Why the Higgs boson discovery changed everything - Macleans.ca

Why the Higgs boson discovery changed everything

Maclean’s archives: A special report from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland

Unravelling the universe


Update, April 2015: The Large Hardon Collider, the world’s biggest particle accelerator is running again after a two-year shutdown and upgrade. Kate Lunau’s report from July 2012: 

For the past 22 years, Pierre Savard has, off and on, been searching for the Higgs boson particle. On the morning of July 4—shortly before physicists at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) were scheduled to present their historic findings—Savard, associate professor of experimental particle physics at the University of Toronto, awoke just outside Geneva, where CERN’s sprawling complex is nestled amidst lush vineyards, with the imposing peaks of Mont Blanc as backdrop. Buried 100 m underground is the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, built at a cost of $10 billion to help physicists unravel the mysteries of the universe.

By the time Savard arose (somewhat sluggishly, as he’d been working on “Higgs analysis” until 2 a.m.), the facility’s main auditorium was already full. The summer students at CERN had camped out all night. Aysha Abdel-Aziz, a University of Toronto undergraduate working on Higgs search data analysis, was monitoring Facebook at 12.30 a.m., which flashed news of a swelling crowd. “At 1:30, I thought, man, I’ve got to get over there,” she recalls. “I got there at 2 a.m., and I’m glad I did. Because by 4 it was too late.” Students hunkered down outside the auditorium to wait with sleeping bags and food and cameras.

Around 4:30 a.m., says Abdel-Aziz, a cluster of grey-haired physicists showed up. Discouraged by the lineup, which by then had snaked down the stairs and wound around the hall, they left. Savard, meanwhile, made his way to the lobby of his laboratory, where the morning’s events were being live streamed. The four screening rooms were full, but he managed to hustle a chair. Displaced by their youthful proteges, the world’s most seasoned particle physicists were relegated to back rooms, packed like sardines into satellite auditoriums around the complex. Some grasped bottles of champagne. Soon they would, most uncharacteristically, be shouting.

Scientists at CERN will tell you that they both knew and didn’t know the results of the Higgs experiment while they sat waiting for the announcement. That’s accurate. The Higgs boson particle, also known as the “God particle,” or the “goddamned particle,” because it’s been so hard to find, was dreamed up 50 years ago to explain why everything around us has mass—essentially, why we exist.

The Higgs boson has since been the focus of the biggest hunt in the history of modern science, with CERN as the epicentre. There, the Higgs-hunting venture is conducted by two separate teams, CMS and ATLAS (short for Compact Muon Solenoid and A Toroidal LHC Apparatus), each with more than 3,000 members; they’re forbidden from talking shop with each other to ensure neither’s results is influenced by the other. Top physicists would have known their own group’s findings. But both CMS and ATLAS needed to come up with the same numbers for anything to be conclusive.

Finding the Higgs boson, scientists say, will open the door to the study of other unknowns, like dark matter. Some have even imagined that, if the Higgs could ever be manipulated, it could lead to all sorts of science fiction scenarios, like travel at the speed of light, and more.

As Savard and others scrambled for a vantage point, in Vancouver—where it wasn’t yet midnight—about 40 people gathered in the auditorium at TRIUMF, a Canadian physics lab on the University of British Columbia campus, which collaborated with CERN on the Higgs hunt. Armed with pillows, coffee and Rice Krispies squares, they looked up eagerly at the live feed from Geneva. “We knew what ATLAS was showing,” says Rob McPherson, a University of Victoria physics professor and spokesperson for the Canadian ATLAS team. (Canadian scientists work exclusively on ATLAS, not CMS.) “We were keenly interested to see what CMS was going to show. We were on the edge of our seats.”

That scene was playing out in facilities from Aspen to Chicago to New York, where bleary-eyed scientists roused themselves in the middle of the night to watch what they sensed would be historic news. Columbia University physics professor Michael Tuts, the U.S. ATLAS operations program manager, sent out a campus-wide email to see if anybody might want to watch the results delivered live—at 3 a.m., New York time, on the Fourth of July. “I anticipated the reaction of, ‘Are you totally insane?’ ” he says, but 75 people came, from all different faculties, “not just the high-energy physicists.”

Unravelling  the universe

Denis Balibouse/The New York Times

In Geneva, each team announced its results to an overflowing auditorium: first CMS, then ATLAS. The presentations were methodical, delivered with the stern sobriety of an academic seminar. That is, until the very end, when a PowerPoint slide announced a standard deviation of 5 sigma—proof that they are more than 99.9999 per cent sure of their results—and the crowd burst into thunderous applause. “That’s highly unusual for a physics conference,” Tuts says. But of course this was a highly unusual discovery—the God particle, physics’ Holy Grail, had been found.

