A new chapter for Massive
I spent the months after 4th July 2012 - or discovery day, as history will have it - interviewing many of those most caught up in the hunt for the Higgs boson. I wanted to know how they finally uncovered the particle, how the engineers pushed the Large Hadron Collider as hard as they dared, and how the scientists worked flat out, and against the clock, to pull those gold-plated signatures of the Higgs boson from the scrappy debris of countless subatomic collisions. I wanted to know how they felt as the particle showed its face. They were first to see something new in Nature. Many had worked all their careers for this moment.
The stories I heard are the backbone of a new chapter that appears in a re-release of Massive, published first in the US and UK in January 2013. My aim with the fresh material was to recreate the year leading up to the discovery announcement, and those fascinating weeks after, through the eyes of several key players, including the heads of both the ATLAS and CMS detector groups at CERN; the Director-General of CERN; the head of the accelerator team, and, of course, Peter Higgs. Here are the US and UK paperbacks:
More than anything, as I think back to the interviews, the stories strike me as moving and inspiring. Behind the scenes, away from the cameras and press conferences, this was a collossal effort, a demonstration of extraordinary dedication, and sheer bloody brilliance, by so many scientists and engineers. I already felt this way about many of my interviewees, but time and again, I came away from lengthy conversations with those at the heart of the hunt thinking these are our role models, the people we should praise and aspire to be like.
Plenty made me laugh. A Dutch film crew got wind of the discovery and tracked Peter Higgs down in an ancient hilltop village in Sicily, days before the official announcement was made. They scripted several scenes for their film, including one in which Peter sat down with a Dutch physicist who unveiled the crucial results on a laptop. Peter was supposed to look excited, but he didn't know how to read the plots he was shown. "People have to tell me that's the bump that's significant, so it took several takes for me to look happy enough," Higgs told me.
Other stories moved me, and I am not so easily moved. The moment the heads of the ATLAS and CMS collaborations first realised they had a discovery on their hands, the moment the raw plots fell into their hands, was extraordinary to hear about. Excitement, yes, in spades, but there was anxiety, stress and hard graft ahead. CERN could not afford to get this wrong.
In the run-up to 4th July, the scientists' data were still hot. At the highest levels of CERN, the fact that the lab had made a discovery had not fully sunken in. There is a lovely few seconds of video you can watch for yourself, and a quote in the new chapter, that demonstrates this. Take a look at the CERN seminar from 4th July. Joe Incandela, head of CMS, speaks first. Watch from around 25 mins 40 seconds. You'll see Joe pause for nearly 10 seconds when he shows a plot with a big Higgsy-bump in it, change the slide, and then say to the audience "I was lost for a moment, excuse me." I asked Joe about this when I returned to CERN a few weeks later. In replying, he mentions Chiara Mariotti, a colleague who in June had shown him the first plot that suggested they had found the particle: "I realised that everything we had to do was done, from the night Chiara sent me that plot, up until the talk, which I had just finished. We'd made it. I remember giving the talk and at a certain point I showed this plot with a bump and people in the audience gasped. I stood back and thought I'm just going to linger on this for a few seconds. It really hit me then: we've really discovered something. I started to enjoy it during the talk. That was the first moment I'd had to relax, and it was the most high pressure talk I'd ever given."
I love that. The fact that they had made a discovery only fully sank in as they gave their talks.
There is plenty more in the new chapter. How did CERN leak a video that scooped their own story, the day before the announcement? What happened when a beam of protons hurtled off course and threatened to punch a hole in the Large Hadron Collider? There's Peter's explanation for crying as the audience gave Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti, the head of ATLAS, a standing ovation, and his own muted celebration, on a budget flight back home to Edinburgh.
The new chapter adds more than 10,000 words to the book. To hear the stories of these amazing people was an unforgettable experience for me, and I hope you'll enjoy them too.