. Many of my peers worked as members of geographically dispersed teams, either national or international in scope. The design and commissioning of apparatus had become major engineering projects requiring a decade or more to complete. Some of them never sat shift to acquire data, but published a thesis based upon computer simulations of what their data would look like when (or in some cases, sadly, if) their experiment was run. They were forgotten cogs in collaborations involving hundreds of scientists.
The sociological side-effects of these changes could be disconcerting. The lead scientist on my post-doctoral research project acquired most of his wealth trading property in the vicinity of Fermilab, sited in bucolic countryside that sprouted suburbs to house the staff of engineers and technicians that kept the facility running. Where once a region could host a cutting-edge experimental facility, eventually the sponsors became states, then nations. The site selection process for the Superconducting Super Collider, the follow-on to Fermilab, was a political circus, eventually falling in favor of Texas during the first Bush administration. The project was cancelled in a budget-cutting exercise during the Clinton Administration. This left CERN, the European competitor to Fermilab, as the only facility in active development in the world, with thousands of researchers dependent upon its survival.
Obviously managing the experimental program at such a facility requires an acute political ear – not just to manage the out-sized egos of the researchers themselves, but in packaging a pitch for politicians approving billion-dollar line-items in their budgets. I watched with trepidation as every year a low-statistics survey was done at the limits of the machine’s operating range, with the expected anomalies in the data held out as evidence that there was “something right around the corner” to be uncovered if the machine was allowed to continue to operate. This happened year-after-year, and that can have bad consequences: the frustration of the funding community creates pressure that causes things like the Challenger disaster to happen.
When I left the field in 1995 (yes, 1995! And it’s still relevant!), two specific problems were held out as motivations for continued funding. First, the equations used to calculate reaction probabilities developed a serious anomaly at the energies targeted by the next set of improvements: the values were greater than unity. Since an experiment can have only one outcome, this was held out as proof that something new would be discovered. The other problem was the existence of the Higgs boson, known popularly as the god particle.
There are many explanations for that soubriquet: “God Particle”. Some attribute it to Stephen Weinberg, a theorist whose frustration with the difficulty of proving or disproving its existence led him to call it “that god-damned particle.” I had a personal view, which was that every time theoretical physics ran into a difficulty, it seemed to be resolved by introducing another Higgs-like particle. But the cynic might also be forgiven if he claimed that the Higgs had become a magic mantra that induced compliance in mystified politicians, and spirited money out of public coffers – pretty much as atheists like to claim religions do.
So what is the Higgs particle?