An ecstatic grin spread across the face of CERN director-general Rolf-Dieter Heuer as he turned to face the crowd. Although scientists still label these results preliminary, “as a layman, I would say I think we now have it,” he said. “Would you agree?” More cheers. In Geneva, Vancouver and around the world, scientists popped open bottles of champagne. Peter Higgs, the 83-year-old theoretical physicist who proposed the particle in 1964, was seen in the CERN auditorium wiping away a tear.

The discovery of the Higgs boson particle has been compared to the moon landing—the biggest scientific achievement of a generation. For decades, scientists have gone on faith that it exists: the Standard Model of particle physics, a beautifully simple mathematical description of everything we know about the universe’s most basic building blocks, depends upon it. Even so, many wondered if the Higgs was just a figment of the imagination, manufactured by ivory tower theoreticians in the 1960s. After decades, a team of several thousand scientists from around the world has essentially confirmed its presence. The Standard Model is complete.

The Higgs particle tells us something very basic and fundamental about why we’re here. It is evidence of the Higgs field, an invisible force field that stretches across the universe, encasing us like a Jell-O mould, and giving mass to elementary particles within it: the stuff that makes up stars, planets, trees, buildings, animals and all of us. Without mass, electrons, protons and neutrons wouldn’t stick together to make atoms; atoms wouldn’t make molecules; none of us would exist.

At the moment of the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, every particle was massless and zipped around at the speed of light. The universe began to cool and expand, and the Higgs field condensed; particles started to slow down and come together, and everything as we know it began to take shape. Without the Higgs, “the particles we’re made of would not hold together,” says Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont. “They would all be flying around at the speed of light, and there’d be no stopping it. The world,” he says, “would go up in a puff of smoke.”

Peter Higgs, the boson’s notoriously reluctant namesake, is often compared to his famous particle: he’s hard to spot. Shortly before the big news dropped, he was flown to Geneva, along with three other influential physicists of the same era. He tried to keep a low profile, and was spotted eating alone in CERN’s colossal cafeteria. Days after the announcement, he was back there: this time, struggling to fork up his lunch amidst a flock of buzzing admirers. In the meantime, CERN summer students had combed the laboratory halls carrying printed copies of Higgs’s original 1964 paper on the missing boson, in the hopes of nabbing an autograph. “Mild- mannered and very gentle,” is how his former colleague Alan Walker describes him. Higgs is said to cringe when the term “Higgs boson” is uttered in his presence. At times he will, rather warily, refer to “the boson which bears my name.”

Higgs’s bashfulness had been on prominent display the morning of July 4, when he entered CERN’s brimming auditorium and beelined for a seat a few rows back from the front, and somewhat off to the side. Presumably, he found the standing ovation that followed to be a bit much, but modesty seems only to fuel his new-found cult status. After the seminar, he declined questions from the press—though he granted, “It’s really an incredible thing that [the discovery has] happened in my lifetime.” His distaste for celebrity will be further tested if, as now recommended by fellow theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking—who once bet $100 against the particle ever being found—Peter Higgs becomes the recipient of the Nobel Prize.

Celebrity was a long time coming. In 1964, Higgs—then a lecturer of mathematical physics at the University of Edinburgh—published two papers outlining his theory about the never-before-seen particle. “The Higgs model” dealt with a problem that physicists had been grappling with: why do some particles have mass? And where does that mass come from? Higgs posited that particles obtain mass by interacting with a mysterious force field that permeates the universe. The Higgs boson is a sign of that field.

It was a far-out idea, although five other physicists published similar theories around the same time. The story goes that Higgs’s eureka moment took place during a quiet stroll through the Cairngorms, a mountain range in the Scottish Highlands. At that time, his area of research was considered “rather unfashionable,” he later said. Science writer Ian Sample says Higgs was “called a fuddy duddy [for] working on something that was seen as uncool.” In fact, the second of Higgs’s two papers was rejected by Physics Letters, Europe’s foremost particle physics journal, which, as it happened, was edited at CERN. Editors judged it to be “of no obvious relevance to physics.” He published it elsewhere.

