Magazine article The New Yorker

Special Particle

Magazine article The New Yorker

Special Particle

Article excerpt

Thunder rolled in a purple sky as the physicist Joe Incandela raced through the Swiss countryside in his car, past blurring bales of hay. Incandela, who is the spokesman for the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at CERN, the organization for nuclear research, near Geneva, was trying to beat a convoy of American astronauts, with whom he'd just had lunch, back to the Large Hadron Collider, so that he could show them around. It was late July. Several weeks earlier, Incandela and his colleagues had announced that they'd observed evidence of the existence of the Higgs boson, which helps explain--this is the version without terms like "top quark" and "the five-sigma signal"--how subatomic particles, and thus all the elementary matter in the universe, acquire mass. Incandela pushed a pair of sunglasses up into his hair, which is gray, with a choirboy part, betraying his American origins. (In addition to his duties at CERN, he is a professor at U.C. Santa Barbara.) He said that he'd hardly been sleeping. "I was at home, and I called one of the members of the group," he said, recalling the evening, in June, when he'd first got an inkling that they had the Higgs. "She said, 'I saw the data, and it's beautiful.' "

"It sounds like getting a sonogram," his passenger said.

"Yes--and not even knowing that you were pregnant."

Every once in a while, a concept of sufficient abstraction comes along--remember superstring theory?--that it is impossible to fathom without resorting to metaphor. We break out the football fields and the grains of sand. This summer, the Higgs has emerged as one of the genre's greatest muses. If it's not the treacle that prevents a balloon from traversing a room, or the hangers on who thwart a celebrity's course to the bar, it's a packet of sugar dumped--as someone did in a TV demonstration--on a bunch of Ping-Pong balls. Got it? In a single article, the Times likened the Higgs to both a "cosmic molasses" through which particles move, "gain[ing] heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments," and--in a particularly Homeric moment--"Omar Sharif materializing out of the shimmering desert as a man on a camel in 'Lawrence of Arabia.' " The Higgs suggests that there could be more dimensions of space-time than we previously thought. Incandela spoke about it in terms of a safari. You can bet that an elephant was there because of what the elephant left behind. …

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