It is not every day that a new fundamental particle is discovered, certainly not one that could open new avenues to exploring the fundamental nature of our universe. The last fundamental particles to be discovered at CERN, the W and Z bosons, were announced in 1983 and led to the Nobel prize being awarded to Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer the following year. This time, recognition has come in a more immediate form: though blanket global media coverage. The world shared our excitement.
People on all continents, even Antarctica, watched the seminar. The atmosphere in Melbourne, where I went immediately after the 4 July seminar, was vibrant, and at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin, Ireland, which was my next port of call, it’s fair to say that our news stole the show. The discovery was, of course, the subject of my talk for ESOF, but it also featured in other places, notably the keynote speech from European Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who hailed the spirit of competitive collaboration that reigns at CERN, and said that she’d been on the edge of her seat waiting for the announcement. “It writes the next chapter in the book,” she said. For me, Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn’s talk was a highlight of ESOF. She argued for many things that are dear to CERN: collaboration, bringing people from diverse backgrounds and nations together, and the value of blue-sky research as an end in itself.
In the media, our news was reported with excitement, but also with suitable gravitas. A leading article in The Economist said that our field is to the universe what DNA is to life, and noted that for the LHC, the Higgs is merely the appetiser. In Spain, El País hailed the collaborative model that made the LHC possible, and expressed the hope that our example might spread to other areas of scientific and indeed human endeavour. Closer to home, Le Temps said that the discovery is the most important in science for 50 years.
I would stop short of that. In my opinion, important though this discovery is, there are many others equally worthy of that accolade. Science has made many advances in the last half century, changing for the better the way we live our lives and think of our place in the universe. For me, the most important thing about the way the world greeted our news on 4 July is that there can be no clearer sign that people care about science. As Time magazine put it: “We stopped for a moment to contemplate something far, far bigger than ourselves.”