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John Huth | USLHC | United States

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The celebrated God particle, by Mark Twain

Editor’s note: On midnight on the transition between July 3rd and 4th, 2012, I had a strange visitation from the ghost of Mark Twain. He wanted to write a piece about the discovery of the God particle and asked me to be his guide around CERN. Reluctantly, I agreed and asked him to meet me at the tram stop by the Geneva railroad station at 7:30 AM on the 4th. This is the report he filed.

John Huth, Twitter:  @johnhuth1

The celebrated God particle, by Mark Twain

Long have I toiled in Purgatory on the plane reserved for cynics, where daily reports of miracles on Earth are telegraphed up to provide annoyance for those assembled. This motley crew has no means of editorializing our disbelief to the masses below, hence the nature of our punishment. Lo, one day, word reached me of the imminent announcement of the discovery of an item called the “God particle”. I marveled at this. Surely it must be the second coming of the Lord, the Prince of Peace. I beseeched my captors to allow me one last chance to bear witness and editorialize before what was certainly the End of Days.

By some chance miracle, my captor-angels granted me this dispensation and directed me to a physicist as a guide. He was an experimental physicist, whom I am told is of the lowly caste, constantly soiling his britches in the muck of reality. Why I was not directed to a theorist, who I was told wore the wings of the eternal, I know not. Surely that high caste must be closer to the God particle!

I was allowed my first ghostly visitation upon the appointed guide at the stroke of midnight. I had some misgivings in my first role as an apparition, but my would-be guide shrugged it off and directed me to meet him at a public conveyance some time after daybreak.

At the appointed hour, I waited at a stop where electric-propelled trains run along the roadside to the place where this miracle was to be revealed. My guide met me, somewhat breathless, after his march across the city. The train, which I am informed, is called a ‘tram’, pulled up with the letters CERN emblazoned on the top. I asked, “Where is this CERN?” My guide told me that this was the place of the appearance of the God particle.

I inquired of him, “What manner of a place is this where God might reveal himself?” He snorted a bit and said that it was something called an accelerator where the scientists therein shoot the guts of matter together, creating tiny explosions, resembling miniature fireworks. These fireworks go off inside a chamber surrounded by an experimental device designed to record the detonations. Seeing little evident connection between the Lilliputian fireworks and the advent of the Lord, I asked further. “And, you expect the Savior to reveal himself inside one of these microscopic blasts?”

My guide laughed and explained that the particle was not really a religious manifestation, at least not the sort to which I was accustomed, but rather a kind of particle that ‘confers mass on an object’. “Oh,” I replied, “So it is something like a high priest for tiny objects?” He laughed again and pointed out my evident misunderstanding of the two uses of the term ‘mass’. His coinage of the word was the more plebian notion of the amount of stuff one encounters in daily life, like the quantity of manure piled high on a donkey cart. While he allowed that this was perhaps not the most apt of metaphors, he humored me enough to note the proper usage of the term.

Soon enough, we arrived at this CERN place. My guide ushered me to the sacred auditorium where the Truth was to be revealed. I could not contain my excitement. As we approached the place of anointment, I could see hundreds of pilgrims lined up, waiting for the exhalant moment. Some appeared to be in various states of inebriation, however, perhaps brought on by a night of revelry before.

While we patiently waited in line, I noted the evident youth of the pilgrims. I asked my guide about this. Were these really true believers, understanding the miracle that was about to be revealed to them? My guide tried to deflect the question, but this very act aroused my suspicion further. After waiting some time, a guard appeared and informed us that we had arrived too late and were turned away from the site of the miracle to come, as too many pilgrims had already filed inside.

My guide told me that we could watch the festivities remotely on an invention called the ‘internet’ that would beam images and words from the ‘Mass of mass’. I trudged with my guide down a long road, lined by trucks, factory-like buildings and all manner of detritus piled high on the roadside. Eventually we arrived at the extreme end of this CERN at a deserted factory-like building.

I accompanied him to a quiet office, where he opened up a box, and after some manipulation, a moving image of the Church of the Miracle appeared. At first, the leader of this CERN place appeared and began the solemn occasion, in the manner of a benediction. The first speaker appeared, evidently a representative of one of the experiments that bore witness to the tiny detonations. He patiently explained the workings of his apparatus and hailed the efforts of his fellow workers and the people who provided the little explosions in the first place.

This fellow, who seemed quite earnest, moved to what I gathered was the ‘punch-line’, as I could sense the rapt attention of the pilgrims in the room. When he combined the results of two kinds of fireworks, lo-and-behold!, a magic barrier was crossed.

Now, dear reader, you don’t need to know my opinion of statistics, but I will tell you that there is something called a ‘five-sigma’ effect. This manifestation of statistics is deemed by the cognoscenti to be a ‘discovery.’ My guide seemed to be glued to the screen, hanging on every word this gentleman uttered. When I inquired about the meaning of this ‘five-sigma’ miracle, he told me that if it was 4.9, it didn’t count. I was rather amazed that such a small fraction divides a miracle from a non-miracle, but he said it was thus.

At the revelation of the five-sigma miracle, there was spontaneous applause around the room where the Mass was held. The gentleman took his seat and a young woman took his place, evidently from a second experiment that bore witness to the miracle. As the gentleman that preceded her had spoken, the young woman proceeded to explain the workings of her explosion-detector and also praised the efforts of her fellow experiment builders and the managers of the explosions themselves. Toward the end of her talk, she, too, spoke of a ‘five-sigma’ effect, which again, my guide informed me was the hallmark of a discovery. Remarkably, like the previous speaker, this ‘effect’ was just over this marvelous threshold of the number five. She briefly mentioned something called a ‘look elsewhere effect’, which she pronounced quickly as something that was ‘four-something sigma’. I asked my guide whether this meant that the magic number ‘five’ had not yet been attained, but he informed me that the ‘five’ surely counted more than the ‘four-something’, but couldn’t really articulate an answer, only reaffirming some of my suspicions of this thing called statistics.

At the end of the young woman’s talk, there was spontaneous applause. The leader of this CERN stood up and pronounced it a discovery, whereupon all bedlam broke out on the floor of the chamber. My guide switched off his magic box and we were left in the silence of that deserted building.

I was grateful to spend a bit of time composing my thoughts to pen this report. While I was doing so, my guide allowed me to see some of the reportage of my living brethren journalists. As I suspected, they hunted for quotes from the high caste of theorists who pronounced it an amazing discovery. Lo, nothing was heard of the laborers who produced the explosions in the first place. Evidently it was not their place to interpret the miracle.

My guide informed me that this was not really the end. He said that he could not say whether this was really the God particle or something else. I was sorely disappointed, and yet could not yet reconcile this with the pronouncements of the theory caste. My guide shrugged his shoulders and said that the caste that made the explosions and the caste that built the experiments had more work to do. I asked, “Was this not really the advent of the Second Coming?” My guide just laughed.

I do not know what to make of this spectacle, as my captor-angels have now insisted that I must beat a hasty retreat to the Plane of Cynics in Purgatory. I can only confess that I reveled in my brief Sisyphean return to the land of the living.

Yours, Mark Twain