Finding Tim

by Charlie

Episode 194

This is Kyle, and I am delighted that Charlie has given me a chance to tell my story here. You've read most of it already, but I am going to try to give you a different point of view. I am going to try to explain some of what's been going on in my mind as I've lived through the past 48 years. Yes, it's been 48 years since I met Ronnie and Sharon in 1965–we were all sophomores together at the University of Wisconsin.

I met Ronnie in an advanced chemistry class. The professor assigned lab partners, and in doing so he made it clear that he was pairing people of equal ability. He didn't believe in pairing a good student with a poor one, with the idea that the poor one would learn from the good one. In his experience with that kind of pairing, the good one simply did all the work and the poor one sought to take credit for doing half. Ronnie and I both had exceptional records in science classes in our freshman year, and putting us together was an obvious move. I'd like to think we'd have gotten together anyway. Regardless, our being paired together was to be a life-changing event. We hit it off intellectually, and for years (as you know) our relationship didn't move beyond the intellectual. Very soon after we became lab partners Ronnie introduced me to Sharon, a student he had worked with the year before in his physics class. They'd hit if off much as Ronnie and I had, and soon the three of us were inseparable. We lived and breathed particle physics and were soon doing joint independent study work under the leading particle physicist at the university.

Our relationship seemed firm, and was completely based on our mutual interest in physics. Yet, I had the sense that Ronnie and Sharon were a pair and that I was the odd man out; the last to the party. Nothing they ever said could support that feeling, and intellectually I couldn't support it. Nevertheless, the sense of being the "third wheel" never went away.

We had that incredible luck with our survey of ongoing quark research and the resulting article published in Physics, and went to Stanford as a team of three. In the scientific world we were riding high. There wasn't a grad student in high speed particle physics anywhere in the world that wouldn't have given his eye teeth to be in our positions. We all knew it, and we worked our butts off to insure that we continued to deserve the positions we held. And that pretty much described our lives. Until.

Until Sharon asked her fateful question: "Where do you two get sexual gratification?"

Well, you've read the story. [Episode 49–Threesome] Somewhere in there my sexual history is told. That is, I confessed to having no sexual history. Sharon was in the same boat as me. Ronnie, on the other hand, had had some pretty wild experiences within the Gang. Well, as you know, one thing led to another, and soon we were sexually involved with each other and talking about making a life together. At this point my sense of being a "third wheel" returned. Here was Ronnie, pretty experienced sexually (well, not really, but he certainly was in comparison to me) and Sharon, who was inexperienced but was the logical partner for Ronnie. Besides, she'd been the one that first got us talking about sex. It just seemed reasonable–at least to me–that Ronnie and Sharon would be a pair, get married, have kids, and live happily ever after. The best I could hope for was that our scientific partnership could survive.

Yet here they were, talking about including me! First came the decision that we would be a threesome. I completely embraced that idea, but I still could hardly believe that I was being included. Then came the question of who, if anybody, would marry Sharon. We quickly agreed that one of us would, but which? I turned that question over in my mind and it seemed clear to me that either Ronnie or I would urge the other to marry Sharon, or we would have to draw straws, roll dice, or otherwise randomly select her husband. I thought about that. If Ronnie won the roll of the dice he would end up marrying Sharon. If I won, I would marry Sharon, but I feared that Ronnie would resent my winning. I know now, after living with them for years, that that was an unreasonable fear, but it seemed reasonable to me at the time. I decided that I needed to avoid that at all costs. Besides, it seemed to me that if Ronnie was going to marry Sharon it would be better for it to be a gesture of love from me, than his winning her in a crapshoot. So I insisted that Ronnie and Sharon marry. At the time, I simply said it was because I loved them. This is the first time that I've shared my real reasons. I think that now, years later, we can laugh at my fears. They were real at the time.

It took a number of years before the sense of being the third wheel left me. Maybe that was good, because I always felt that I needed to be completely loving toward both of them, even when I felt a little upset, angry or slighted. Those feelings were rare, but I always suppressed them. I don't think I fully got over the third wheel feeling until we moved to Grand Forks and I got to know the Gang, and was welcomed into the Gang. It gave me new insights into Ronnie, and I finally realized that all my fears were silly. Ronnie really truly loved Sharon and me equally. And I know that is true of Sharon, and I swear it is true for me as well.

