Excitement in the past week about a momentous physics discovery has extended far beyond the underground laboratories where it was made, deep beneath Switzerland and France.
The discovery by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced Wednesday, caused rejoicing among UC Davis scientists.
"I've waited for this for a very long time," said John Conway, a UC Davis professor closely involved with the Compact Muon Solenoid, or CMS, experiment, one of the two that made the discovery. "I have been looking for this particle since 1989."
"It was totally worth it to me to stay up (on Tuesday night) because it's so rare that you get to sit back and say, 'I did this, and we're a part of something big,' " said Robin Erbacher, another UC Davis scientist involved with the CMS experiment.
It is "the most major event in the last 30 years," said John Gunion, another professor at UC Davis.
At the core of the discovery is what seems to be a long-sought elementary particle called a Higgs boson, which could help explain why other elementary particles have mass. Its discovery would bolster what's known as the Standard Model of particle physics.
To find the Higgs boson, Conway and others at UC Davis have not only been analyzing the mounds of data coming out of the Large Hadron Collider, the site of the discovery known as the LHC, but they designed and built parts of the hardware used in the experiment.
"You don't go to the particle detector store. You make it yourself," said Conway, who helped build CMS' innermost detector, which he says is "just like your digital camera, but it takes 40 million pictures a second."
He personally delivered to CERN the detector components, which were so fragile they could not go through airport security conveyor-belt scanners. "I got to know the TSA people in Chicago very well," Conway said. The detectors each got their own seat on the airplane. Another group at UC Davis worked on the biggest detectors at CMS, Conway said.
Gunion also contributed to detectors at the LHC. More than 20 years ago, he showed that the detectors required a certain component to be precise. "I'm in some sense responsible for each detector spending about $50 million.
"They're things of beauty, in my opinion," he said of the detectors. "Tremendous, physical beauty."
For years CMS has shared the LHC with another experiment ATLAS trying to identify the boson using different methods. "The fact that we (CMS) see the same thing (as ATLAS) with the same mass is enormously confidence-building," said Conway.
If the researchers have found the Higgs boson of the Standard Model, said Gunion, it "confirms that what we've been teaching is in fact the actual theory that's relevant."
"No one ever thought (the Standard Model) would live this long," said Conway.
The newfound particle, said Erbacher, "sort of looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and smells like a duck, so it's probably a duck." But she added, "We'll basically be using all tools available to see if it really is a duck."
Ironically, it seems that the most tantalizing prospect is that it might not be the duck they've been seeking.
"If it's just the Standard Model Higgs, the excitement corresponds to the excitement of completing a wonderful 5,000-piece puzzle, and the time comes to put the last piece in there and it fits perfectly," said Juan Collar, who leads a search for dark matter at the University of Chicago. "But we'll be more excited if the piece doesn't fit exactly perfectly well."
Finding inconsistencies with the Standard Model, as well as better characterizing the new particle, opens up research into higher models of particle physics.
Conway agrees. "That's my catnip. I can't wait to start testing this against predictions of the Standard Model. Things could get exciting very fast."
"Physicists always like things to be beautiful," said Erbacher. "We needed the Higgs boson, but it doesn't make it completely beautiful. It doesn't complete the picture."
"What comes next is going to almost by its very nature be totally unexpected because there's just no guidebook that tells us what new physics is," said Conway.
That means more work for theoretical physicists and perhaps unexpected twists. "Nature might be coy and cruel to us and we will have to build some other machine," he said.