It took a decade for opinions to change. In the 1970s, scientists began to see Higgs’s proposed boson—soon, the “Higgs boson”—as the missing ingredient in the Standard Model, a theory developed around that time to explain how fundamental particles and forces behave. The Standard Model is made up of 17 particles: 12 are fermions (subdivided into quarks and leptons), which make up matter. Four are gauge bosons, which transmit forces so fermions can interact. And the Higgs boson was added to explain why particles have mass.

The Standard Model isn’t perfect—it accounts for just three of the four fundamental forces, for example, because it doesn’t include gravity—but it’s by far the best explanation we’ve got of how our universe is stitched together. “Why do we have life? Why do we have planets? How did the universe form? All this is explained in the Standard Model,” says physicist John F. Gunion, author of The Higgs Hunter’s Guide. “Part of that picture is the Higgs mechanism for giving particles mass. It was the final linchpin in confirming the Standard Model,” but nobody knew if it was real. Without it, they worried, the Standard Model would fall apart.

The Higgs boson was elusive prey. For one thing, the Standard Model gave no guidance about what its mass might be, so scientists had to look across a range of possibilities. Beyond that, catching one can’t be done: after a Higgs comes into existence, it decays almost immediately into other types of particles, and theorists predicted there’d be several different “decay channels” this particle might take. To find a Higgs boson, its seekers had to create one—by smashing protons together to “shake up” the Higgs field, as Tuts says. For a long time, there wasn’t a particle accelerator powerful enough to do this. Then the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was built.

Established in 1954, CERN was primarily an attempt to kick-start a renaissance in European physics. It was also aimed at uniting scientists who had, just a few years earlier, been engaged in a race to build bombs capable of incinerating each other. CERN is now 20 members strong (18 are EU member states), with a number of “observers” (including the U.S and Russia) and “non-member states” (including Canada). At any given time, 10,000 scientists and engineers, representing over 100 nationalities, walk CERN’s halls. It was here, in 1989, that Tim Berners-Lee wrote his proposal to create the World Wide Web, as a convenient means of sharing information between scientists. (His boss dubbed the proposal “vague, but exciting.”) The first-ever web server ran on a CERN computer, and the world’s first website was Info.cern.ch.

Located near the Franco-Swiss border (take tram 14 from Geneva’s city centre), CERN’s complex of spartan, low-rise buildings appears to be at the edge of nowhere, with nothing but a couple of gas stations in sight. Inside the gates of the facility, streets are named after dead physicists: Route Albert Einstein, Square Galileo Galilei. The grounds are quiet, though there is the steady bustle of scientists, travelling in small clusters to and from the cafeteria. A few wear suits, but the standard uniform of the particle physicist appears to be some variation of short-sleeved button-down shirt and sneakers.

The buildings themselves are surprisingly decrepit. The halls of Building 40, which houses ATLAS and CMS, are like dark, concrete tunnels. The flooring is pitted and uneven. Only posters taped to the walls—advertising a yoga society, a yacht club, and the Cinéclub’s upcoming screening of High Fidelity—add a splash of colour. There are halls where experimentalists work, and there are wings for theorists.

A few days after the discovery of the Higgs particle was announced, the physicists who “found” it could be spotted sitting in patio chairs outside their main research site, eating heaping plates of cafeteria-prepared moules frites under a scorching sun. Inside, twentysomething graduate students navigated between overpriced food stations. (The meal of the day cost around $15.) The cafeteria offers physicists a respite from their dark offices, and an airy place to talk.

If CERN has the look of a high school, it has the vibe of a summer camp. Many researchers live on site, in one of a few “hostels” that are visible from the patio. Nearby apartment complexes are almost entirely occupied by physicists. Claire David, a doctoral student from the University of Victoria, lives just over the French border, in a village called Saint-Genis, which she says is about half-populated by CERN scientists. David shares a house with six other physicists, five Italians and a Brit. She rarely sees them. David tends to eat dinner in her room, in front of her computer screen and joined via Skype by friends from home. Anadi Canepa, an ATLAS physicist and researcher at TRIUMF, used to live off-site too (in her case, about 50 m from CERN’s gates)—but she recently moved back into CERN hostel B39 “to save time.”

“This is a really special part of work,” she insists of the ever-blurred, and often non-existent, lines separating work life from personal life. Many physicists at CERN say they don’t feel as if they live in Geneva at all. CERN they describe as a “complex,” a “city,” an all-encompassing “planet.” Many CERN physicists are married to other CERN physicists. This is true of Canepa, whose husband also works in the field of antimatter. “We tend to mate” with each other, she explains, “because we never leave the lab.”