As you should've figured out from the title of this episode, it is mainly about scientific achievement. Ronnie, Sharon and I first clicked as a scientific team as undergraduates at Wisconsin, when we published our article on quarks. Since then we've remained a team. At Stanford we were the junior members of a much larger team, and our research and publications were usually determined by the more senior members of the team. But when we moved to the IAP in 1978 we made a group decision to remain a research and publication team. We had little choice at the IAP but to be theoretical physicists, because UND didn't have the expensive experimental hardware that experimental physicists required.

As you know, that all changed in 1994 with the arrival of the super collider. We decided that we had a unique opportunity as a three-person team to combine the theoretical and the experimental. Ronnie became our experimentalist, and Sharon and I tended to prefer a more theoretical approach. We fit together well.

And, of course, the big theoretical/experimental issue that moved to center stage with the opening of the super collider was the search for the Higgs boson. First postulated in 1964 in a paper by Peter Higgs, the Higgs boson had sort of become the holy grail of high energy particle physics. Higgs wasn't the only physicist publishing related theoretical works in 1964, and there's been some considerable debate over whether it was appropriate for the sought after particle to bear Peter Higgs' name. However, word usage is seldom able to be controlled by those who seek to control it, and "Higgs boson" is the name now almost universally applied to the massive particle postulated by Higgs and others in 1964. The 1964 publications were largely ignored for a decade, but eventually the so-called Standard Model of the subatomic universe came to include the Higgs boson. Actually finding one, or proving that they don't exist, became vitally important for progress in theoretical physics.

Prior to the construction of the super collider, and then in 2008, CERN's Large Hadron Collider on the border of France and Switzerland, there was no way to experimentally prove or disprove the existence of a Higgs boson. Even with the super collider, it was not a simple task.

We, and others, would be looking for a particle with certain specific attributes, but some of these were variable and thus it is possible that there is more than one Higgs boson. However, the key problem in looking for a Higgs is that once created it instantly disintegrates. Thus one is not really looking for the Higgs, but for the pattern of particles that would arise from the disintegration of the Higgs boson.

That brings us to the key issue for the IAP, the operator of the super collider. It is one thing to slam protons or other particles together at incredibly high speeds and energy levels, but it is quite another to create the detectors necessary to know what the products of those collisions are. When the super collider began operations in 1994 the detectors in place were state of the art. However, it soon became clear that the state of the art was not sufficiently advanced to establish the existence of a Higgs boson. The design and construction of new, bigger, and more expensive detectors became a precondition to finding the Higgs.

The key word in that sentence is the word design. Nobody really knew how to design the needed detectors, and that became the challenge for the scientists and engineers working with the super collider.

Scientific teams from all over the world were working on that and other problems. The IAP, though the operator of the super collider, was just one of many "users" of the instrument. The man in charge of the operation of the super collider was Will Carleton. The leaders of the IAP team seeking to design the detector that would establish the existence of a Higgs boson were Ronnie, Sharon, and me.

In early fall of 1995 we began our search with the establishment of a Higgs Boson Colloquium, a weekly roundtable discussion, to which any member of the UND community was invited to attend, either to observe or contribute. We debated the wisdom of opening it to all comers, and our decision was easily shown to be correct, because very few showed up, and none that were disruptive. A number of students, and some faculty, showed up at first, and quickly realized that the conversations were way over their heads, and they simply stopped coming. Thus the Colloquium quickly narrowed down to about eight faculty members, a slightly smaller number of graduate students and two undergraduates, who met every Thursday afternoon, and whose discussions often ran till rather late at night. We broke for a catered dinner at six, and resumed the Colloquium at seven. Scientific conversation during the dinner hour was prohibited.

The undergraduates were Kevin and a Roger Aston, a freshman physics major unknown to any of the rest of us in the Colloquium. Roger showed up at the first meeting of the Colloquium and introduced himself as a "physics major" when asked. For most of that first year he regularly attended, never said a word–except during the dinner conversations, took some notes, and seemed to be following the conversations, but we could never be sure.

