CERN Abuzz on the Eve of Presumed Arrival of the Higgs Boson

In the pipeline. Physicists are preparing to release their newest results from the Large Hadron Collider (above) tomorrow.


MEYRIN, SWITZERLAND—Tomorrow, physicists here at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, will announce their latest results in the hunt for the most prized subatomic particle in physics: the Higgs boson. The seminar itself may be something of an anticlimax, as several press outlets have reported fairly specific rumors that researchers have seen very strong, if not incontrovertible signals of the Higgs, a hypothesized particle that is key to physicists' explanation of how all particles get mass.

Still, the data haven't been made public yet. And it turns out that some of those rumors may not be quite as reliable at they seem.

For example, the Associated Press quoted John Ellis, a theorist at King's College London who has worked at CERN for decades as saying, "We've discovered something which is consistent with being a Higgs." But "I haven't seen the data," Ellis also says. Ellis explains that he was talking hypothetically and that he was discussing the signal experimenters should see if the Higgs exists, given the amount of data they have accumulated. "My colleagues are coming down on me like a ton of bricks" about the remark, Ellis says. Still, other news outlets have reported similar rumors. Even the folks in the CERN press office won't deny that something very close to an incontrovertible discovery is coming.

But if some physicists are happy to blab, most here seem to be doing their best not to leak confidential material. CERN is home to the world's largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which feeds two massive particle detectors, known as ATLAS and CMS, that are hunting the Higgs. The teams working on ATLAS and CMS, each of which have thousands of members, will present their results tomorrow. Both have forbidden their members to talk to the press. And most people here seem to take that charge seriously. "He's a reporter," one young physicist whispers furtively to another, to warn him from saying anything untoward in my presence.

Frank Wuerthwein, a member of the CMS team from the University of California, San Diego (and a friend of mine from graduate school), is no more forthcoming. It's nearly inconceivable, he agrees, that his elder daughter, who was born when we were both graduate students, is now old enough to enter college. But when asked only how exciting he expects the Higgs results to be, he says, "I can't talk to you." He adds, "I can talk to my mom, so she knows."

And then there is the question of getting into CERN's main auditorium, which holds only 400 people, to see the talks in person. CERN officials have closed the auditorium to keep people from camping out there all night and will reopen it only at 7:30 a.m. (The talks start at 9:00 a.m.) But many physicists may simply wait outside the building instead. "They'll be lining up at 4:30 a.m.," predicts Stuart Raby, a theorist from Ohio State University, Columbus. "I'm not going to do to that."

Instead, Raby says that he'll watch the video feed in another conference room. As for journalists who've come all the way to Switzerland for the talks, they'll get their own conference room from which to watch the video feed. It should be virtually the same as being in the auditorium.