He's a 'God particle' detective

Photo Credit: Wiki Commons
Saturday, December 14, 2013 - 7:17pm

GENEVA, Switzerland (CNN) -- One trillionth of a second after the Big Bang is the timeframe that physicist Joe Incandela knows well. So he was surprised by an invitation to speak to businesspeople last year about predictions for 2013.

"Take anything I tell you with a grain of salt," he told me recently at his office near Geneva, Switzerland, paraphrasing the presentation. "I know nothing about the future."

It's a bold statement coming from someone who has spent decades collaborating on new technologies and inventive ways of solving problems. To explore the universe's past, Incandela has been thinking at the edge of the future.

Incandela leads the team for the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment, one of two towering wonders of modern engineering that detected an important particle called the Higgs boson. Known to the general public as "the God particle," the Higgs boson helps explain why matter has mass, and therefore why we're here at all.

The experiments that found it -- ATLAS and CMS -- lie at opposite ends of the most powerful particle accelerator on Earth. CERN's $10 billion Large Hadron Collider sits in a 17-mile circular tunnel under the French-Swiss border, and will smash protons at energies of 13 trillion electron volts in 2015, after upgrades. The machine was designed to recreate conditions around the time of the birth of the universe, to look for evidence of our origins, including the Higgs boson.

Francois Englert and Peter Higgs received a Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for coming up with theories about the all-important particle. Incandela sported a tux for the banquet and snapped a photo with Higgs.

Attending the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm was one of many thrills of Incandela's tenure as CMS spokesperson, a position akin to CEO of the experiment. He steps down at the end of this month, and will leave Switzerland in August to return to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is a professor of physics.

Overseeing the CMS experiment has kept Incandela too busy to notice the view of the Alps out his office window. Just this week, he's flown between Stockholm, Geneva and New York. No wonder he's waiting to settle back in the U.S. before getting a dog (he's picked the name Petabyte).

We sat at a table near the door as the physicist -- whose hair, pants and blazer were all shades of gray -- animatedly explained his vision of the future: A world of even greater interconnectedness of people and information, using a vast network of computers to solve new problems.

This is already happening among scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, where the World Wide Web was invented.

"In our field, we're often at the front of something," he said. "And this may actually be the beginning of a much more radical technological revolution than anyone has anticipated in terms of computing and knowledge."

Something out of nothing

Incandela's wonderment about the universe began in childhood. He wanted to know, if you take everything away, what would there be? It's a topic he's still exploring: The composition of empty space.

At first, art seemed his likely path while. He was interested in glassblowing and, to further his work, Incandela considered becoming a chemist.

In college, though, he got hooked on physics.

Henry Frisch, professor of physics at the University of Chicago, remembers well an undergraduate electromagnetism course in which, based on test scores, one student "was just head and shoulders above all others."

The course superstar, he learned, was a kid wearing an old Army Surplus khaki jacket, slouched in the back row. His name was Joe Incandela.

Frisch was Incandela's Ph.D. thesis adviser; the project was a new approach for the search for the magnetic monopole. Every object with a magnetic field has a positive and negative side -- you can observe this by cutting a magnet in half and seeing how there are still two "poles." But scientists believe there could be particles out there that really do only have one pole -- the magnetic monopole.

At the high-energy physics building at the University of Chicago, Incandela, Frisch, and a small group of others looked for this particle with new technologies that they had invented for the search for the magnetic monopole.

Although other scientists said it couldn't be done, their detector mechanism worked -- and it would have found a magnetic monopole if one had been there, Frisch said.

The project showcased Incandela's can-do attitude and ability to do whatever needs to get done, although on a scale much smaller than at the CMS experiment at the LHC.

"But in terms of intellectual content, it's the same quest for absolutely new and fundamental things," Frisch said.

Being part of something big

After he got his Ph.D. in 1986, Incandela got accepted to a CERN fellowship.

In Geneva, he met a girl named Helen, who was secretary to the head of administration of CERN, while playing ultimate Frisbee. She had a boyfriend at the time, although Incandela "didn't think he deserved her."