Ronnie decided to do some background checking on Roger, and found that he'd entered UND with credit for freshman physics and chemistry, which he took at a community college near his high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ronnie checked, and the physics course that he'd taken required a fairly high level of calculus. If he'd taken the course as a high school senior, he would've had to have acquired his calculus as a high school junior, a pretty unusual achievement. At UND he was in advanced math and physics courses, and getting A's. The only reason he wasn't known to those of us in the Colloquium was simply that we hadn't taught the courses he took.

Ronnie did find it upsetting that none of us had known about Roger. He asked, "How can this bright a kid have slipped through the cracks? Why didn't one of his teachers alert us?"

A little more research and we had, we thought, the answer. Roger was as quiet and unassuming in his classes as he was in the Colloquium. He did first class work, but didn't draw attention to himself. He hadn't sought to publish anything, and, in fact, hadn't gotten himself involved in any sort of original research. Instead, he seemed willing to absorb knowledge, and, evidently, to bide his time.

Not long after this, Roger would, from time to time, ask a question in the Colloquium. These weren't unwelcome questions of the sort, "I don't understand that, please explain." They were more on the order of, "Have you considered...?"

Almost invariably the answer was on the order of, "No, we haven't, and we should have." We began to recognize that when Roger did speak, he had something pretty important to say. I have to say that I wish a lot more people would limit their speaking to when they had something important to say!

By the beginning of the second year of the Colloquium, we decided that we needed to get to know Roger a little better, so we invited him for dinner one evening. I might note that we followed Tim and Charlie's pattern of using dinner invitations as a great way to get to know people better. Roger said that he'd be delighted to come and told us, "I would bring a bottle of wine for the dinner, but since I'm underage that would put you in an awkward position. Let me bring a dessert. How many people will there be?" We told him that wasn't necessary, but he simply ignored our protests and asked again for the headcount. We told him it would be seven, the three of us, and Sharon and Ronnie's two children, Kevin now a sophomore at UND and Kay, a high school senior, and Cam, Kay's boyfriend. He thanked us for the invitation, saying he was looking forward to it. We assured him that school clothes were the dress of the day; he was always neatly dressed in the Colloquium.

Roger was a completely different personality at dinner than he'd been at the Colloquium. He arrived with a wonderful cherry pie, which came from a good bakery in town. We started with cheese and crackers in our living room and found Roger to be a fascinating conversationalist. He tried to be a good listener, but we pushed him to tell us about himself. He sounded like he was talking about Shel or one of the other COGs that was way ahead of himself in school. In his case it was a third grade teacher that realized that his mathematical talent far exceeded the challenges of third grade. She put him to work with a fourth grade text, and by the end of third grade he'd fully grasped sixth grade mathematics; he was, in fact, ready for algebra. However, elementary schools aren't set up to teach algebra, but that didn't deter him. He found that used bookstores sold old textbooks very cheaply, and he acquired several decent algebra texts, which he soon mastered. He'd finished geometry and trigonometry by the time he entered junior high school in seventh grade.

At the same time he was reading at an adult level and was consuming a wide range of popular science books. His parents faced the same challenge as other parents of extraordinary children: how do they fit into school? He was put in his school's gifted and talented program but it didn't challenge Roger any more than the regular curriculum did. Roger was, however, very lucky. The school principal, Mr. Philip Urbanski, really grasped the problem and very early in seventh grade he called a conference with Roger, his parents, the school guidance counselor, and two of his teachers.

Mr. Urbanski summarized the issue: basically that the school had very little to offer Roger except in certain courses like history and the arts. He then turned to Roger and did what very few school administrators ever did: he asked Roger how he thought his education should proceed. Roger's parents were astonished that instead of being told what was best for their child, the principal was actually asking the child what he thought was best.

Roger didn't come back with the standard reply typical of his age: "I don't know," or simply silence. Instead Roger replied, "I've been thinking, and talking to my parents. First, I think I should stay in this school; it'd be kind of awkward to push me into high school, and neither my parents or I are interested in home schooling. I need friends my age and I need to play sports at my level; I couldn't do that in high school. However, I want to push ahead with my mathematics. With your support, I'd like to enroll at Grand Rapids Community College. I'll take a freshman precalculus course this year and calculus next year. Also, I need to improve my writing. I'd like to talk to somebody in their English Department about what I might take. I still should take English here. I don't need mathematics, and if the time needed to take courses at GRCC means I have to drop some other course here, I can easily skip science."

