The Undiscoverable Higgs Boson         
by Jacqueline Kharouf

It began as an investigation. I turned silences and nights into words.  

What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still.   

—Arthur Rimbaud, II Deliriums: Alchemy of the Word

In 300 proton collisions out of 15,000, Nick Lawler has seen the same patterned aftermath of lightweight subatomic particles. They emerge as a jet, really, a result Nick notes to Bremner, the senior researcher and experimental particle physicist on his CERN team, while they stand at the whiteboard in Bremner’s office. Bremner studies the micrograph he printed from the Data Quality Monitoring Satellite Control Room, tracing the shadow paths and clouds of curlicues with his pinky finger. 

“Lawler,” he says. “Dis jet could be antirey new vorce—someting to explain dynamics of vwhat holds atom togeter.”

Nick presses his lips together, evaluating how Bremner can assume this is evidence of the Higgs boson even though it’s only happened 300 times—two percent of the collisional instances which occurred from ATLAS, the largest of the four detectors at the Large Hadron Collider.

Since coming to Geneva three months ago, Nick has designed the experiments that gave Bremner these results. He’s watched Bremner push a button in a control room, send particles around the inner ATLAS loop, a smaller stretch of the tunnel tangential to the longer tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider, and then release the particles from the ATLAS loop to circle the LHC tunnel from opposite directions. He’s reviewed the collisions as printed results and, later, designed Bremner’s next experiments.

Bremner tilts the micrograph under the light on his desk, muttering to himself. Nick knows they’re close. The 300 cases that ATLAS detected, jets with a total energy value of about 144 billion electron volts, are decay evidence of a much larger particle with that energy value. It could be the Higgs boson, the missing link in the Standard Model of particle physics. As a theoretical particle physicist, Nick uses it to explain the mass of subatomic particles, envisioning it as a sort of living field around them that like a fish in water buoys the particles as they move through it and gives them inertia. He should be able to conduct experiments in which he can create ripples through that field, measure the degrees and variety of those movements, and ultimately explain how particles in the universe have mass. But for now, the Higgs only exists mathematically.

Nick uncaps one of the dry erase markers clipped to the top of the white board. “If we look at the source collision, we may be able to calculate the interactions between these components, whatever they are, and isolate the stages of decay,” he says.

As Nick draws a new figure for Bremner, a moment of bursting curvature and spin, the charges of released particles chartered to their paths, their separations, the cell phone in his pocket buzzes against his thigh. It’s an international number he doesn’t know, but he answers anyway, motioning to Bremner that he’ll be right back. Nick stands near the doorway as a female voice at the other end introduces herself as a doctor from St. Mary’s Hospital in Toronto. 

“Are you related to Arthur Lawler?” she asks.

Nicks holds his breath. Bremner stands closer to the whiteboard, rubbing his chin.

“Yes,” Nick says, frowning.

“Arthur was hospitalized late last night for a concussion,” the doctor says.Her accent is soft and lilting, but she speaks slowly.  “Arthur’s concussion is severe,” she says. “He hit his head on a curb while skateboarding.” 

A year ago, Arthur, Nick’s seventeen-year-old brother, dropped out of school to chop wood, stockpile supplies in the basement, chart weather patterns, and fill up notebooks with future travel plans. Whenever their parents even mentioned visiting a doctor, or a psychiatrist, Arthur would rip out chunks of the dry wall in his bedroom with his bare hands, screaming that all of it—the simultaneous eruptions of super-volcanoes, the head-on collision with an earth-shattering 26-mile asteroid, the reversal of the earth’s magnetic poles—was true and that they’d see he was right. The last time Nick saw him Arthur said he didn’t just believe, he knew the world was going to end by December 21, 2012.

“How severe?” Nick asks.

“His brain is bleeding,” she says. “We’ll have to relieve the pressure by removing a small section of his skull. His brain needs room while it swells.”

Three months ago, Nick was living in New York, teaching particle physics at Columbia. After class, Nick went home, the remnants of a humid summer untangling in the autumn light which faded gray against the floor to ceiling chalkboards he’d hung adjacent to the windows of his apartment. On the chalkboards he’d write ghostly and mathematical equations, standing there until they were solved, until his fingers were coated white in chalk.

One night, Arthur called to tell him he was at a rest stop outside D.C., where he had bought a bus ticket to New York. It was the last of his money, he said, and he needed a place to stay while he earned more.

“Can I stay with you?” Arthur had asked.

Nick stood in the doorway to his office. It was held in that leeway between dusk and evening, the chalkboards cast in shadows and the white-bright translucence of the afternoon dying in the sky. He explained that he would be leaving for Geneva soon.

“How soon?” Arthur asked.

The steady bleat of other buses droned behind Arthur, siphoning through the receiver.

“End of the week.” Nick lowered his voice. “Did you call Mom and Dad?” he asked.