Incandela asked her out a few months later, and convinced her that she "didn't need her boyfriend anymore." They were married in 1992 and now have two sons.

The big news at CERN in the mid-1980s was the discovery of particles called W and Z bosons. These particles had been identified at the Super Proton Synchrotron, an accelerator machine that was being used to collide protons and antiprotons.

Incandela did research at the accelerator's UA2 experiment, where CERN physicist Fabiola Gionatti was also working. She remembers Incandela as "extremely brilliant and motivated," but also an as "an entertaining person" who would make jokes.

UA2 had given scientists the most accurate measurements of the masses of the newly discovered W and Z bosons.

"I was a young guy, and I was really envious," Incandela said. "I really wanted to be part of a discovery."

Soon enough, he was.

When Incandela moved back to the United States in 1991, he worked at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). There, he was part of the search for an elusive particle called the top quark -- thought to be as heavy as a gold atom but smaller than a proton.

Incandela co-led the CDF (Collider Detector at Fermilab)'s discovery of the top quark. In 1995, CDF and another experiment -- DZero -- both announced evidence for this particle.

Incandela had already been missing CERN when he got an invitation that would change his career. The collaboration gearing up to create the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at the future Large Hadron Collider wondered if he could build tracking detectors, similar to what he had worked on at Fermilab. The silicon tracking detectors are what scientists use to determine the trajectories of particles.

Incandela's first workshop to work on the tracking system was in 1997. Ten years later, the CMS experiment was installed about 330 feet underground in Cessy, France. Incandela was looking forward to laying low.

"At that point, I was done. I was pretty tired," Incandela remembers with a laugh.

But he didn't turn down the chance to become deputy physics coordinator of CMS. Or deputy spokesperson. And then, in 2011, he was elected spokesperson of the experiment -- a role analogous to a CEO.

Down to the wire

Incandela took over the CMS experiment helm at the beginning of 2012, right in the middle of the race to discover the Higgs boson.

"You're confronting these incredibly difficult challenges, but your workforce is, like, off the charts in terms of training and raw talent," he said.

The scientists faced many crises along the way that could have prevented them from delivering evidence of the Higgs boson.

"I'm really happy that to most people it looks like it was automatic," he said. "But I can tell you the potential for disaster was there, or for failure. There were many areas where we could have taken wrong turns."

Before he even took office, Incandela started asked other scientists to analyze test data representing conditions similar to what the detectors would experience in 2012, when the particle beam energy would increase to 4 trillion electron volts.

The scientists realized that collisions with more intense beams -- more pairs of protons were colliding at the detector -- created so much debris -- in other words, too many extra particles -- at the detector that the software they were using was getting bogged down. Computer memory was being eaten like crazy, slowing down the whole system.

"We realized we were not going to be able to handle even [taking] the data," he said.

That was November 2011. Data collection was supposed to begin in March 2012.

Incandela formed a task force to address the problem. By February, the team had solved it by completely changing the software.

But CMS worries continued. What would be the impact of the additional particle debris on the search for the Higgs boson?

Incandela formed another task force to find out. It didn't look good.

"They came back and showed us that we were almost losing half our sensitivity, or more," Incandela.

By about May, the scientists had figured out how to correct for the additional debris, and even get greater sensitivity for detecting the particle than before.

"The results were absolutely beautiful, behind the scenes it was a huge -- I don't know how you call it -- just a crash program," he said. "I could have easily screwed up -- and I didn't."

The moment of truth

Incandela was at home one historic evening in June 2012, at his nearly 300-year-old French house that he and his wife renovated, keeping the original brass fixtures. He spoke on the phone with a CMS analyst, and she sent him a screen shot of results from particle collisions.

"I said, 'OK, this is it, we've got it.' "

For about 10 minutes, it was total elation. He was almost in a state of shock.

The first person Incandela told was his wife.

"I had to let her know because I was no longer the same person as I was an hour before," Incandela said.

But was it really the Higgs boson? Could be it confirmed?

"This is a period where the pressure was incredibly high," he said.

