The Higgs Boson: Trillions of Collisions, Thousands of Scientists, Dozens of Countries. A guy named Joe.

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

[Outside Geneva, Switzerland: July 4, 2012] The one-and a-half-minute patchwork video seems to be someone’s idea of a highlight reel. Physicist Joe Incandela is pouring bottled water into a plastic cup against a backdrop of unbroken applause. The applause cuts and suddenly Joe appears framed in a little square in the lower right corner of the screen, speaking in the explanatory singsong with which some are familiar. “This is a very very preliminary result? But we think it’s very strong.” 

There is a glimpse of lecture hall, tiered grownups all wearing some variant of the “lost in wonder” look Spielberg coaxes from his actors when the screenplay confronts them with spiritually overwhelming phenomena—like the giant chandelier lifting off at the end of Close Encounters. To this rapt audience Joe now delivers himself of what any fourth grader would recognize as playground gibberish. “If we combine the ZZ and Gamma-Gamma, this is what we get. They line up extremely well in the region of 125GV—they combine to give us a combined significance of five standard deviations.” 

This murmured arcana sets the place alight—a science-crowd eruption of sustained applause punctuated by measured but genuine frat-whoops. Joe Incandela—noted particle physicist —scans the raucous audience with shining eyes and breaks into the widest, warmest grin this side of the Big Bang; an eight year old with a new cowboy hat. An older gentleman in the stands takes off his glasses and wipes his own eyes with a kerchief as the guy next to him labors mightily to keep his composure, eyes brimming with tears as he slams his hands together like a dock worker at a union soiree. 

 Welcome to cold, hard science.

 Unexpected Collision Unveils Physicist

When the existence of a Higgs-like particle was formally declared in 2012, it was a very big deal. It fell to UCSB’s Joe Incandela—Spokesperson (read: Chief Scientist) of the CMS Experiment at CERN—to make the historic occasion known to the world. And the world was enthralled. However exotic and little-understood the achievement, the international press were all over the announcement, swarming Incandela in the CERN lobby as if he were a quantum Harry Styles.

The detector with most of the subsystems complete—note scale with workers on catwalk [photo Michael Hoch]
Indeed, to this mildly genuflecting writer, Incandela will be compelled to repeatedly recount the crowd-sourced, map-ignoring nature of the Higgs chase—“4,000 scientists from 42 countries worked together on this…”— pointing out as well that many of the happily collaborating scientists were from countries ostensibly in conflict with each other. Another example, if you needed one, of science blithely rising above the generalized nitwit squabble.

As a young physics undergrad, Joe had learned of—and pondered—the famously elusive Higgs boson, the cryptic “God Particle” that gives mass and substance to…everything in the universe. In 2012 he found himself announcing that same Higgs boson to the world. This outcome likely would have surprised Joe the undergrad, let alone his “can’t stop laughing” college roommate (more on him later). How exactly had Joe come to this crazy pass?

CMS Spokesman Joe Incandela in the control room on the surface. Above ground, that is.

Incandela is a Chicagoan with a Chicagoan’s eyebrows—not to generalize. Actually he grew up just outside of Chicago. But still. Joe is an experimental physicist, UCSB Physics Professor, Vice Chancellor for Research, mountain climber, planner of future supercolliders, silicon-based detector innovator (not that again!), fluent speaker of Italian and French, ardent SpongeBob supporter, and—given his time spent in the company of caroming particles—likely a decent pool player; a Renaissance Man, one could say. Though the SpongeBob thing does add meddlesome spin to the equation. As a boy, he’d had his moments of immersive intuition, standing alone in an empty room with an outstretched hand. But like most seekers after deep, empirical truth, Joe ultimately came to particle physics as you’d expect—through artfully molten glass.  

Art for Quark’s Sake

“I was studying art. My parents were both artists. My dad was very much an artist, and had won a scholarship to the Young Artist Studio of the Art Institute of Chicago when he was six or seven, staying until he finished high school. He learned drawing, painting, sculpture—everything.” Joe’s dad, a businessman with a deep art passion and innate talent, later spent summers studying marble sculpting in Pietrasanta, Italy—Michelangelo’s training grounds. Joe’s mother was also impassioned about art, and the household encouraged Joe and his sisters to explore.

“They really wanted us all to have these experiences. When I was a kid my dad sent me to the Art Institute, and I was there from 7 to the age of 15.” Joe pauses. “My dad and mom always wanted to be artists, but… WWII derailed both their plans. ” Joe’s dad had reportedly envisioned Joe as a great artist, Joe’s mom sensing science might be the curious kid’s destination. 

Joe embraced glass as his medium of choice and became enamored of artist Dominick Labino’s work, which used chemistry to achieve certain striking effects. “And that led me to chemistry. And so for the first time in my life…I had to take a physics course.” The course was entry level physics—classical bewigged Newtonian mechanics. “But the TAs and instructor would occasionally talk about modern physics, and when they did, I quickly realized…these guys are talking about stuff I’d been thinking about all my life! That was mind-blowing.” Joe was jazzed. “The day I took the final exam I came home and excitedly told my roommate I was going to get a PhD in physics.” The eyebrows jump. “The guy could not stop laughing.” 

