Across a multibillion-dollar research project tasked with nothing less than discovering the root of all matter, it took just a single blog comment to catch the world’s attention.
The comment included the text of an internal memo from ATLAS, a collective of 3,000 physicists involved in research at Geneva’s groundbreaking Large Hadron Collider (LHC) atom smasher. The memo, or “com note,” includes preliminary findings that tease at the possible discovery of a long-sought particle known as the Higgs boson.
The memo was posted anonymously Thursday to a blog kept by a New York-area university professor. Since then, the news has exploded across the globe with speculation about the looming confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson – known colloquially, much to the chagrin of scientists, as “the God particle.”
However, there’s a snag. Most scientists think the memo is premature hogwash.
Hundreds of “com notes” are sent within ATLAS each year. They’re not proved, reviewed or an “official result.” Researchers ignore most of them, and they’re never supposed to go public – however, “this is clearly a provocative one,” said William Trischuk, director of the University of Toronto’s Institute of Particle Physics.
“We’ve got 3,000 physicists spread across the world. Everyone’s working away, trying to find something new. Every day, there’s bound to be someone around the world who thinks they’ve got something,” added Robert Orr, another University of Toronto physicist and ATLAS researcher. “There’s nothing anybody in the collaboration can or should be saying about this particular rumour.”
As such, much of the scientific world has dismissed the memo as premature at best. ATLAS officials have issued a loose gag order, telling members that, when asked by outsiders about the memo, “the shorter [a response]the better.”
The memo was generated by a research team at the University of Wisconsin, under the apparent direction of a researcher named Sau Lan Wu, who said in an e-mail Sunday she “cannot talk for the time being.”
If the particle’s existence is soon proved, Dr. Wu will have staked an early claim amid her crowded field to be credited with the finding. Some say the leak could, as such, have come from Wisconsin. But physicists say any final discovery will be claimed by the collective as a whole, not an individual.
Others speculate it could have just as easily been a ploy to discredit the team, by releasing presumptive and incomplete findings.
“Physicists are excitable,” said Nigel Lockyer, director of Vancouver-based TRIUMF physics research lab, affiliated with the ATLAS research project. The confirmation of the Higgs’ existence would be the “discovery of the century,” and so researchers are scrambling to get there, he said. The annual summer conference season for particle physicists is fast approaching. As such, preliminary findings bubble up prematurely.
“You want to be the first person to get there, or your collaboration wants to be the first to get there, so you’re highly motivated to find something new,” he said. But the memo is “way premature.”
It has nevertheless been a publicity boon for those involved with the global collider project, based along the French-Swiss border and run by a European agency called CERN, its French acronym.
The agency plans to continue to ramp up its 27-kilometre-long LHC over the next few years, smashing particles together at up to 99.99 per cent the speed of light to try to explore the split seconds that followed the Big Bang.
If the Higgs is discovered, it will strengthen a growing push for the construction of another smasher, known as the International Linear Collider.
With cash-strapped governments pouring billions into CERN and the LHC, and about to be asked to finance a new one, potential discoveries are generating much excitement.
“Back in the ’70s, we wouldn’t even have thought whether most people are interested whether we had a new result or not,” Dr. Orr said, laughing. “Sometimes, I think people need to keep their breath and cool their porridge. … I think this is a case of: ‘Nothing to see here, please move along.’ ”