It had taken over ten years to build but now it was almost ready – the Large Hadron Collider (LHD). The team could hardly believe it. Although over 2,000 physicists from around the world had been involved in its planning and construction, it was the brainchild of three people. Hal Billet, the tall Texan engineer, Jim Brown England’s top physicist – Smokey to his friends, and Marie Relais France’s leading particle expert. Hal had cut his teeth on the SSC – Superconducting Supercollider in Texas, before they’d pulled the plug. The facility at CERN had given him the opportunity to work his way up the quantum ladder and now at last he had a team, a mission and a vision. He was top of his field – his ‘not zero’ field, he liked to joke!
The buildings that formed the office complex of CERN nestled unobtrusively in the low hills just to the north of Geneva overlooking the Franco-Swiss border, but the monster itself, the collider, lay coiled over half a mile underground in a huge cavern, almost twelve miles long in a massive circle. This excluded interference from random particles. Hal had worked here for more than a decade and he’d chosen his team carefully. Smokey and Marie were certainly the best, but they could be an explosive mixture and Hal had become an expert at preventing those collisions. Marie was petite and tailored with habits as neat as her suits. Smokey was like a huge pile of clothes dumped on a chair, but Hal knew he could rely on them, and his other people, to do their jobs. Now they were almost there, he had to hold the entire team together. There would be at most a further week of tests – some minor experiments just to check that everything was in working order, and then, the big one!
Being leader of the team in the lab was one thing but Hal really hated the public face of the job and tonight he had to do a radio interview for the BBC World Service. It was better than TV. At least he didn’t have to dress up for this one, but Smokey still teased as he was leaving for the studio. “Looking particularly flashy tonight Hal. May the Higgs be with you!”
Back in the lab, Smokey and Marie turned on the radio to listen to the broadcast. Hal knew they would be listening and that, more than anything else, made him nervous.
“This evening’s guest on Science Now is Professor Hal Billet,” began the presenter. “He and his team are about to carry out the most radical experiment in modern science since Rutherford split the atom; the search for the Higgs boson – the so-called God particle. Now, Professor,”
“Call me Hal.”
“Hal, there are those who feel that the money used to fund this research could have been put to better uses.”
“Well I can’t hardly think of anything better than the spin-offs to this, breaking down nuclear waste, providing new sustainable energy sources way into the future, break-through in laser technology to improve surgical procedures; and these are just a few of the benefits that could accrue from this research.”
“I’m sure most of our listeners didn’t realize the practical value of the work you are doing, but another question the public wants answered is, are these experiments really safe? I mean, the large Hadron Collider can achieve particle energies far in excess of anything created before. Is that not so, Hal?”
“That is true, but to put it into perspective, what is actually being created here is cosmic rays and those, naturally occurring, have been bombarding the Earth since it’s formation 4.5 billion years ago and those energies produced by nature exceed anything our colliders are capable of. Put another way, we’re talking about the energy released by just over a thousand mosquitoes or by you say – clapping your hands.”
Smokey spoke with his mouth full of pizza, “Jeeze, he’s on the ball tonight Marie!”
Marie grunted. Manners like that weren’t worthy of a response. She was hard to impress but that mosquito bit was genius. She hoped the audience was huge. A pity it wasn’t on TV. “Shut up, Jim – I’m listening.”
The presenter continued, “Some physicists have said that it is possible black holes could be produced within this apparatus. Is that not something we should be worrying about?”
“Microscopic black holes, yes,” said Hal, “But nothing with a strong enough gravitational force to pull in significant amounts of surrounding matter.”
“And do we know for sure what a significant amount is? Suppose one of your baby black holes got greedy?”
Hal hesitated for a moment and that was enough to allow the presenter to come in with another question. Hal suspected he knew what was coming and he was right.
“Hal, what would be your answer to the people who say you’re playing God – meddling with things you shouldn’t be?”
“I’d have to say that assuming you believe in a God, you must surely believe that he created us intelligent beings to a purpose, and that exploring all aspects of our universe must be part of that purpose.”
“I’m sure there are many who would agree with you on that,…”
Hal pressed his point, “And of course we’re not in the business here of discussing anyone’s privately held beliefs.”
The presenter nodded to him in silent agreement and turned towards the nuts and bolts of the experiment and the team doing the work.
In the lab the next morning Smokey and Marie were full of praise.
“I didn’t think you had it in you to put that presenter in his place like that,” said Smokey.
“That wasn’t my intention, Smokey; I just didn’t want to get into all that belief stuff. If it comes down to it, all of us here on this project believe in Science as a kind of saviour for mankind. I didn’t want to go there.”
“No,” said Marie, “You were wise to avoid it and well done.”
“Thank you Marie.” High praise indeed he thought.
The first stage was to split an atom, then accelerate the proton to near the speed of light. The hadron, a pack of quarks, would then be further split, and with any luck, the main monitor would reveal the boson, the particle that was hypothesized to have started the Big Bang – or not. In a way it was a win-win situation. It would be just as valuable scientifically to find that the particle did not exist, as to find that it did. But for Hal and his team it had been the dream of a decade to find the HB, and in their hearts they all knew it. The preliminary tests went without a hitch. Running some oxygen at high pressure through the accelerator revealed that there were no leaks. A few accelerations to nine tenths the speed of light, and everything checked out. At last the big day had come.
The tension was tangible. The room fell silent, each team member dealing with the pressure in his own way. Smokey was dying for a cigarette. It wasn’t allowed. Smoking had been banned in all public places for years but the nickname had clung to him like the smell to his clothing. One yellowed index finger tapped nervously on the edge of the console – Morse for strain. Smoking might kill; it did kill, but what of this intolerable stress? As soon as that Boson showed up, he was going to slap a health warning on it. “Do you think it is The God Particle?” he asked, just to hear the sound of a voice.