Mr. Urbanski was flabbergasted. He'd simply never confronted a student who had it all together like Roger did. He didn't say anything for a long time. Then he looked questioningly at the guidance counselor who simply nodded affirmatively. He asked the two teachers, "Do you think that's doable?" They both agreed that it probably was, depending on GRCC. Mr. Urbanski then looked at Roger and said, "I don't think we needed this meeting. I should've just called you in and asked my question. I think you're going to need somebody to run interference for you at GRCC. I guess I'm your man. I'll find out who the right person is there, and I'll make an appointment for us. Their classes have started, and I don't think you're going to want to come late to your first class there, so we're probably looking at a January enrollment, and precalculus may not start in January."

Roger said, "It doesn't, I've checked. But I've also looked at the curriculum. I could either start late in the first semester, or simply begin at the second semester. I've covered just about everything in the course. I just thought I should take it before calculus so I'd get used to a college class and to make sure I was really ready for calculus."

To make a long story short, it took a meeting with the Admissions Office and then the Dean to make it all happen. But in two weeks Roger was a student in the first semester of precalculus, not challenged at all. It was agreed that he would put off English till the second semester. In his English studies at GRCC he wasn't interested in the standard freshman course; he wanted to write, write, write. He could read anything he wanted without a teacher. He took an expository writing course intended for sophomores and a creative writing course, which was designed to be repeatable, and he repeated it several times. He took all of the mathematics GRCC offered–three semesters of calculus and one of differential equations. He took chemistry and physics in high school in his ninth and tenth grade years, and then the college version at GRCC in eleventh and twelfth grade.

Then he started telling us about his reading. He'd read an incredible array of basic physics texts and had gotten interested in particle physics. He'd read, reread, and evidently understood a pretty complete list of all of the important papers, beginning with Einstein. It quickly became clear to us that Roger was certainly keeping up with the conversations in the Colloquium, perhaps better than some of the faculty participants. We asked him why he didn't speak more in the Colloquium, and he told us, "I don't see any reason to speak unless I have something useful to contribute. I'm just getting to that stage."

Ronnie said, "Don't have stage fright."

"I won't. By the way, this chicken is delicious."

I said, "I think he's trying to change the subject."

Sharon said, "You mean he's tired of talking about himself."

"Exactly."

Kay chipped in with, "Well, we certainly don't want to talk about particle physics–that's for you all at the Colloquium."

Kevin noted, "You get a recap at dinner the next day, don't forget."

Ronnie said, "Sharon, Kyle and I love those recaps. They nearly always get the science right, and Kevin is very good at picking out the important from the unimportant. But what is really interesting is his little aside comments on the people. It's fun to hear a sophomore tear apart the work, and the brains behind the work, of a couple of our faculty members. Without speaking about present company, Kevin is by far the smartest participant in the Colloquium."

Kay returned to her subject, "I'm tired of high school, but I'm a senior. I'm looking forward to being a UND student, and joining the Colloquium."

Ronnie said, "I told you that you could skip school on Thursday afternoon and join us."

"No, that wouldn't look good with my friends at school. I'll join you in June, right after I graduate."

Ronnie said, "I think we need to arrange for you take a physics course at the university this year. That will formally make you part of the university community, and let's schedule the class for afternoon, so you can attend the Colloquium without being missed at high school."

Kay said, "Dad, that would be great."

Roger said, "It sounds to me that you two are as far ahead of yourselves as I am. It has its problems, doesn't it?"

Kay said, "Roger, we have a support group that isn't available to you. Kevin and I are Children of the Gang, along with more than a dozen others, including Cam here. The Gang is our parents, Kyle, and about fifty others, including Tim and Charlie of Olympic and university fame. And our dinner conversations for years have been pretty much at the level of your Colloquium."

Roger said, "Maybe someday I'll understand that. But if you even had each other, only two years apart, you had a much bigger support group than I did. I'll have to say that my parents were wonderful, and very supportive. But they know nothing of mathematics beyond addition, subtraction, multiplication and division–and they thank God for calculators when they're faced with long division."

That got a laugh, but we also understood the isolation that Roger had felt in high school, and what a breath of fresh air UND, and especially the Colloquium, had been.

