Tova Holmes and Maximilian Swiatlowski

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Finding our Place in Discovery

Tova Holmes and Maximilian Swiatlowski

30 June 2022

Tova Holmes and Maximilian Swiatlowski
Tova Holmes, Assistant Professor, University of Tennessee
Maximilian Swiatlowski, Associate Research Scientist, TRIUMF

It was midnight, newly the fourth of July, and the three of us were in a CERN hostel room, strategizing. We were on to plan B: originally we’d intended to tote our hostel pillows to the auditorium, get a good night’s sleep on the floor between two rows of seats, and wake up with an unbeatable location to witness the announcement. But of course we’d been foiled. Earlier that day, we’d found the CERN auditorium locked and barricaded. Clearly we weren’t the only ones who’d thought of this.

We weighed our options, and chose what we thought was a safe strategy. The announcement was at 9AM, and so long as we arrived at a truly unreasonable hour, we’d have sure spots. We’d get two hours of sleep, and at 2AM, we’d stake out a spot outside the auditorium. We packed a bag with bananas, nut bars, and a bottle of wine, and tried to get as much rest as we could.

When the alarm went off, we groggily grabbed our provisions, and walked through the dark parking lot to Building 500. When the sliding door opened, we immediately knew we’d miscalculated. We had expected a few like-minded students, huddled by the door, probably napping. What we found instead was a crowd of nearly one hundred, camped out along the wall and stretching down to the end of the hallway. The lounge furniture had been repurposed as beds, and most of the hostel’s blanket supply cushioned the floor. But few people slept.

There was excitement in the air. It had been building for some time now: we had been narrowing in on the Higgs for the last year, and had started to see hints of it last Christmas. We had seen the paper drafts from our own collaboration, and had heard whispers from the other side of the ring. The day before, we had spotted Peter Higgs in the hall, passing by just as his companion told him, “Good luck tomorrow.” Today would be a moment in history – and we had to be there to see it.

We took our place in the line. There were 200 seats in the auditorium: we would still be fine. By 4AM the line had wrapped down the narrow corridor and back up again, dangerously close to overlapping. Tensions rose. It was evident by now: there were more people than seats, and any loss of line integrity could mean the loss of our chance to be in the room. Two graduate students policed the fringes of the line with a bottle of whiskey as their only source of authority. The furniture was repurposed into barricades. By 5:30, camera crews were filming the scene. At 6AM a screeching fire alarm went off; no one budged.

By 7AM there was no more sitting. The crowd had condensed around the barricades at the auditorium door. Rumors darted from person to person that large portions of the auditorium had been reserved for VIPs. The line continued to stretch, around the lounge, down the stairs, out of sight. We anxiously pressed in. Finally, the guard signaled that it was time to let people in. Whooping with excitement, we rushed the door. We watched the people ahead of us sprint up the stairs, free of the crowd. But the guard was keeping count. Just as we hit the entrance, he signaled for us to stop, and replaced the barricade.

The three of us stood there, ruing the two hours of sleep that had placed us just barely on this side of the threshold. Secondary livestreaming rooms were announced, and the remaining line started to peel off. Pressed against the barricade, we stared up at those stairs through the glass panels of the door. We could hear the eager chatter of the audience in the room. We desperately wanted to be inside, at the center, part of this moment.

After several hours, or possibly minutes, the guard’s walkie-talkie chirped out some incomprehensible instructions, and he glanced our way. He moved aside the barricade and gestured for us to go. We ran, barreling through the doors and taking the stairs two at a time. We burst into the auditorium and found three seats, just by the door. We were overwhelmed. We felt victorious. We took a blurry photo. We were inside.

Tova Holmes and Maximilian Swiatlowski

It was 7:30 by then, and the packed back half of the auditorium stood in stark contrast to the empty front, where the VIPs were guaranteed their seats. The students inside simmered with anticipation as they settled in to wait. One was decked in an American flag, excited to add another celebration to the fourth of July. Another set up a handwritten sign reading “Ciao mamma.” Over the next hour, those important people filtered in, along with news crews and a documentary team. In this space between the rush and the main event, when we finally knew our spot was secured, they immortalized a very different picture, of the night finally catching up to us.

Tova Holmes and Maximilian Swiatlowski
Image credit: Particle Fever, distributed by Netflix

But before the announcement began, we rallied. We took surreptitious photos when Higgs and Englert finally entered the room. We giggled when a stray champagne cork popped a bit too early. And we joined in the deafening cheer when the first (and second) five sigma was announced. It was particle physics as we had never seen it, more sports game than colloquium, and we were enamored.

Looking back on this moment, its impact on us as scientists is obvious. Ten years ago we were bushy-tailed young graduate students, just beginning to build the skills and confidence we needed to make an impact in our enormous collaboration. Just beginning to understand the complexity and scale of the effort we had joined, stretching far beyond our small niches. Just beginning to see how challenging and sometimes demoralizing it could be to dedicate the better part of your twenties to earning a PhD.

But there we were, at the center of discovery. There was no seat reserved for us, but we had made it inside. And more, we could say that in some small way, our work had contributed to the day’s success. It was the most important moment in particle physics in our lifetimes, and there was a space in it for us. On that day, we solidified our identities as part of the team, and our expectations that our team could win.

We’ve come a long way since then. Of the three, two of us are still at it: in faculty positions now, spending our days training new students, wondering what the next generation’s Higgsdependence Day will be, and how we can get there sooner. Those days are built on decades of effort and rely on the work of young scientists who may never have experienced one coming to fruition. But they still know: they’re part of a long tradition of discovery, and around every unexplored corner, this is hope for another.

As for us, whenever we’re feeling disconnected from our own dreams of discovery, we have the special privilege of getting surprise reminders of what it is we’re working toward. Every few months, a colleague, an old friend from high school, or a distant family member sends one of us a text – Is that you sleeping in Particle Fever??