“Oh come on,” said Hal. “I thought you were the total skeptic.”
“I am. But just think of it – we may be about to discover the hypothetical particle that can turn energy into mass – that may have started the Big Bang.” A rye smile crossed his lips as he saw he’d got Marie’s attention. He liked the way her eyes flashed and that accent…
“My! That’s a big word,” she interrupted.
“That’s two words actually.”
“No, not Big Bang; hypothetical”
“Very funny,” continued Smokey undaunted, “but suppose, we do discover the particle, and it did start the Big Bang, isn’t it possible we might re-create the Big Bang itself? What if the Big Bang was created in a former universe by scientists like us, carrying out an experiment like the one we are doing right now?”
Hal nearly spat his coffee over the control panel in front of him. “Remind me to vet your reading in future Smokes! Have you ever heard the story about Bertrand Russell?”
Smokey shook his head. Philosophy wasn’t really his thing – not nearly practical enough.
“Well, at a lecture Russell postulated that everyone believed the Earth to be a sphere. But one lady present told him he was mistaken, and that the Earth is flat and rests on a tortoise.
‘But what does the tortoise rest on?’ asked Russell.
‘A turtle’ replied the lady.
‘But what would the turtle then rest on?’ he continued.
‘Well after that, it’s turtles all the way down.’”
“Your point?” said Smokey.
“If, as you’re suggesting, the Big Bang was set off by scientists in some long dead civilization, billions of years ago, what led to the big bang that started that civilization? Another big bang? You’re into the fallacy of the infinite regress.”
“Infinite what?” laughed Smokey.
“I heard a similar story,” volunteered Marie “Except that the lady, on being asked what was under the turtle said, ‘Suppose we change the subject.’”
“Best suggestion I’ve heard all day,” said Hal.
Smokey went back to tapping on the console and the minutes went back to feeling like hours.
Marie sat in front of her blank monitor, pale and agitated. She couldn’t sit still. She wanted to pace up and down. She wanted to swallow but her mouth was dry. ‘The God particle.. .the God particle.’ The annoying phrase resonated in her brain and she struggled to reject it. Her mother would have thought they were playing God. She remembered her teenage defiance and her mother’s insistence, “Marie, tu te lèves? Faut aller à la messe…Marie?”
“Marie?” The voice this time was real. “You with us? Looks like you’re miles away,” said Hal.
“Sorry Hal, just – you know…”
“Hey!” was all the response Hal gave but he made a dismissive gesture with his hand to show he understood. They were in this together.
Marie hoped she would be able to concentrate. This was not the day to lose it. She crossed herself. She was cross with herself for doing so and hoped nobody had noticed the involuntary slip. It was all nonsense of course… the God particle…the whole religious thing. She looked around. Everyone else seemed to be caught up in their own thoughts.
Smokey breeched the silence again. “This is like that play I saw once where the write-up said ‘nothing’ happened twice. ‘Waiting for…’”
“Godot,” Marie said.
“Maybe it was just a Boson.”
Marie seemed unimpressed.
“So eh, when did you get religious, Marie?”
Hal gave Smokey a warning look.
“Okay so I’m nervous,” said Marie. “We’re all nervous!” She swept her neat hair back with one hand and rubbed the other on her trousers. “This isn’t a pissing contest, Jim. There’s a toilet for that and anyway, it’s unfair. I don’t have the equipment, you know?” Her eyes flashed mischieviously and she laughed. The others joined in and the ripple of laughter spread through the room dispelling the tension, drawing the other people in. Marie folded her hands in her lap. She would be alright now she hoped – she prayed.
The klaxon sounded and everyone became alert. Injector power-up was ready. Electrical checks could begin. Visual display units flickered their familiar messages. The photon emitters were up and running. Hal immediately took charge, falling into routine like a well oiled machine. He cleared his throat, and then started on the numerous checks he had to go through to ensure they could go for the boson.
“Particle acceleration module.”
“Magnetic field containment.”
The checks seemed interminable but every station seemed to be reading out okay. Now all they needed was the data.
“Checks complete. Right Smokey? Right Marie?” Hal looked at each of them as they answered in the affirmative. “Right, let’s do it!” said Hal. He leaned forward and opened the plastic shell to reveal two buttons, green for go, red for abort. He pressed the green button.
There was nothing dramatic to be seen or heard. The containment of sound and light was total. These particles only signaled their presence, through decaying trails from interactions with other particles and forces.
“We’re getting data,” called a voice.
There was a slight vibration in the room.
“What the heck?” said Hal. “This is a hell of a time for an earthquake!”
The vibration strengthened until the whole room shook.
“Something’s wrong,” said Smokey. He was worried. Something seemed to be wrong with his eyes. There was a kind of distortion making everything look strange. Things didn’t sound right either; sort of stretched. He didn’t really believe all that God stuff. It was just a joke! He felt the room tip. Before he’d been nervous. Now he was terrified. To hell with the rules! He lit a cigarette.
Marie crossed herself unashamedly – twice. Why not? She looked at the other two. They were white, not pale. Their faces seemed strangely elongated. Hal seemed to be saying something but she couldn’t hear what. She stood up and staggered forward as the room lurched. It was as if they were being pulled into some kind of silent vortex.
Deep underground, a handful of people knew for a minuscule fraction of a second, that they had discovered the last thing to be known – or possibly, the first.