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Science Book Club – Episode 15


The moment you actually start getting data is just beautiful.  

My name is Jon Butterworth and I’m a physics prof here at UCL, in fact, and I work on the ATLAS experiment at CERN. I was one of the several thousand people who found the Higgs boson and I wrote a book about it called Smashing Physics which is kind of my path throughout the last few amazing years of physics, really.

Well, the book itself begins in a kebab shop in…but that’s not really where the story starts, that kind of the “how did we get here?” moment, because that’s when I was talking to Channel 4 News about the discovery.

The story itself is really…the book itself is really, sort of, how did we get here as physicists; how did the edifice of knowledge lead us to go to all the effort of building the Large Hadron Collider; why did we think it was important to go to that much effort to find this thing called the Higgs boson and try and put that in context, but also at the same time I think it’s very distant and surreal so I also try to say how did I get there as a person, how did I get into that and how did I end up being one of the people that did that. So I’m trying to demystify physics and CERN and this weird bunch of other people who do this weird stuff, while at the same time explaining that it is actually amazing and wonderful, and in my job I keep doing these double takes al the time, am I really doing that? 

So, in a sense I’m hoping to demystify it cause, you know, any job, even that becomes an everyday thing at that point and it’s just done by people and science is just done by people, not particularly smarter than anyone else and not even particularly more driven at times but just…you did the next thing that interested you and this is where you ended up, kind of things.  But that’s not to say that…OK, it may look a little more everyday but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is amazing and CERN is an amazing place to work and it’s an amazing bit of science we’ve done there.

So I hope if you read the book, you kind of get both of those things: in one way you take it down a little, in the other way then you see what is really  wonderful about it and it’s real as well, that wonder.

There are very definite moments in there and it was fantastic to remember I had actually been there.  And they’re not always the obvious ones.  I mean, there are the obvious ones about the discovery announcement and various things like that but, you know, I worked on the thing for eight years before we even got any data and the moment you actually start getting data is just beautiful.  You know, even though the data at that stage is not telling you…is not going to find the Higgs, it’s still the first time anyone’s done this.  It’s still, you know, ‘So what is there inside the proton at these energies?’  That was really good.

And I also…you know, these experiments are very long term and I spent all my PhD, my post doc and most of my first few years of my time at UCL, I was a lecturer, working on this one experiment in Hamburg, doing various different things on it but you’re in the same environment with the same people with the same software, the same detector, you get very into a comfort zone and I did really like the building of a new comfort zone when I moved to ATLAS.  It was all very unusual.  There were people there had been working on it way longer than I was, so, you know, ‘Who’s this new guy?  You may’ve been someone senior on this other experiment in Germany but you’re no one now you’re at CERN’ kind of thing.  And that was nice, just from a sociological point of view, finding out new people and realising that the beam energies and the kinematics were all completely different now.  All your instincts that you’ve developed on the other experiment were suspect.  Not all wrong, but you had to reexamine them all.  That was really exciting, just learning something new, you know, it just happened to be the Large Hadron Collider which made it even more exciting, but just moving on like that was good.  And making new friends there, and meeting new people, all that was good.

And another bit, the whole business of how interested everyone else would be in our experiment.  We didn’t know that, and in fact there were plenty of people who thought we should just keep quiet and do it and get on with it and not tell anyone.  And I thought it was exciting and the people who paid the bills deserved to be excited as well, so I was keen on that.

It was pretty amazing in 2008 when it started up and Lyn Evans sent the beams around the LHC for the first time and was there for the whole morning, the government ministers and loads of people and John Denham was there in Westminster, Brian Cox was in CERN with BBC Radio 4, for Big Bang Day, all day!  And we were knackered!  We went to the pub next door at lunch time, we can’t stand anymore of this, it was nuts, we were all so hyper because our experiment was actually working and also the fact that it was working live on TV and people kept pointing cameras at us going, ‘How do you feel?’  It was weird.  And then we went next door to the pub and they had BBC News on and there was a news ticker on the bottom going, ‘Large Hadron Collider still working.  Beam’s going round the other way.’  We were thinking, we’ll go back and check whether they’ve…they did one circuit one way so we’ll…let’s go and check they’ve put it the other way round, and then if they’ve managed to store them for a while.  We didn’t need to go back!  BBC ticker tape was telling us!  We’re just sat there drinking in the pub and we’re getting live updates on our experiment.  That was pretty special.

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