The existence of the Higgs boson was first predicted in 1964, independently by three groups of leading physicists: François Englert and Robert Brout in August, Peter Higgs in October, and Gerald Guralnik, CR Hagen, and Tom Kibble (GHK) in November.
I was born earlier in that calendar year, and having grown up in the shadow of the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Batavia, Ill., one of only a few supercolliders high-energy particle physicists can use for their actual experiments, this has always been a story that brought excitement to my heart.
It wasn’t so much the science of it, since physicists seemed to be doing just fine, even though they could never seem to prove this hypothesized particle existed. It was more the science method, the scientists working in collaboration and competition at the same time, the moment when you’re the only person on Earth who knows how something works. That’s what really moved me to pursue science. Nuclear physics isn’t really my bag in science, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who marveled at the approach used by people who devoted their professional lives to the pursuit of a particle they just knew had to exist on a subatomic scale.
Last September, papers were published that seemed to announce the discovery of the particle. It was a blip on some oscilloscopes and other detection devices at CERN, the subatomic supercollider just outside Geneva, Switzerland, and it would take months to verify just what those blips were. But it happened: scientists had finally “discovered” the Higgs boson, as it came to be called.
On that day, I turned to my colleague at the Maryland State Department of Education and said if we could write this discovery down to an eighth-grade level, just imagine all the tasks and projects we could build from it. The story, told over more than 40 years, stands as a singularly perfect illustration of how science works.
And now, months later, the New York Times has published a piece that tells the inside story of the final days and months in pursuit of the Higgs boson. It needs no more introduction than that, as it is one of the best science stories a newspaper has ever told. The story, written by Dennis Overbye and published on March 6, is here.