Then Roger said, "OK, you've been picking my brain about my background and everything, can I ask some questions?"

"Sure."

"I may be about to get squashed by the elephant in the room, but how does Dr. Rogers [Kyle] fit into this group? The telephone book says he lives here, but he doesn't seem to be family."

Kay started giggling, and it was contagious, first snagging Kevin and Cam, and then the rest of us. Roger looked puzzled, but said, "Well, whatever else, it doesn't look like the elephant is going to squash me."

I said, "Roger, most of our guests are either too dumb, too shy, or too embarrassed to ask that question. I think that you're the first that has risen to the occasion."

Sharon spoke up, "OK, who's going to answer, and in how much detail?"

I asked, "Roger, may we assume that you'll be totally discreet about our answer to that question?"

"You know from experience that I can hold my tongue. I wouldn't share anything you told me, with anyone, unless you specifically told me I could."

Ronnie said, "Well, we think of Dr. Rogers, Kyle, as family. De jure, Sharon and I are married; de facto Sharon, Kyle and I are married. Kevin and Kay think of all three of us as their parents. While their maternal parentage is not in doubt, none of us has any idea who is the father of Kevin or Kay. And, yes, your describing it as the, 'Elephant in the room,' was exceptionally perceptive."

"I'd guessed the marriage part, but not the parentage part. That's quite extraordinary."

Sharon said, "You don't sound surprised, perplexed, or offended."

"Should I be?"

Ronnie said, "Indeed not. But that makes you a pretty extraordinary young man."

"Thank you. I'll take that as a great compliment."

Kay said, "OK, now it's your turn. Tell us about the romance in your life, if any."

"I'm head over heels in love, and it's quite requited. It's also the elephant in my room of life."

"The creative writing courses you took during high school certainly show. So which bit of conventionally forbidden fruit do you pine over?"

"My roommate."

"Since we don't have coed rooms in our coed dorms, I assume that you're telling us that you're gay, you're in love with your roommate, and that he's in love with you."

"Right on all counts."

"May we assume that you aren't exactly public with this information?"

"Right, again."

Kevin asked, "Who is your roommate? Do I know him?"

"He's Mitch Flaherty. He's an art major from Duluth, a freshman like me."

"Did you know him before you became roommates?"

"Not at all. But we both asked for quiet dorms, saying we were non-smokers, night owls, and neatniks. That narrowed the field quite a bit, and the fact that we were both high school valedictorians I guess clinched the deal. By the second day we'd both figured out that the other was gay, and it didn't take long before we were completely in love."

Ronnie said, "Tim would comment that you certainly moved slowly."

"Huh?" said Roger.

"Tim claims he fell in love with Charlie in the first minute he met him."

"My parents think I moved awfully fast with Mitch."

"They know about Mitch? Do they approve?"

"Yes, and so do Mitch's parents. Aren't we both lucky?"

"My, God, yes," said Sharon. "My parents still don't know about my relationship to Kyle; they'd never get over it."

Ronnie said, "Look, we haven't had dessert yet. I'm sure that there's enough of that cherry pie to serve eight. We ought to have some ice cream with the pie. Let's you and I go get some, Roger, and we'll pick up Mitch and bring him back to join us. Call him."

While they were gone I called Sid and invited him and Cathy to join us. I thought Mitch might like to meet UND's most illustrious art graduate. Cathy wasn't home, (she was spending the night with friends!), but Sid agreed to come right over.

In the car as Ronnie and Roger headed to campus to pick up Mitch, Ronnie said, "I'd guess that the conversation moved a little faster than expected tonight."

"My God, yes. Mitch and I haven't told anyone on campus about our love until tonight. Mitch's going to be startled. I guess I should've asked him first, but things moved so fast this evening."

"Don't worry. Things moved fast for us as well. Our three-way relationship is a closely guarded secret, and you saw right through it almost instantly."

Roger went into his dorm, and found Mitch waiting in the first floor lobby. They spoke briefly and came right out. Roger said, "Mitch, this is Professor Littleton; Ron this is Mitch Flaherty, my roommate."

"It's nice to meet you, Mitch. As you will soon see, we've all gotten on a first name basis this evening. Call me Ron or Ronnie; I answer to both."

