Sunday, April 8, 2007

The story keeps going whether we want it to or not

That's our problem. We're editing, and things keep happening.

A new twist has developed, one that sounds straight out of a Grisham novel. Here are the facts: as you know if you've been reading, Fermilab (our heroes) are competing against the monolithic European goliath, CERN (the villain), to discover the secrets of the universe. Who will find it first? Does small but plucky Fermilab stand a chance?

OK, so that's not quite right. That maybe the pitch line we use to pique a film festival programmer's interest, but in fact the story is much more complex than that. Including the very blurred line between the two institutions. It's true they are in "competition" to find the Higgs Boson (and therefore take a crucial step towards understanding the fundamental way the universe works), but as Leon Lederman says, "it's a competitive collaboration." Fermilab would love to find it first, but after a few curse words and a stiff drink, they'd ultimately be glad if CERN found it first. The key thing in the physicists mind is that SOMEONE find it. Everyone will benefit. It's not as though this is the commercial science world, where CERN would slap a quick patent on the Higgs boson and it would become a corporate secret.

In fact, many of the Fermilab scientists are heavily involved in the work of building CERN and getting it ready to come online later this year. One of our main "characters," John Conway, has been actively involved in this for quite some time. Fermilab has been building parts and shipping them overseas to Geneva, where CERN is located, for a few years now. Some of the parts we've seen, long magnets to go inside the tunnel, have "FERMILAB" proudly emblazoned on them to indicate Fermilab's contribution to the glistening new machine that will ultimately drive their smaller, older one out of business.

But here's where the thriller novel plot twist comes in. As I've said, CERN will come online this year. But as Ben Kilminster, the rollerblading lead-singer / experimental physicist said, they'll come online for some preliminary tests, then in 2008 there will be higher-level tests, then finally, if nothing goes wrong, in 2009 they'll be taking real data. THEN, and only then, will they start looking for the Higgs boson in earnest. This means that Fermilab has about 48 or 60 months of operation to keep looking for the Higgs.

And the ironic thing is, the Tevatron, Fermilab's machine, is cranking on all cylinders. In fact, it's like they've added another cylinder to the engine, because it's roaring ahead, taking data at an unprecedented rate. Couple that with the recent discovery that the Higgs might lie more within Fermilab's target range than CERN's (see the "Where are those #$%@ keys??" entry below), and the folks at Fermilab are pretty excited.

And then --- uh, oh --- remember those magnets that Fermilab had built for CERN? The ones that are critical to getting CERN up and running on schedule? They were installed, tested, and .... BANG! Exploded! Ummm, oops. Hmmmm.... suspicous, you say? Fermilab building parts for the competition, and they blow up, you say? Now the schedule for CERN coming online is in serious jeopardy? Giving Fermilab even more time to find the Nobel-magnet Higgs boson? Hmmmmm.....

If you were thinking along those lines, you wouldn't be the only one. The science press has been all over this. A representative quote:

"CERN is reporting that the giant magnets that steer the particle beam
in the new and highly anticipated Large Hadron Collider have just
failed catastrophically in a stress test, apparently due to a design
oversight. It doesn't help that the magnets were designed and built by CERN's
US competitor Fermilab."

Here's the BBC article, complete with the photo of the "Fermilab" - labeled magnet in question. Here's the story from Australia, here's the story in the highly-respected journal Nature, specifically mentioning how it may delay the hunt for the Higgs and informing us that the failure caused a bang so loud the people nearby had to have their ears checked, and here is Fermilab's own article about it. The article in The Sunday Times from London quoted Pier Odonne, whom we have interviewed, as being "apparently furious and embarrased," and said that he wrote to his staff saying they had caused "a pratfall on the world stage." Apparently the error was a very simple oversight, and Pier said “We are dumb-founded that we missed some very simple balance of forces. Not only was it missed in the engineering design but also in the four engineering reviews carried out between 1998 and 2002 before launching the construction of the magnets.”

Also from that article: "Dr Lyn Evans, who leads the accelerator construction project at Cern, the European organisation for nuclear research, said the explosion had been potentially very dangerous.

“There was a hell of a bang, the tunnel housing the machine filled with helium and dust and we had to call in the fire brigade to evacuate the place,” he said. “The people working on the test were frightened to death but they were all in a safe place so no-one was hurt.” An investigation by Cern researchers found “fundamental” flaws that caused the explosion, close to the CMS detector, one of the LHC’s most important experiments."

And finally, as if John Grisham himself were writing the story, the article wraps up with "Coincidentally, Fermilab stands to gain most from delays at Cern. Its researchers also operate a rival but less powerful particle accelerator, the Tevatron. Fermilab staff are pushing the Tevatron to ever-higher energies hoping that they might find the Higgs boson before the LHC switches on. An LHC researcher said: “Ironically, this delay could be all they need.”

Do we believe Fermilab did it on purpose? Of course not. The Australian story got at that directly. It said "CERN has no suspicion that the failure was deliberate on the part of Fermilab, a spokesperson says. "Their scientific credibility would be compromised. It is in their interest that [the Large Hadron Collider] function properly," the CERN spokesperson says.

Monica and I have been struggling how to (and if to) incorporate this into our story. Even though we don't believe for a second that Fermilab did anything untoward in order to gain more time to look for the Higgs, as Monica said, we have to address it if it is a dramatic story element that affects the search for the Higgs and Fermilab's future.

Whew. Sometimes I wish everyone would just stop working for a few months while we get this movie done. Can't they just wait a while to find the answers to the mysteries of the universe? I mean, is it really THAT important? Sigh.