A date with physics history
2 June 2022
At 8 AM on the morning of July 4, 2012, I boarded a flight in Sydney, Australia, bound for Melbourne and a date with physics history. I had spent the previous couple of days sightseeing, and getting acclimated to the new time zone. The aircraft was a 747 that had just come to Sydney from the US bearing many particle physicists that I knew, and we were able to help each other find our way from the airport to the Melbourne Central Business District. There was time to get settled in to my hotel and find lunch before putting on what I hoped would be suitable clothing for a first date with physics history and then walking over to the Melbourne Convention Centre to check in for the 2012 International Conference on High Energy Physics, the most important conference in the field.
While most of the world’s eyes were on CERN that day, I had made my plans to go to ICHEP long beforehand; while I would not normally take the time and expense to go to a conference in Australia, I had been asked to serve as a parallel track chair for the conference, and it seemed like a good thing to have on my CV. But Melbourne may have been the best place to watch that day’s special CERN seminar, as we were assured that there would be an excellent video feed, and I did not have to camp out overnight to get a seat in the auditorium!
To be sure, I knew what was going to be presented in the seminar — or half of the seminar. My collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider, the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment, had been working furiously to analyze the most recent LHC data, some of which had been recorded just weeks beforehand, to have results ready in time for ICHEP, where we planned to present an update on the search for the Higgs boson. The results had already been shown internally as part of the review of the work. The real question was what our competitors on the ATLAS experiment would be able to show for themselves. Of course, it was hard to imagine that the joint CMS/ATLAS seminar would have been allowed to proceed at all if the two experiments didn’t have comparable results. I spoke to a US colleague from ATLAS while standing in the long, snaking registration line in the conference center foyer. “Yeah, we have it,” he said, and I confirmed similarly for us.
After getting my name tag, I went into the auditorium. Might as well try to get a seat down front for such a momentous event. I sat down next to Joel Butler, who at that time was the manager of the US CMS Operations Program, and who would become the spokesperson of CMS in 2016-17. There was a woman sitting on the other side of me who I didn’t know; I engaged her in conversation, and learned that she was a general assignment reporter for the Australian Associated Press, who had been dispatched to write a story about the event. She didn’t have much of a science background and seemed a little concerned about whether she knew enough to write a proper news report. As a proud member of the Quantum Diaries blogging team, I assured her that we would be able to help. This casual offer would lead to fifteen seconds of fame (or perhaps infamy) for myself and Quantum Diaries.*
The seminar itself has been well-documented, including the cheers that broke out in the middle of the presentations (I don’t think I’ve seen that before or since), ATLAS spokesperson (and now CERN Director General) Fabiola Gianotti’s commitment to the Comic Sans font, and CMS spokesperson Joe Incandela’s big thumbs up at the press conference held later. I spent the seminar madly updating my Quantum Diaries blog post! Looking back on it now, I think I did a decent job of capturing the scene at ICHEP. The seminar was followed by the conference welcoming reception, where I think all of us mostly had the feeling of “well, we did it”. I did not linger long, as I felt like I had more writing to do — another QD post, and some text that I hoped would be useful for the university (which seems to have been lost from the internet). I did this from the hotel, where a slew of physicists were jamming up the wireless network.
While those first days of the Higgs boson were exciting, they were only the beginning. What was announced on July 4, 2012 was a bona fide discovery, but at that point we didn’t quite know what we had discovered, and we knew that there was going to be much work ahead to characterize the new particle. For the past ten years, the Higgs boson has been part of the life of every scientist working on the LHC, either because they were involved in recording and processing additional data that included Higgs boson production, were directly working on measuring Higgs properties, or participating in the many activities of the experimental collaborations that make our measurements possible.
I’ve done some of all of these things over the past decade. I’m still a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where we still operate a computing center that hosts data for CMS and makes our resources available to collaborators all over the world. But in that time I’ve also led all of software and computing operations for CMS, which led to my role as Deputy Manager of the US CMS Operations Program and the principal investigator for the National Science Foundation award that helps fund the program. I’ve also worked on several measurements of Higgs boson properties, by searching for rare Higgs production modes. And I do my best to keep up with the many physics measurements that CMS is making, although that is a challenge when CMS sometimes publishes a hundred papers in a single year (and more than a thousand over the lifetime of the experiment so far). The breadth of the LHC physics program is just amazing, and we expect that the next decade will bring us at least as much new knowledge of particle physics as the previous one did. I’ll write more about some of these scientific opportunities in a future post.
* All I have to say about Ms. Gannon’s article is that the words “kindly” and “unhelpful”, which appear there, also appear frequently in student evaluations of my teaching.