That’s a good thing, because work days at CERN are long—and longer still when teams are working with researchers based in other time zones. CERN does not like to favour one time zone over another. “Friends ask, ‘Can we visit Geneva?’ ” says David. “I say, ‘Yes, but I will be on call. I need to be near the detector in case my phone rings.’ ” She has made the 15-minute trip to central Geneva only three times since February.

CERN has a way of digging its claws into people. Savard came there in 1990, while a co-op undergraduate student at Université de Sherbrooke. His plan was to be a ski instructor, but after a winter at CERN, he changed paths, captivated by the hunt for the Higgs boson at a time when scientists were designing the early detectors that would launch the decades-long quest. “It was unbelievable. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Nicknamed the “Big Bang Machine,” CERN’s current particle accelerator—which became active in 2008—is the largest machine in the world. Beyond searching for the Higgs boson, which has been its most prominent mission, the LHC was conceived to answer some of the most pressing questions in particle physics. What are dark matter and dark energy? Are there hidden, alternate dimensions all around us that we just can’t access or see? What sorts of matter existed right after the Big Bang, when a hot soup of “quark-gluon plasma” filled the universe? And where did all the antimatter go? At the start of the universe, scientists believe that matter and antimatter—its twin, but with an opposite electric charge—existed in equal amounts. But today, for some reason, we’re surrounded by matter, and for that we should be grateful: when matter and antimatter meet, they destroy each other.

Built underground and spanning the border of France and Switzerland, the LHC is a 27-km-long tunnel around which two beams of particles fly in opposite directions, approaching the speed of light. When these particles crash together, they produce massive amounts of energy and new mass, which are recorded in detectors at ATLAS and CMS. Scientists then sift through data, looking for patterns that might indicate a Higgs boson popped into, and then out of, existence. “It’s like if you break a plate, and you only see the pieces,” says Manuella Vincter, an ATLAS scientist and a physics professor at Carleton University, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Experimental Particle Physics. “You can put it back together and say, ‘That’s what the plate looked like.’ ” (According to Vincter, both CMS and ATLAS mainly observed the Higgs-like particle decaying into two photons.)

The sheer scale of the LHC is remarkable. Physicist Victor Weisskopf, a former CERN director-general, famously saw the massive particle accelerators that were built in the 1950s and ’60s as “the gothic cathedrals of the 20th century,” says theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, author of A Universe From Nothing. Canada has been deeply involved in the LHC project, investing $70 million in the accelerator, detector, and computing parts of the project; another $30 million in funding has gone to Canadian researchers, including 150 scientists on the ATLAS team. (Physicists on ATLAS come from 38 different countries.) TRIUMF is Canada’s main link. It hosts a computing centre that processes raw data from particle collisions.

Even before the LHC smashed its first protons together, onlookers worried that its scientists were playing God—that recreating the Big Bang in a man-made machine could have catastrophic consequences, the kind we couldn’t even imagine. Some thought the LHC would rip open a black hole, gobbling up our planet whole. In the novel Angels & Demons, by Dan Brown (who also penned The Da Vinci Code), a Harvard University symbologist named Robert Langdon tries to foil a secret society intent on bombing the Vatican with a canister of antimatter, stolen from CERN. Things started to get really strange in 2009, when two physicists, Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya, published papers suggesting CERN’s project was doomed to fail—that the creation of the Higgs would be sabotaged by forces from the future, because the particle itself might violate the natural order.

CERN has done its best to counter these worries. An entire webpage is devoted to Angels & Demons, revealing that “portable antimatter traps,” as used in Brown’s fiction, wouldn’t actually work in reality. Its page tries to put to rest any fear of destructive black holes: “Astronomical black holes are much heavier than anything that could be produced at the LHC.” Still, the particle accelerator itself has attracted its share of crackpots, like a man arrested on the Swiss side in 2010, who claimed he’d travelled from the future to stop CERN from destroying the world.

It probably didn’t help that in its early days, perhaps fuelling Nielsen and Ninomiya’s theories, the LHC was accident prone. One of several shutdowns, in 2009, was blamed on a bird flying overhead. It had apparently dropped a piece of baguette into an electric substation, shorting out the power to the LHC’s cryogenic cooling system—a major problem, because the accelerator is kept at a temperature colder than deep space.

The cost of the LHC—it’s one of the most expensive scientific instruments ever built—has inspired another kind of protest. Forbes estimated that “the total cost of finding the Higgs boson ran about [US]$13.25 billion” and dubbed this “a bargain,” but not everyone sees it that way. Abdel-Aziz told Maclean’s that one of her teams is working on upgrades to the inner detectors of the LHC that would replace silicon with diamonds. “We know that diamonds are stronger than silicon,” she explains. The image of scientists in Switzerland piecing together equipment made of diamond, at a time when the European continent is foundering financially, might yet prove controversial.