Particular Search for Answers

His roomie’s amusement aside, Joe nabbed his PhD in ‘86 and by 2012 was leading the most consequential quantum posse of the last 50 years—chasing the fugitive Higgs boson over hill and dale and spacetime. In the interim, other quarks warbled a siren song. In the late 80s Joe was working with colleagues at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland to study the W and Z bosons responsible for the weak nuclear force—then returned to the States and his old Windy City stomping grounds, working with the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) to produce and confirm the Top Quark—the long-sought heavyweight champ of elementary particles, and the most difficult to observe due to its mass-related flash-in-the-pan decay rate.

The Intermediate Silicon Layers detector proposed by David Stuart (back row, left – now a prof at UCSB) and Incandela. Designed in ’96 and built in 2000 (when this pic was taken). Highly reflective surfaces on the device are silicon detector sensors. This design informed the CMS detectors in the later LHC.

Joe led the construction of a detector crucial to the top quark discovery, and also led the team of scientists that used that detector to find the top quark. He then went on to design and build large silicon detectors intended to study the top quark in detail at Fermilab. These large new silicon detectors drew the attention of CERN’s experimental physicists gearing up for the coming Higgs search.

“A couple of the European leaders of the project to build the CMS tracker came to see me at Fermilab and asked us to join their effort,” Joe says. “They were looking at the possibility of a full silicon tracker for CMS. This was…bold! There’d been maybe 5 square meters of silicon detectors built—in the whole history of the field. A full silicon tracker for CMS would be 200 square meters.” 

Very Cold Donut 

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a ridiculously large, unspeakably complex, and deeply buried donut. 17 miles around and about 500 feet beneath the French/Swiss border, near Geneva, LHC is the highest-energy particle collider in the world at this writing—a near light-speed demolition derby that directs opposing proton beams into spectacular head-on collisions.

Overlay showing buried LHC, near Geneva. Note locations of CMS and Atlas experiments (detectors) on the collider ring. ATLAS experiment was headed by Fabiola Gianotti, CERN’s current Director General. When Joe’s CMS and Fabiola’s ATLAS unveiled for each other their independent data – Higgs history was made. [photo courtesy CERN]
Where the beams collide, the particles explosively spray in every direction, passing through the surrounding detector’s sensitive, differentiated strata where they’re “read” for identifying characteristics. It’s like blasting a layer cake with a shotgun, but more rigorously scientific. The LHC is a stupefying marvel of engineering, and also takes honors for – if you can imagine – the Largest Machine in the World. Seriously. Incandela brushstrokes a few of the more glaring engineering improbabilities made manifest in the collider. 

Proton-proton beam collision. Low energy particles bending in magnetic field, high energy bits are straight lines. Colored blocks are energy measurements. “High energy trajectories can’t get easily bent by the field. The low energy ones are not generally interesting. This is one of the first events produced at the LHC in 2009.” [photo courtesy CERN]
“The magnets that keep the particles in a circular orbit are 8 Tesla and 40 feet long—and there are over 1200 of them. They operate at 1.9 degrees Kelvin [colder than space! – ed) and are cooled by the largest cryogenic system ever built. This was one of the biggest challenges—to build this accelerator that pushed every technology known.” He pauses and grins. “I heard that an engineering society estimated the chance of LHC actually working reliably at 1 in a billion, because there were so many ways the design and construction pushed the envelope.” What Joe has been thus far describing is to do with efficiently steering the proton beams around the donut for maintenance of maximum velocity. The detector for analyzing the billion collisions per second was its own challenge. “The silicon detector of CMS was unprecedented and considered very risky. The magnet in our detector is the largest superconducting magnet ever built. You could park a truck in it.”

Just You Wait, Peter Higgs. Just You Wait.

The Higgs boson was postulated the very year John, Paul, George and Ringo first appeared on the Sullivan show, driving dozens of teen girls in the studio audience to madly bat their beehive hairdos and scream like banshees. Physicists that year were also batting their hairdos, albeit in a more subdued manner. The Standard Model of physics had nagging energy-and-mass-related anomalies no one could figure out.

That year, Robert Brout and François Englert in Belgium—contemporaneous with Peter Higgs in the UK—theorized a cosmos-filling “field” that confers mass to the W and Z bosons; the particular issue that had been vexing them. It may help to imagine this Higgs Field (as it came to be called) as an omnipresent and invisible substrate of molasses throughout the universe, and particles being made sticky, lugubrious and massive as they pass through it. Regrettably, pancakes did not figure into the calculations. 

