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Chicago Helps Crack Code to the Matter of Life, Doesn't Get Invited to God Particle Party

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Chicago should be mad as hell. For that matter, so should the whole United States. The world scientific community is breathless with anticipation over a press conference on the 4th of July that can only mean one thing: the God particle has been discovered. No one has actually said it, but the buzz is that the long-imagined Higgs boson particle -- the one that shows why things have mass -- has finally been proven to exist.

Flashback to July 1981: the Royal Wedding

On a steamy July pre-dawn night in New Orleans, my mother flicked on the light in my bedroom and roused me with the raspy whisper reserved for once-in-a-lifetime news. "Do you want to see the wedding?" she asked. "Lady Diana is getting married now!" My sister and I lept out of our beds to learn in an instant what kind of thing in life is momentous enough to warrant disturbing deep sleep. (Until then I had known my mother to do so only for having a baby.) That fairytale pageant with its blushing oblation in clouds of cream was stupendous indeed. But a small voice inside me asked, "Why couldn't I have just seen the replay after my boudin and beignets?" The answer came to me later in recollecting my experience of the event: Because I was there. I had participated in real time.

Chicago 2012

So why should the Windy City blow hot air on an auspicious occasion to take place in Geneva, Switzerland? Well, let's consider how many cities in the world have large particle accelerators -- supercolliders to be precise. You can count them on one hand. Okay, two fingers. One such facility that for a time held the distinction of being the world's most powerful is Fermilab, situated in suburban Chicago. Bypassing it now is the 20-country Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN) facility on the Swiss-French border. CERN is the atom-smasher delivering pivotal news this time, but not without half a billion dollars from the non-member United States.

So how is it that folks in Chicago have to stay up until (or wake up at) 2 a.m. on our national day of independence to bear witness to the most colossal breakthrough in physics the post-Boomer generation will have known? Because zay zay zo. And because the Einsteins of the world will be at the 36th International Conference on High Energy Physics in Melbourne, Australia, where the cognoscenti will huddle around the telly at 5 p.m. for Geneva's 9 a.m. seminar and grand pronouncement two hours later.

The rarefied art of blowing stuff up is expensive. It seems the size of the explosion varies in inverse proportion to the cost. So making sub-atomic particles collide has to be a global group activity. Physicists from every corner of the universe are not only equally excited about this development, but they are also jointly responsible -- as are the taxpayers in the countries they are from.

Fermilab's Tevatron accelerator was retired last September, but before then, experiments were being performed at that facility to find out if the hypothetical Higgs boson particle exists. Imagine being part of the discovery of something that potentially cracks the code to the origins of the universe by understanding the structure of matter.

A vicarious victory lap with Higgs boson on the shared intellectual landscape might be payback enough. But if I were a scientist punching the clock for years on end in Batavia, Illinois, to claim a tiny part of a monumental discovery about an infinitesimal particle that few understand and about which fewer care to ask, I would want to be invited to the party at a decent hour, not learn third-hand that I'm on the B-list.

I do feel that a confirmation of the Higgs boson particle would be staggering enough to want to be present when it happens. But this is Chicago's news as much as anyone's. Wake me up when zay zay zo at ze microphone.