Back in December, when scientists announced they may have glimpsed the boson, excitement began to build; for Vincter, there were some tense months as she sensed they might be closing in. “We saw our range of Higgs space shrinking and as we took more data we’re hyperventilating, and then: boop. A little peak appears. And we’re like: YAY!” Vincter, fists clenched, does her best victory jig. For a while it was tough, says the scientist who’s spent 14 years at CERN, “to tell people: calm down, relax, do what you’ve always been doing.” In June, she watched her ATLAS team conclusively detect a Higgs-like particle—with a mass in the predicted range of 125-127 gigaelectronvolts, or GeV. (Indeed, the mass of the newly discovered boson has been pinned at about 125 GeV.) Vincter’s hopes of a decisive find were buoyed when, a couple of weeks before the July 4 announcement, “delicious rumours” swirled that CMS physicists had been spotted toasting each other with champagne.

Twenty-four hours after the big discovery was announced, CERN’s main lobby was swarming with tourists. Pilgrimages to the ’50s-era research site had begun and CERN appeared to be at the edge of a defining cultural moment. At reception, the calm Frenchman manning the information desk confirmed a spike in visitors. Weekend tours of CERN, he said, are now booked solid until early September. But it’s not just the quantity of tourists that has changed. He added: “There are tourists here now who otherwise would not be here. In French, we would call them, ‘Monsieur et Madame tout le monde.’ ” In other words, the place is brimming with people, many of whom wouldn’t know a Higgs boson from a plain old quark.

With the LHC currently switched on, most areas are closed to tour groups. One building still open to visitors is ATLAS headquarters. Here, visitors can press their noses to the glass panel separating them from the “control room,” where Ph.D. students are permanently bent over laptops and multi-screened computers: monitoring the LHC’s detectors and performing regular checks. It’s important, David jokes, not to check Facebook when you are seated near the tourist entry. Large screens mounted on the back wall of the room flash reams of code and line graphs.

Higgs mania aside, some people are already asking—what can we do with a Higgs boson particle? What good is it? This isn’t unreasonable; when electromagnetism was discovered more than 100 years ago, for example, no one could have envisioned the role it would play in our global cellphone system today.

Some imaginative thinkers have a few ideas about the Higgs: temporarily “shutting off” a person’s Higgs field could enable them to travel at the speed of light (if they could figure out how to switch it back on again one they reached their destination), or teleport from one location to another. Maybe a Star Trek phaser-style weapon could be designed, to zap enemies into a bunch of swirling light particles. Of course, as Krauss noted in an interview with Discovery News, “turning off” a person’s Higgs field would involve heating them up to “something like a billion, billion, billion degrees.” And if we could do that, we’d probably be smart enough to find easier ways to dispatch our enemies, or get from point A to point B.

What’s far more exciting is what the Higgs boson will teach us, now that we can study it—showing a way forward beyond the Standard Model. Physicists are eager to build on that old theory, even push it aside, and the Higgs could show us how, shedding light on the next big questions in physics.

The same day the Higgs finding was revealed, another remarkable discovery was announced, to much less fanfare: a team of researchers managed to detect a filament of dark matter bridging two clusters of galaxies, the first time such a thing has been done. Dark matter is a mysterious substance about which almost nothing is known; its gravitational pull seems to hold galaxies together, like a massive skeleton. But we can’t see dark matter; we only know it’s there from calculations of the speed at which galaxies move.

The matter we know and understand accounts for just four per cent of the known universe; the rest is dark matter and dark energy. Now that the missing piece of the Standard Model is in place—the Higgs boson particle—scientists will be able to build new theories, new models, that might help explain the other, as-yet-invisible 96 per cent, about which we know almost nothing.

Two kilometres underground, in a mine near Sudbury, Ont., a team of scientists is looking for a hypothetical particle they believe could make up dark matter. “It’s not because we think there’s more dark matter in Sudbury,” says Nigel Smith, director of SNOLAB. Rather, rocky Sudbury is a perfect place for scientists to work underground, shielding their instruments from the cosmic radiation that bombards Earth’s surface. “For us, the Higgs discovery is really exciting,” Smith says. “We’re working on physics beyond the Standard Model. The fact that it’s been validated with this missing piece gives us confidence that the next models aren’t built on a bad foundation.”