Mitch looked overwhelmed. He said, "Glad to meet you, sir. Roger just told me that he shared a lot with you this evening. I'm not used to that yet."

"It was a two-way street, Mitch. You'll find that we're all a loving family, and that you and Roger are welcome to be a part of it. You're safe."

"Thank you, sir."

"Forget the sir."

"Yes, sir. Oops. Yes, Dr. Littleton. I guess that wasn't right either. OK, Ronnie."

"Thank you."

Ronnie brought Mitch into the dining room and introduced him all around, including introducing Roger to Sid. Mitch said, "This evening may be more than I can take. First, my roommate and lover outs us; then I find I'm welcome in a perfectly wonderful family; then I am introduced to the iconic Sid Madison for the second time–the Sid Madison of the one man show at the Guggenheim, the most well-known art major in the history of the University of North Dakota. I think I need to sit down."

Ronnie was surprised, asking, "For the second time?"

Sid said, "I was part of the team that Liddy put together to snare this young art prodigy for the University of North Dakota. I see we succeeded."

Mitch said, "Snare?"

"Of course. Liddy saw your work on exhibit in St. Paul, found out a little more about you, and decided that she wanted you here. Some people go after star athletes. Liddy goes after stars in the arts. You, Mitch, are a star."

"I hate to admit it, but I could have been bought for a lot less than you all offered."

"We guessed that, but you got the standard Milson scholarship. It's a sweet deal, but it's intended to let us snare the cream of the crop." He turned to the others. "I guess I'm telling tales out of school, but I think Mitch knows which end is up. Now, after all that, Mitch, you must come sit here next to me."

What can I say about the rest of the evening. Perhaps calling it a "love fest" would be most descriptive. Four specific things came out of the evening. First, Mitch and Roger agreed to come back for another dinner in about a week so we could all get to know each other better. Second, Roger, Kevin and Kay agreed to meet the following Saturday to talk particle physics. Third, Sid agreed to come by the university art studio the next day and look at Mitch's work, and he invited Mitch to his home studio to "chat a little." Fourth, Cam introduced himself to Mitch, made a date for the two of them to have dinner at Jerry's, saying that the two physics widowers needed to get to know each other better.

We got a report from Sid two days hence when he dropped by the house after dinner. "You say that Roger is a child prodigy in physics and mathematics? Well, he's well paired with Mitch. Mitch is a certainly the child prodigy artist Liddy figured him to be. He works mainly in oil, and his work is amazing. I asked Grant Harwood, who's his studio instructor, about him. Grant says that he arrived for freshman studio work with a sketch he'd done of a group, evidently a class session, sitting on the lawn outside of the humanities building. He wanted to turn it into an oil. Grant asked if he'd worked much in oil, and was told that was his standard medium. This was when he was in high school. He took out a folio with a couple of small paintings and photographs of several major works. The kid is a mature artist. Grant decided to just let him go for the first painting, and it's brilliant. Since that first one, Grant has been giving him specific challenges to broaden his vision, understanding, and skills."

Grant had summed it up by saying, "Someday this kid may give you a run for your title, Sid, as the most successful art graduate of UND."

I just had to tell you about Roger and Mitch, but I'm getting sidetracked from telling about the search for the Higgs boson. The discussion in the Colloquium gradually centered on specifications for the particle detector that was going to have to be built to enable the search for the Higgs. Then, in early December of 1996, Roger, Kevin, and Kay came to our Thursday session with funny looks on their faces, and a package of papers in their hands. Ronnie asked, "What have we here?"

Roger said, "We'd like you all to look at these and pick them apart." He handed out a little stapled set of papers to each person present.

"What are they?"

"A tentative design for a hadron detector."

Ronnie looked at the papers in front of him. There was a detailed title page which identified the authors, Kevin, Kay, and Roger, the date, the place of presentation, and listed in detail the attached pages. This was standard protocol when sharing unpublished ideas with peers. It gave a clear trail of attribution when ideas were ready to be published. The next page was a very detailed hand drawing of a cylindrical detector, with each specific part lettered. The next page was a key to all of the letters. The next pages were a summary of the design and an explanation of how it would detect the various particles that would be emitted by proton collisions from the super collider. There was a specific page of attributions, indicating exactly who at sessions of the Colloquium had proposed specific things, both in terms of needed data and in terms of what would be required to collect the data. Finally, there was a tentative timeline and cost estimate for the project–seven and a half years and 146 million dollars.