“I can’t talk to them anymore,” Arthur said. 

Nick tried to keep his voice as neutral as possible. “After New York, where will you go?” 

Arthur laughed. “Why do you care?” He paused, drawing in his breath, and for Nick it was like a storm coming over a mountain. “You’re leaving to build a black hole!” Arthur said.

When protons collided hundreds of things were born, Nick explained, but more than that, it was the world beginning again. It was wholeness begetting wholeness, it was trajectory and symmetry, it was matter bursting out of its skin to the rhythms of mathematics. The moment of the collision was like a moment beyond time—a silence in the sphere of the whole universe—and in the space there was a black hole, but it was so, so small, he told Arthur, it wasn’t enough to envelope everything.

“Explain the mass animal deaths,” Arthur said. “The tsunamis and earthquakes.”

Arthur was now a variation of the person he was five years ago, who was a variation of another person who existed five years before that. If he could, Nick would divide his brother like he divided particles, quarter Arthur into the ages he used to be. The last time Nick saw his brother, Arthur was standing under a street light, so thin that as other people pressed to move around him, they averted their eyes like he wasn’t even there.

“These are signs,” Arthur said.

Nick took a deep breath. “Or, global warming,” he said.

Nick could see Arthur wandering around New York, scribbling snatches of conversations into his notebook. Arthur’s hair would be matted to his forehead, his body odor like the soggy bottom of a dumpster.

“You’re not crazy,” Nick said.  

And Arthur said, “But I’ll never be as smart as you.”

In the hospital room in Toronto, Nick perches on the edge of a stiff and unpadded chair, biting the tattered skin on his bottom lip. Arthur lays, as though asleep, flat on his back, the white blanket drawn up no farther than his waist. He looks almost peaceful except for the gauze wrapped around his head.

Nick doesn’t pray. He doesn’t cry. He hears the nurse tell him, peripherally, that Arthur’s in a medically induced coma. That he isn’t in much pain. That they’re waiting. This is all they can do.  Nick wants gum, something to chew and fast forward the woman’s voice, the near quiet that haunts the room. Instead he’s sipping coffee, and it’s hurting his stomach, while he sits in that chair and the machines monitoring Arthur’s heart blip and beep.

Hours later, still sitting in that chair, Nick calculates bombardment, writes an equation that will measure the energy lost when one proton collides with another. From this he qualifies bombardment as both creation and destruction—it shows the origins of what has been whole from other little wholes that are composed of yet finer components. Everything has its place. He determines that because this world is contained in one universe, and that just as there are other planets rotating in other galaxies of this same universe, there are also other worlds floating in other galaxies of other universes. And as for him, sitting here, waiting, there are probably other variations of him existing simultaneously (perhaps even identically) at this same exact moment—versions of him living better lives, still talking with brothers who do not believe so many stupid things.  

The doctor and three nurses come in, hold Arthur’s limp arms, unwrap the gauze, measure the increased swell. Nick stands at the foot of the bed, even when the nurse touches his arm, indicating his place in the chair. Arthur’s eyes open for at least thirty seconds—and Nick swallows, thinking Arthur will lift his chin, let the grin tug his cheeks, open his mouth, ask him why Nick’s here, and Nick will tell him that their parents are on their way, that they’ll go home and eat whatever Arthur wants to eat, not thinking about anything but being like they were before—but then the heart monitor whistles one final stagnant tone.

In the evenings, after everyone has already gone home, Nick runs tests in the Data Quality Monitoring Satellite Control Room, watching the computer monitors. He taps his fingers, shakes the numbness from his leg, and the monitors prism green light across the keyboards.

One whole wall is covered in buttons and dials, swinging needles reading air pressure, plastic discs covering smaller buttons, alarm lights, and larger locked buttons he cannot push unless he releases them with a skeleton key. Flickering rows of monitors, one for each of the 300 active dipoles—35 ton cylinders that drive protons around the 17 miles of underground cement tunnel—stretch across the middle of the room.  

His brother’s notebook is in the bag he’s set beside the desk, the little paper holes where the wire loops through are frayed, mostly broken. It contains light scribble, long, breathy staffs of letters, sharp dashes and commas, peppered like freckles, and high crosses on every “t” and “f.” There are conversations, or doodles, or overdrawn names, faces with too-long noses, a dislocated eyeball.  Notes too, from geometry, and careful drawings of three-dimensional hexagonal containers labeled for height, width, and length. Arthur used a mechanical pencil, other times a fading pen, and he didn’t always date them. Some were thoughts and ideas that weren’t Nick’s to know, but all of them were signed, spindled from a thin “A,” through his last check-marked “r.”

