Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Laughter, tears and still buzzing... is this really physics?

The first time I watched a ‘proper’ physicist give a ‘proper’ seminar it was with a frown on my face. I was confused, but at the same time impressed. I could hardly understand any of it, but they were passionate, interested and above all, dedicated to what it was they were studying.

Today, over a decade later, a huge global audience tuned in online* to watch what was, for the most part, an incomprehensible physics talk. Trust me, I know how they felt! But they all tuned in to find out one thing – have we discovered the Higgs boson?

As you probably know by now, the answer, to paraphrase CERN Director General Rolf Dieter-Heuer is: “we have a discovery”. Both ATLAS and CMS have found something consistent with the Higgs at a 99.9999% confidence level. (Someone correct me if I’ve gotten the number of 9’s wrong there…). Now there’s a lot more work to do to be able to tell “what kind” of Higgs-like boson it might be. But that isn’t what this post is about. I want to write about how it felt to watch that announcement.

When I was at school I’d never heard of the Higgs boson. I’d never heard of quarks or things like quantum mechanics. Over a decade later and in that time, I have more-or-less dedicated my life to physics. I haven’t spent a lifetime waiting for this result like some people I know. But as someone who has done more than just ‘dabble’ in particle physics I’d like to share some of the emotions I went through this morning.

The announcement was made a lot more personal for me because of the big role that my colleagues in Melbourne played. They are currently hosting the biggest particle physics conference of the year, ICHEP2012. It actually tugged at my heartstrings to learn that my Honours-year supervisor Prof. Geoff Taylor introduced things and to see Prof. Ray Volkas chairing the session via the CERN webcast. Ray is one of the most inspiring lecturers I’ve ever met and someone I became friends with during my studies. I’m getting emotional just thinking about all the amazing colleagues – people I consider friends - who I left behind when I moved to the UK. I’m so proud that they got to celebrate this momentous achievement and I was a little sad not to be there to celebrate it with them.

But that’s the amazing thing. In this international world of particle physics I was there to celebrate with them. At least virtually. The whole world was there with us too.

As we all watched the CERN webcast the complicated plots gave me heart-palpitation-inducing flashbacks of sitting in my office in Melbourne in searing heat trying to figure out some way of extracting more ‘signal’ than ‘noise’ in my data analysis. I flashed back to lectures introducing the Higgs mechanism and long nights spent at work trying to solve quantum field theory problems (thanks to Ray for those). I remembered putting myself through grueling 12 or 15-hour days - we all did in our fourth year - just so that we knew we really understood the physics, because we were all in competition for PhD scholarships.

But when those results came up… wow! I can only liken it to the rush of a runner’s high. I’m so immensely proud and in awe of the thousands of people who have done much more than I have in order to get to where we are today. I may have only made a tiny contribution and it still seems a bit of a miracle that these incredibly complex experiments work at all. That just shows how much hard work and dedication has been put into them.

We can all look back over our careers and wonder if we chose to do the ‘right’ thing. I don’t miss the painstaking data analysis of particle physics and I enjoy my more application-driven research. But at least I can look back and know that I’ve dedicated my life to something more important than, say, getting people to spend money on something they don’t need. Along with many thousands of others I’ve dedicated my life to trying to push back the boundaries of knowledge.

We’ve all played our role like ants in a colossal anthill. Often our work is unacknowledged, underfunded and underappreciated. Understandably many of us don’t stick with the one thing for our whole careers, but we all do our bit. Today we saw the first of the really exciting results that will drive us on in our quest for understanding.

For me, I’ve spent so much time and energy in this field, I’ve moved across the world and in doing so had to start my life over from scratch. I’ve spent countless hours trying to communicate what this is all about and what it means. I’ve lived and breathed physics for over a decade. If it didn’t bring a tear to my eye and a slight palpitation to my heart… I wouldn’t be human.

*I’ll probably write another post soon to discuss why they had seemingly written very complex talks with no consideration for their audience. As a science communicator and scientist I always find it really hard to watch people do this. Audience, audience, audience!