Joe among other recipients of the 2012 – 2013 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. To Joe’s right stands Fabiola Gianotti—current Director General of CERN—whose Atlas detector at the LHC co-discovered the Higgs alongside Joe’s CMS detector.

It turns out that Nature’s “forces” (gravity, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and electromagnetism, if you must know) are not unanchored effects adrift in the aether. These basic forces of nature inhere in, and are conferred by, specific force-carrying particles. The W and Z bosons confer the weak nuclear force, for instance, responsible for the sun’s life-giving furnace and other such trifles. Likewise, the force conferred by the Higgs is mass itself—the fundamental heft and ”thereness” of all things.

Piece Pipe: CMS experiment during assembly, showing (if you squint) demure little beam pipe surrounded by massive detector machinery – illustrating the scope of the Higgs particle detection challenge [photo Michael Hoch]
To the extent that a particle (according to field theory) is more specifically an excitation of its associated field, the Higgs boson is an emissary from the Higgs field and—until 2012—a phantom with the power to confer a migraine upon the Standard Model if it remained unfound. 

Boson boss Peter Higgs, with Joe Incandela and two champagne flutes—European Physical Society meeting (EPS) in Stockholm, 2012. Joe accepted the EPS 2012 prize for particle physics on behalf of CMS that year.

[From a science-fictional omni-Armageddon point of view – it is worth noting that the proton would probably be just fine without the Higgs, since the proton largely gets its mass from the group hug of u and d quarks that comprise it. Strip the electron of its Higgs mass, though, and it flies out of the atom’s orbit—whereupon you and I cease to exist.]  

Now the Higgs box has been checked, and the surviving Beatles-era theorists, Francois Englert and Peter Higgs (Brout regrettably passed in 2011) have collected their Nobel Prizes (2013). Peter Higgs, the gentleman wiping his eyes earlier in the story, was present when Joe announced the findings. You can see Joe looking at him in the aforementioned video.

“The day I announced that CMS had observed a Higgs-like boson, Peter Higgs was there, and was brought to tears.

“Francois was very happy and had me in a bear hug – pretty strong for 80!” [photo Michael Hoch]
He said he did not think it would happen in his lifetime. Englert was there, too, and after the presentations he met me. He was very happy and had me in a bear hug. I couldn’t get loose. Pretty strong for 80!” 

In 2013, Joe Incandela received the Special Breakthrough Prize in physics, alongside Stephen Hawking, Fabiola Gianotti (whose Atlas detector—a scant several miles away on the same LHC donut—shared in the Higgs discovery), Lyn Evans, Guido Tonelli, Michel Della Negra, and Tejinder Singh Virdee.

To put it another way—Joe has parlayed his once and future love of art into a species-enlightening vocation. One intuits a connection of some kind between high-energy physics and art. What is it? Joe thinks he knows.

 “Both physics and art have a significant amount of idealism associated with them—idealism in the sense that you’re trying to make a cultural contribution that’s timeless. Fundamental physics is timeless in the same way a great work of art is timeless. Contributions to fundamental science are never forgotten.”

Strangeness and Charm

Joe Incandela’s career has been out of the ordinary, let’s say. While seeking answers from the cosmos at CERN, he met the love of his life, a soft-spoken Englishwoman with a sly sense of humor, perpetually poised smile, and habit of breaking into musical laughter. Their wisecracking sons, both burgeoning scientists, have Joe-like eyebrows and use them to great effect. Joe’s own childhood was ordinary. Mostly.

Children—famously—have crazily free-range imaginations. They bear into waking, daily life the inchoate stuff of their dreams, talk to invisible friends, see what isn’t there. The shopworn lament is that growing up obliges us to swap the heart-seizing, technicolor lunacies of childhood for the useful banalites of “reality” – a word that carries more than its share of luggage.

“When I was about 8 years old,” Joe says, “I saw a drawing on a magazine cover that showed a rocket breaking through a surface.” He smiles slightly in remembering. “I only recently realized that the drawing was meant to be a rocket escaping the inside of the magazine itself—but it stimulated a different thought for me. I immediately asked myself, ‘…if the universe has an end, what’s outside it? And if it doesn’t have an end—how can that be possible?’ This completely blew my mind. It was something I spent years thinking about.”

Adults. By the time we have hair care, tax documentation and wingtip shoes, we’ve been meticulously trained to dismiss—as charming idiocy—all the madness of our early intuitions; all that elastic thinking, all the blank-check faith in the permeability of things. We get the memo in grade school or thereabouts. Some stick it to the bottom of the desk with a wad of gum and carry on. 

“When I was 10 or 11, I remember trying to understand what modern terminology would call ‘the vacuum of spacetime’. I still remember exactly where I was in our house. It was quiet. I remember staring at the space in front of me—having imagined there’s nothing in it; no air, no dust, no light—and just staring and staring and staring. And then I reached into it with my hand. And I just knew,” Joe says emphatically, “I knew that it was more than that. I knew it was something and not nothing.”