The announcement last week of the first definitive evidence of a new particle, likely the long-awaited Higgs boson, has a lot to teach us — and not all of it is about science. It took an international team funded by the global community of taxpayers to bring it about.
To be sure the science is extremely exciting. The Higgs was first proposed in the 1960s and is thought to be the remnant of a ubiquitous interaction common to all objects with mass. As lofty and ethereal as these ideas are, the Higgs discovery, as with all scientific discoveries, is solidly grounded in concrete, observable phenomena. It took a colossal new scientific instrument, the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, at CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland — to produce the few hundred examples of this new object thought to be the Higgs.
The LHC is an engineering tour de force. Made up of 17 miles of super-conducting magnets, it is designed to capture and accelerate counter-rotating bunches of protons that collide at several locations around the ring.
These locations represent some of the most precious real estate on Earth, where every square inch of space is carefully planned and equipped with sensors. It took two detectors the size of apartment buildings, each with about 100 million sensor elements, to detect the remnants of the Higgs, and to distinguish it from the billions of background processes that could mask it. The human capital needed to plan and build the LHC and the two detectors, ATLAS and CMS, is measured in tens of thousands of person-years.
This much-anticipated discovery is in one sense the culmination of a huge intellectual effort, and in another sense the beginning of a new field of research. The Higgs is unstable and quickly decays to daughter particles. The study of how and what it decays into will give scientists a glimpse at the way nature works at much higher energies than we have yet to probe.
As exciting as this discovery is, and as meaningful as it is to the field of physics, the broader lessons of this human endeavor should not be lost on us. This discovery is the result of a truly worldwide effort. Citizens from all corners of the globe labored together to achieve this result.
The funding was also global. These days few people are willing to extol the glories and virtues of taxation, but this discovery would not have happened without the taxpayer. In fact, the vast majority of the planet’s taxpayers had skin in the game. So in a very real sense we all own it.
The Higgs discovery also represents a triumph of human curiosity. Physicists are trained in science, not project management. Mix in communication challenges from cultural differences, language barriers and the need to work across 24 time zones, and you have a recipe for failure. But somehow even without the profit motive or the need to survive — things that usually cause humans to pull together — the CERN teams succeeded. I can only attribute this to an overwhelming desire to comprehend the fascinating physical world we inhabit.
The Higgs could well be the first science discovery brought about by all of us in the broadest sense, the planet-wide human community. It seems fitting that nature’s secrets are unwrapped by all of us, that we own and enjoy the discovery corporately. Let us hope that this is the first of many such endeavors.
Paul Tipton is a professor of physics at Yale University.