Thursday, June 14, 2007

The race is still on ... again

Back when I first got interested in this project, what drew me to the story was the race between Fermilab and CERN to find the Higgs boson. Since we started filming nearly three years ago, that aspect of the story was downplayed by the Fermilab scientists ("it's a competitive collaboration." "It doesn't matter who gets there first; everybody wins." "We work there, they work here. It's not really about 'us' vs. 'them.' Well, sort of. But not really.") So we concentrated on other things, and turns out there were some really fascinating parts of the story (politics, culture, etc) that kept our attention.

But we're storytellers, and that notion of a race just kept simmering below the surface.

Well, it turns out we're not the only ones who have been thinking in terms of a competition. Despite assurances to the contrary from some physicists, there is definitely a race on, and there has always been. At least, according to the media there is. Consider this article from across the pond in The Guardian from London. I'll quote some choice bits for you. First of all, the article tells us of "a certain nervousness among Europe's scientific elite" as CERN grows closer to completion. They insist that when CERN is switched on in November of this year it will "hum into life as expected," yet nevertheless "there is an air of concern in the corridors and offices of the LHC's home at Cern, Europe's particle physics laboratory."

Why? Why is CERN concerned? Why are Europe's scientific elite breaking out into a sweat?

The competition, my friend, the competition. It's heating up. I love this part, the explanation of what's got the Europeans so nervous:

Such worries are focused less on the possible failure, however, and more on the issue of timing. Physicists know it will take months to tune their hadron collider (hadrons are a class of particle that includes the proton) to a perfect pitch so it churns out the data that they need to find new particles. And that gap could be awkward, for delays just might allow a bunch of upstart Americans, using a rival, older and less powerful device, to beat Europe to the draw. For the past few months, scientists at the Fermilab laboratory in Illinois have hinted that their ageing accelerator, the Tevatron, may be on the threshold of uncovering the Holy Grail of modern physics: the Higgs boson, or the God particle, as it is sometimes known.

"A bunch of upstart Americans?" Makes it sound like a few dudes got together in a parking lot. But it gets better:

Finding the Higgs was a prime reason for constructing the LHC [the collider at CERN]. Its tunnels, super-conducting magnets, experiment halls and banks of computers have been put together with this very much in mind. For almost a decade, Cern has concentrated on this project, at the expense of virtually all other research. But now, at the last minute, the Yanks are threatening to steal Europe's thunder: a galling prospect.

Oh, that's rich. "The Yanks: a galling prospect." It's funny that they say "at the last minute" here. Fermilab and "the yanks" have been searching for the Higgs all along, since the 70s and 80s. That was one of the main reasons we almost built the Superconducting Supercollider. If Fermilab does find the Higgs, it certainly won't be as if they just decided to start looking on a whim last year. Chris Quigg, one of the first theoretical physicists we interviewed, has dedicated a good part of his life to the search. And Leon Lederman wrote a whole book about it (unfortunately) titled "The God Particle." They even call it "The God Particle" in this article. [Lederman swears the editor forced that title on him because he said they had to sell more books].

And if there was any more doubt?

European scientists insist they are not downhearted. If the Americans want a battle, they can have one. 'We have spent most of the last decade building this machine,' says Professor Jim Virdee, of Imperial College London. 'Now we are almost there. There is a real buzz about the place. The race is on.'

The article is just loaded with juicy suggestions of a race between these two rival labs. And there is a really great setup here: a classic David and Goliath. CERN is seven times more powerful than Fermilab, it's brand new, and has a palpable buzz of excitement. Fermilab, on the other hand, is old (built in the late 60s), less powerful, and the scientists there are fully aware that its accelerator has only a couple of years of operation before the plug gets pulled. CERN estimates (with some bravado, perhaps) that they'll be lucky "to make more than one or two [Higgs particles] a day." It will therefore take "several months," we're told, before they can confirm they've found it. Several months? Sigh. Fermilab estimates it will take several years unless they're really lucky.

But luck may be on their side. Due to a most unfortunate, really, most unfortunate accident, some of the magnets that Fermilab built for CERN ... well, they blew up. Sorry! So the latest estimates, written after this article came out, are that CERN won't be up and running this November, but rather will be put back until April 2008. Oops!

All kidding aside, no one seriously believes that Fermilab did any kind of sabotage to hurt its rival's chances. And we don't either. But an article just sent to me by Monica today proclaims that Fermilab is now considering keeping the Tevatron, "Fermilab's venerable particle accelerator," up and running for an extra year.

Mmmm... sounds like a race to me...

But then again, I guess I AM in the media.


Moridura said...

I had high hopes that when CERN switched on the LHC in November of this year, they would inadvertently create a black hole, thus increasing the sales of my book, 'The Ancient Order of Moridura' (with a related theme of a nascent singularity created by a meteorite impact in Extremadura).

But then I realised that the extinction of the planet - and probably the solar system - would prevent me from collecting my royalties. Life can be unfair sometimes!

However, doomsday has been postponed until April/May of 2008 because of problems with magnets.

The Higgs boson must be chuckling quietly in interstellar space, its anonymity preserved for a little longer.

Clayton said...

It's true. Maybe it gives you enough time to write a sequel!

Hi Kooky said...

Some cliches for you:

The saga continues!
Never a dull moment!
When you least expect it, expect it!
May the best man win!
Blahbiddy blah blah!

Wow, you media guy you. Did you ever suspect the story would become so suspenseful? I'm very interested to see how this unfolds...

Anonymous said...

? did something happen at Fermi this weekend?

Clayton said...

Yes, there was a discovery from the D-zero experiment. They discovered a
baryon called the "cascade b" baryon, having three different kinds of quarks. It only lasts for a few trillionths of a second. I don't know much about it. I suspect that it was probably the source for all the rumors reported in my earlier post. As far as I know, it has nothing to do with the Higgs boson. Here's a link to the story.