One of those hypothetical models is supersymmetry—or “SUSY,” as it is fondly nicknamed at LHC headquarters—the idea that every known particle has a “superpartner,” which we haven’t yet found, and that dark matter is one of those superpartners. According to the supersymmetric theory, “you’d expect to see other Higgs bosons,” says Gordon Kane, director emeritus of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics. (It was Kane who won that $100 bet against Hawking.) And so we might only be seeing half of the picture. The next big thing to come out of CERN might very well be another Higgs boson, or several. “If Mother Nature is boring, Mother Nature gave us the Higgs boson and nothing else,” Vincter says. “But if Mother Nature is kind, then she’ll provide us with more things to look for. And one of these things is another Higgs boson.”

Observing particles to see how they behave might even take us down a path toward alternate, unexplored dimensions. There are four dimensions we all know of, including time; but there may be others, even seven or eight of them, theorists say, which none of us can access in our daily lives. “There’s one idea, that at the Big Bang, all dimensions were the size of tiny particles,” says Richard Teuscher, a physicist at the University of Toronto and an ATLAS team member who’s based in Geneva. “And then some of them expanded, and the others never did.” Kane compares it to a long, thin straw. “You can move along the straw; that’s a big dimension. And you can move around the straw. But you’re bigger in size than the straw, so you can’t move to the dimension inside it.” But particles can.

Take the graviton, a hypothetical particle that conveys gravitational force—scientists believe it could be constantly “leaking away” into other invisible dimensions, Teuscher says, because gravity is so weak. “Gravity seems so strong because it adds up over the huge scale of the Earth,” he says. “But do an experiment: take a magnet and lift a paperclip. That magnetic force is stronger than gravity.” Gravity might have most of its interactions in dimensions that are “curled up in tiny space you can’t see,” he says. And the Large Hadron Collider may find them.

The LHC is only running at roughly half its energy capability, Teuscher notes. Next year it will begin a shutdown period, getting ready to rev up again by 2014. By then, the Big Bang Machine will have finally reached its full power. There is hope it will reveal dark matter for the first time. “It could happen any time,” says Vincter, smiling mischievously, “and I can tell you that a lot of people are working on it.” But one of the first orders of business will be to study this new Higgs particle, “to make sure it really is the Standard Model Higgs, and not something that’s fooling us,” Teuscher says. “Maybe there’s already some new physics there.”

Even after chasing the Higgs boson for decades, many scientists are hoping that’s the case—that what CERN has found isn’t exactly the Standard Model Higgs boson, but something more exotic. “What’s been observed appears to have the properties of the Higgs particle,” Krauss says. “That’s all we can say for now.” Soon, we’ll be able to say much more—and move on to the other unknowns.

To say CERN physicists wince when the phrase “God particle” is dropped would be an exaggeration, but they tend to have an opinion about it. Those opinions range from. “I’m a little bit annoyed when people use it” (Vincter), to, “Are you going to use ‘God particle’ in your article!? I hate it” (Abdul-Aziz). These physicists are looking for answers to questions humankind has asked itself for millennia—who we are, where we came from, why we’re here—but when it comes to some of the biggest existential riddles, they don’t much want to talk about it.

Religion aside, physicists can’t help but effuse about the Higgs boson particle, which they spent decades chasing, using the grandest of terms. “It’s beautiful,” Krauss says. “The fact that empty space is endowed with these properties—that what appears to be empty space endows particles with a mass. Apparently, nothingness is responsible for our existence.” The fact that Peter Higgs and five others dreamed this up back in the 1960s is almost as remarkable. “Normally, experiment leads theory,” Krauss continues. In this case, theory ran ahead by half a century.

Scientists at CERN allowed themselves a few moments to savour the discovery, but not much more. Behind enough concrete to drown out the outside murmur, they worked furiously toward publication. According to their long-ago-settled procedure, both the CMS and ATLAS teams agreed to publish their findings simultaneously: as side-by-side articles in the same academic journal. Each scientist (and there are thousands) will be listed as an author: alphabetically, so as not to politicize the process. The first surname to appear on ATLAS’s paper will be “Aad.” Vincter cautions, “even if we make it public, it’s not final until it makes its way into a journal.”

Savard is one of a small handful of editors on the ATLAS paper. More than two decades after beginning his quest for the Higgs boson particle, he’s not letting himself get carried away. On the morning of July 4, after the results of the greatest hunt in the history of modern physics were announced, Savard took a moment to pass on quiet felicitations to colleagues—before heading back to work.