Incandela soon met with Gianotti, spokesperson for ATLAS at that time and a friend from his CERN fellowship days, to tell her what CMS had found.

ATLAS and CMS have what Gianotti describes as a "healthy competition," and to keep their independence there is no official exchange between the scientific collaborations. But Incandela and Gianotti, as the spokespeople for the respective groups, kept each other informed -- without disclosing details -- about trends toward a signal for the Higgs boson.

To Incandela's delight, her experiment had produced similar results. Two different machines on the 17-mile circular track had observed particles that behaved, more or less, like the theorized Higgs bosons.

CERN wanted them to announce the discovery at CERN headquarters in early July, with a simulcast for a big scientific conference in Melbourne, Australia. The scientists narrowed the date down to July 3 or 4.

Incandela thought it would be great to break the news the same day as Independence Day in the United States, but it was Gianotti who said the groups should have as much time as possible.

"I just looked over and I said, 'I'm OK with the 4th," Incandela said. "As an American I was just sort of jumping up and down inside."

Incandela helped changed the history of science with his announcement on July 4, 2012. Afterward, complaints rolled in from U.S. laboratories -- they couldn't organize media events on a federal holiday. Incandela felt bad about that for a while, but in the long run he thinks it's just cool.

"For me it's a really good day," he said.

Living in the future

Why should you, reader, care whether scientists learn about particles present in the early universe?

Think about this: The way that cutting-edge physicists work together has had tremendous consequences on modern computing. Most famously, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web at CERN in 1989 as a way of facilitating the sharing of information among scientists around the world.

Now, Incandela sees another potential revolution -- the subject of his Economist "World in 2013" talks in late 2012.

Computing has thus far been following a trend called Moore's Law, which is the idea that about every two years, the number of transistors that can go on an integrated circuit doubles. You see this clearly as devices get smaller but also more powerful. For instance, we now have tablets that are much smaller and faster than desktop models in years past. But there is now a lot of talk of "the end of Moore's Law" -- the idea that we are approaching a limit of tininess.

If you think that innovation will stop when processors level off, fear not: The most amazing uses of computing could be yet to come, Incandela said.

The development of the human brain experienced a similar trend. Starting at 2 million years ago with ancient human-like species Homo habilis, brain size started to increase exponentially, with a really dramatic rise from about 800,000 to 200,000 years ago, anthropologists say. Our ancestors started to form hunter-gatherer groups and connect with each other in new ways -- in other words, "infrastructure."

The human brain was about its current size in Homo sapiens around 150,000 years ago, according to the American Museum of Natural History. But writing wasn't invented until around 3,200 BC. Incandela posits that societal infrastructure allowed for advanced systems of communication to develop.

A similar phenomenon could happen in computing. When infrastructure reaches a critical level, people start to use it in revolutionary ways, he said. At the same time, if processors don't get smaller and more powerful so often, then computers will also be built to last longer. That would make interconnected computing infrastructure cheaper and more accessible, widening its potential for use in innovation.

The idea is already apparent in the way that physicists do their work on the LHC. The Worldwide LHC Computing Grid, comprising more than 150 computing centers in more than 40 countries, is the largest distributed computing grid in the world, said Ian Fisk, computing coordinator for the CMS experiment.

Scientists used this global network of about 300,000 processors for filtering and analyzing data while looking for the Higgs boson.

"We were able to do analyses that would have taken much much longer or perhaps not even have been possible 10 years ago," Incandela said. "Imagine what happens when this kind of computing power is accessible to all scientists or to all people who are trying to understand things in general."

The grid will help him continue to work on LHC data -- but not all the problems Incandela thinks about can be solved with computers. On a large scale, he worries about the United States cutting investment in physics. He has a lot of e-mails to answer (and he's been writing them since 1978). He has been approached about a collider-related movie.

He's also got ideas for new experiments. At home, his teenage sons sometimes grill him at dinner about his work, and he wants to teach them calculus.

It's an action-packed future for the kid who was asleep in the back row of his physics classes in the 1980s.

Thanks to him, textbooks from that time will have to be rewritten.

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