Discovering the Expected

Let me tell you the tale of two Nobel Prizes—well, almost. The first Prize I want to tell you about was awarded to Wilhelm Röntgen in 1901 for the discovery of X-rays. The details of this discovery are fascinating in their own right, but the salient point for us is that Röntgen was not looking for X-rays at all. Instead, he was studying the behavior of various types of vacuum tubes. The unexpected shimmering of a piece of his equipment that contained barium made him suspect that something unusual was happening. He was in Stockholm to collect his medal within six years.

The second Nobel Prize I want to tell you about is different in two important ways. First, it hasn’t been awarded yet, and may never be. Second, it involves what is, in some sense, the opposite of an unexpected discovery. The scientists involved knew what they were looking for: an exceedingly rare particle produced when two protons are smashed together. In fact, only once in about 10 billion collisions does this particle occur. As a result, far from taking into consideration an unexpected data source like Röntgen did, they threw away 99.995 percent of their raw data because it was too voluminous to be recorded. I’m talking about the discovery, on July 4, 2012, of the Higgs boson.

The Higgs represented one of the most important physics discoveries in decades: the final piece of the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, which describes the elementary particles and their interactions. It was also a triumph of big science. The Higgs experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research near Geneva, Switzerland, generated tens of petabytes of data, demonstrating a computational prowess

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