Saturday, October 13, 2012

What Gives Us Mass

Growing up in classrooms where a brand of fascist physics held sway in the steel cold grip of NCERT, we never looked beyond Rutherford's atom. There was no such thing as the Standard Model and everything was particulate & unquestionably spherical. 
The electron was life of the party, hopping about in celebrity circles, making all the difference between one kind of compound and another.

Considering that we rote-learned the Periodic Table built on its back...
Considering its firstborn, Hydrogen, seemed to be 75% responsible for our existence (and the existence of Boyzone, whom we loved in those days)...
...No one really talked to us about the proton at all.

There's a light drizzle as we stand beneath the belly of the Globe. There's a lull in filming so we begin to chat. She's a revelation to me and she's mildly uncomfortable about it. "Everyone always wants to talk to me about being a woman scientist," she says, exasperated.

I cringe inwardly because, to be honest, that's what interests me the most about her. In spite of a higher voice trying to steer conversation to matters of scientific importance, I realise I'm starving to know how a young girl from smalltown India, grows up through the '80's to become (a) a particle detector hardware expert (b) a permanent employee at CERN and (c) the top honcho for all the upgrades of a CMS sub-detector. My mind is screaming "But you're an Indian woman!!" There's an urgent need to crack this code.

Don't get me wrong, I don't doubt her mind. Her remarkable intellect is above any discussion of gender or nationality. I'm not such a fool
I'm trying to understand what else sets her apart from me. Or what set her apart from me 25 odd years ago, when she emerged from an Indian university and earned a first-class ticket to this mecca of particle physics. I want to know if she ever hesitated. 


Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider are said to be 'paradigm shifting' landmarks of our times. Whenever they run, they perform profound feats like recreating conditions similar to the universe a billionth of a second after the Big Bang and attempting to describe the Higgs boson: that thingamijig that gives everything (you, me, Boyzone) mass, etc.

As the name suggests, the LHC collides hadrons to achieve these ambitious goals. Hadrons like protons. Two protons accelerated in opposite directions at 99% the speed of light, meeting along the 27kms tunnel only to smash up against each other. Much of this catastrophic rendezvous proves to be beyond our visual imagination and it will take mathematics to make complete sense of it.

Infact, before the LHC began its first run, there were those who panicked that such colliding protons would hasten the end of the world. Instead, they gave us new science.


On camera, she is vibrant and engaging when talking about her physics, her workplace and the exciting ventures she'll be part of in the LHC's next phase. It's hard not to look at her animated face and be very aware of her fate, inextricably bound with the most fascinating discoveries of our time.

I see an opening and take my chance. I ask her to tell our viewers what it's been like being Indian, female and making it big. "Tell those young girls watching that they can be scientists, physicists, hardware specialists even though they're in traditionally male domains. Tell them, tell them!" 

She falters, her confidence wavering. Like a bloodhound, I pursue my track relentlessly, egging her to talk about her personal story. But she needs a moment. She composes herself and then looks askance to the director, who nods yes. 
Her answer is a public service announcement. It's one I've heard a million times before, about believing in dreams and not giving up. The bloodhound's scent has run cold. 

Ok, I want to whine, screw the viewers. Screw gender or being Indian. Screw your smalltown upbringing and all that it came with. Tell me your secret: Did you ever question your talent? Were you ever ashamed of being the odd one out, did you ever regret your intellect? Did you ever balk at winning the biggest trophy in the room? Did you skip a beat before accepting your entitlement? Did you ever second-guess your worth?

On the 4th of July 2012, CERN holds a live webcast to unveil an astounding discovery. 
Director-General Rolf-Dieter Heuer announces: "As a layman I would now say I think we have it." 

'Bumps' in data from two LHC experiments show that the Higgs boson has finally been detected. Thanks to a bunch of enterprising protons, it has graduated from being a theoretical construct to a highly probable, experential reality.
There's mad applause. A snow-haired gentleman in the audience wipes his eyes.
We'd always known we had mass. But, I guess, it had been really important to know why.

Sidebar: Watch Sheryl Sandberg Talk About Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders

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