How the Higgs boson was lost and found

Part of the European accelerator that discovered the particle. America's version stalled years ago. Inquirer archive
Part of the European accelerator that discovered the particle. America's version stalled years ago. Inquirer archive
Posted: July 17, 2012

It took a very large village to find the Higgs boson — one with 10,000 scientists and engineers who came from 600 institutions in more than 100 countries. In the variety of languages one hears at the European Organization for Nuclear Research near Geneva, better known as CERN, it resembles the Olympic Village. But its common language is physics, not sports, and CERN differs from the other village in another important way: It aims to advance science through international cooperation; matters of national pride are left at the door.

CERN is also unlike the Olympic Village in that it will not disappear after a few weeks. In fact, it has existed since nearly 60 years ago. At that time, on a continent still recovering from the ravages of World War II, 12 European nations banded together to build an accelerator that would smash particles together to find out more about matter's basic constituents. They faced the challenge of making steady financial contributions to the organization despite the fluctuations of their currencies — no mean task in those pre-euro days.

The village's call was heeded by visiting scientists from around the world, including physicists from my home institution, the University of Pennsylvania. Large particle accelerators were built, the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, being the last in a series of ever more powerful machines. The results have been extraordinary — including the discovery of the long-sought Higgs boson, the elementary particle that is thought to impart mass to other particles.

CERN has been a model for international collaboration. It now has 20 European members, including Greece and Spain. Difficult times have challenged but not threatened its existence.

Americans are rightly known for entrepreneurship, innovation, and major scientific successes such as the Human Genome Project and the Hubble Space Telescope. All too often, however, we have allowed political considerations to trump our best laid plans.

About 30 years ago, the United States began working on an accelerator that would have been even bigger and more powerful than the LHC. It was known as the SSC, or Superconducting Super Collider. Federal funds for its construction were approved year after year, subject to ups and downs — mainly downs — that delayed construction and led to overruns.

With Jim Wright of Fort Worth serving as House speaker and his fellow Texan George H.W. Bush headed for the White House, a Texas site was chosen for the SSC. That was perhaps fatal: It's been said that after that, the number of senators in favor of the project dropped from 100 to two — the senators from Texas.

If the SSC had gone forward, the Higgs boson probably would have been discovered a decade ago in the small town of Waxahachie, near Dallas. Instead, Congress canceled the project in 1993, leaving little to show for the $2 billion it spent but a huge underground tunnel that would have housed the accelerator.

In the 1950s and '60s, the United States was unquestionably the world's dominant force in this field. The discovery of the Higgs in Switzerland underlines the passing of the torch. And yet we should not see this antagonistically, as a triumph of Europe over the United States. Europe may have led, but the victory was achieved by the world's scientists, who set aside their national identities and worked as an ensemble.

There are lessons to be learned from this story apart from elementary particle physics. We need to put away our political differences and, occasionally, even our supposed national interests. And we must examine ideas carefully and then consistently fund and encourage the ones we deem important.

This principle holds true at every level. If we follow it, almost anything is possible. If we don't, we wind up spending $2 billion for a hole in the ground.

Gino Segrè is an emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of "Ordinary Geniuses: Max Delbrück, George Gamow, and the Origins of Genomics and Big Bang Cosmology." He spent three years in residence at CERN.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|