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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Particles have mass; we didn't just imagine it

It's been a good morning.

What better way to spend a summer's morn than by rising early, wandering into the science gallery to be plied with danishes and coffee, then watch as the nerds in CERN tell us that they've discovered the Higgs? Having a bunch of particle physicists there to answer questions was a bonus, too.

Okay, so technically they've discovered a particle that might be the Higgs. But let's face it; it is.

I confess that in recent years I've been hoping they wouldn't find it, that something weird(er) and wonderful(er) was going on with nature. But since the results last year, that hope vanished and instead I got to look forward to the day of the discovery. And though that discovery itself was cool beyond measure, what really made if for me was being able to watch it in the science gallery, surrounded by nerds.

So there I was, watching CERN tell the world about the hole they'd (probably) plugged in the standard model, and doing so via a technology invented at CERN. And that technology – the web – has allowed us to do far more than watch live the announcement of a new particle. Over the years it's let us participate in the landing of Pathfinder and the plummeting of Beagle II; next month millions will watch with bated breath as we share seven minutes of terror with the NASA boffins. We have access to data from Cassini, from Hubble, from the countless telescopes on Earth and outside it. If the boys and girls at CERN start sifting through the petabytes of data looking for supersymmetric wackiness, we'll find out on the web when they find it (actually, there was an intriguing bump in the Atlas results that was sort of glossed over at the time as unrelated to the Higgs). It's that technology that means that the Science Gallery can host the webcast at 8:00am and be sure of the gratitude of many attendees.

But enough about CERN's spinoff technologies; back to the particle of the day. I'll just digress very briefly to raise a hearty middle finger to the thousands who apparently felt that the most significant point of the day was that the Atlas presentation used Comic Sans.

What struck me at the end of each experiment's presentation was the sheer number of people and organisations who had a hand in this; there were thousands of 'em, from all over the planet. This truly was an amazing piece of work, in every sense of the word. The magnitude of the task (and the facility) are breathtaking, and the results are something the human race as a whole can be proud of. It took us ten thousand years to go from agriculture to the industrial revolution; only 150 to go from a periodic table with holes in it to a standard model of particles with the last hole (that we know of) plugged. Yes, there's still that pesky 96% of the universe left to explain, but that too will come. And with the relentless march of Moore's Law and with organisations like CERN, ESA and NASA (amongst many others) so involved in the quest, that day can't be too far into the future.

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