The passage that Nick reads again and again, thumbing to it whenever he has a quiet moment like this, starts with a memory of a slapping game Nick and Arthur used to play. It had started because they were beating each other up and Nick thought they were hitting each other too hard. He devised new rules that, from now on they could only hit each other on the right cheek with the left hand. It deflected the blows a little, prevented them from hurting each other too much. In his notebook Arthur described the general gist of the game and how Nick had justified it, intoning a voice Nick may have used when he was a teenager: “You’re only a kid—this isn’t a fair fight.” Arthur had written this line in bold across the top of the next page and continued writing below it: “Here’s where we are now: I didn’t realize how much my brother’s become an asshole until this weekend when he let me stay with him. He’s so vain and self righteous it makes me sick. And mom and dad don’t even see it!  They’re just the same. How much can I really say? Nick’s easier to discuss over breakfast.”  

Nick flushes. He loops his finger in the coiled metal spiral, sweat threads his palms, and, after he reads it, he closes it, stares at the water-stained cardboard and tells himself to work, to immerse himself again in micrographs of proton explosions, streams of energy and voltage only a computer can feel, the silent screams of divided atoms. But he can’t help thinking, and squeezing his eyes tight as he does, that Arthur probably wasn’t ever afraid he’d fall and crack his skull, that the weightlessness of the moment before was probably as soundless as the universe.

Nick removes his glasses and leans forward over the desk so that his forehead touches the chilly table top. The dipoles are sending protons around and around, the coldness in the tunnel the same temperature as outer space. He sits up again, wiping his eyes, and puts his glasses back. The closest monitor drumrolls like a lightning struck electrical tower—a singeing, sizzling hiss followed by a metallic crack or click that accelerates and makes the desk hum. He blinks, still only half-aware, and the monitor flashes red.

WARNING: Helium leak Dipole 17: WARNING


He holds his breath. A small, steady thudding rises in his chest. He leans closer to the screen to watch the cursor blink next to the Y. If he stops the accelerator, he stops the protons, the protons stop their collisions, the collider will become a very cold tunnel, and somehow it will be his fault that he broke the biggest machine ever built. 

He digs in his bag for his skeleton key. He’s slow at it, like this bag doesn’t belong to him and he needs something from it, but he doesn’t want to touch anything else inside it except what he needs. After he pulls out the key, an inch-long zig-zag coiled on the metal ring of a Columbia University lanyard, the emergency alarm stops. On the monitor display, he reads that the dipoles are inactive now, no longer electrocuting themselves. Somehow, from inside the tunnel, the emergency all-stop has been pushed.

Later, Bremner and Nick, along with a team of mechanical engineers, wear protective suits and view the damage in the tunnel. An engineer explains that an explosion happened because a seal around the casing that held a cable connection between two dipoles hadn’t been completely soldered. The cables held in this casing quenched and the super-conducting cable became only a regular conductive cable that couldn’t carry the 11,000 amps of electricity. Sparks cascaded as the uncontrolled amps cycled down the line, burning holes through steel coverings and releasing pressurized helium that had cooled the electromagnets inside these dipoles. The helium turned to liquid and back to gas again, cooling the air so that it turned into snow, white flakes nestling amid the fiery blaze of the overheated dipoles. Nick learns that the alarm stopped because the emergency stop—a large override button located in the tunnel—was pushed by the pressure built up inside.

The incident damaged nearly 2,000 feet of the tunnel. Ten dipoles were critically wrecked and 29 were significantly damaged. Bremner stands by the initial stricken copper casing and crosses his arms. The 35-ton cylinder containing the dipole lays crookedly in the center of the tunnel. It may be months, or maybe even a year, the engineers say, until the machine is fully functioning again.

Nick takes a step closer to the charred cable casing. It’s like a blackened banana peel, rippled and uneven, jagged shards of metal and cable already corroding and breaking off into soot that has piled on the floor.  

Next to Bremner’s knee, hovering just above the charred cable casing, Nick sees an uncurling leaf of light. It’s a hole no bigger than the palm of his hand—grayish white and luminous—leftover from the explosion in the tunnel. Nick knows it’s not a black hole, but something else, a hole in the space of the space of a space of the infinity of time.

Bremner moves away, kicking at some of the ashes and soot before following the engineers further into the tunnel. Nick crouches, peaking over his shoulder, waiting until they are far enough away. The hole doesn’t have a shadow and hovers three dimensionally as Nick cranes his neck around it, trying to see it from different angles. Nick sits on the ground and plies the hole with his finger, wiggling it just enough that it expands, slipping around his hand and his arm, across his shoulders and over his head. He stands up, lifting his leg over the edge, and the hole shapes itself around him so that he has the vague, warm feeling of being shrunk, or contained.  And then he isn’t in the tunnel. He isn’t standing in ash. It’s only himself, glowing in the jelly of his own effervescence, the particles whirling around him like tablets, dissolving into pale ice, or fire.

Jody Plant