Quite simply, the three kids (we all thought of them as kids, but we'd clearly have to get over that pretty soon) had put together the thoughts that had been expressed in the Colloquium over the past few months and come up with very preliminary engineering drawings of what a detector would have to be like to do what we had agreed it needed to do. If you had handed me the papers that Roger handed me I would've said that it represented a year's work for a talented team of a dozen engineers and physicists. It had been three months' part-time work for three teenagers! I'm not exaggerating. While a group of more than a dozen Ph.D.s and grad students had been talking about what a detector should look like, these three kids had been actually designing one. True, there would be a huge amount of work putting specificity to a very general design. And the design would have to be reviewed and considered, torn apart and put back together again, and otherwise critiqued, but if it held up to all of that, it had the potential of leading us to the Higgs.

The members of the Colloquium, at least those who weren't familiar with Roger, Kevin and Kay, were inclined to dismiss the proposal out of hand. At Ronnie's insistence, we spent the rest of the day going over it in detail, with question after question to the three undergraduates. They answered most with great confidence, and were willing to admit where they were unable to answer. In those cases, they agreed to try to work out answers over the next week or so. By the end of the evening session, we all had to agree to take the proposal seriously. It consumed the next four months of the Colloquium. At the end of that time the three had refined their proposal, added detail, replaced the hand drawn diagram with a professional quality computer assisted diagram, and refined the cost and time estimates. They pretty much stuck with their time estimate, only expanding it to eight years, but the cost estimate had to be increased to $287 million. I agreed to accept their invitation to join their team of three in order to produce a series of grant proposals that would eventually encompass the entire 287 million. The IAP was seriously in the race to find the Higgs, led by two sophomores and a high school senior!

When Tim heard that he said, "When it works we'll admit who these kids are, but not before. I hate to admit it, but our grant proposals wouldn't be taken seriously if the grantors knew they were dealing with undergraduates and a high schooler. We'll create the position of 'Fellow' at the IAD and appoint the three of them to that position. Then their papers can cite them as Kevin Littleton, Kay Littleton, and Roger Aston, Fellows, Institute for Advanced Physics, University of North Dakota. Oh, yes, get them an office at the IAD, and when they need it, an office out at the super collider."

It soon became a six-person project, as Sharon and I got more and more involved. The three of us were, however, determined that this would be the kids' project. While they dealt with the engineering and scientific issues, the three of us older folks worked on breaking the project down so that we could start looking for grant funding. The first step would be to systematically catalog all of the particles that we had to be able to detect in order to prove or disprove the existence of the Higgs boson. Then the design had to be theoretically tested against this list. Only when the theoretical design was actually determined to be able to do the job–if it worked as designed–could we start to design and build the various parts of the detector. First, we'd have to design and build what we called the inner detector. Remember, the super collider fired particles, usually protons, in opposite directions around its huge ring. The large ring was required to accelerate the particles to just below the speed of light. The particles were then allowed to smash into each other, rather than into a target as smaller "atom smashers" (think cyclotrons and betatrons from the mid-twentieth century) had done in the past. When particles smash into each other they break down into smaller particles, go in all directions at different energy levels. The trick is to detect what particles are going where, and with how much energy. It's been compared to dropping a television off the Empire State Building and trying to figure out from the pieces what program was showing when it hit the ground.

One starts with a cylindrical detector that surrounds the point of impact, with the protons entering each end of the cylinder. The innermost detector is charged with determining the momentum (simply put, magnitude and direction) of particles. Surrounding that, it was proposed to house an electromagnetic calorimeter which would detect light particles like photons and electrons; outside that a hadronic calorimter which would detect hadrons such as protons and neutrons; and outside that a muon detector. The various pieces could be built and tested separately, and it was the job of Ronnie, Sharon, and me to define those independent pieces and get grants to build them.

At the same time it was the job of Kevin, Kay, and Roger to envision how these components could work together, be controlled as a unit, and the data produced be analyzed.

I'm not going to go into many of either the scientific or economic details of the project. Fred put some seed money into it, the federal government put a lot of money into it, through the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, and private foundations put a lot of money in as well. Carl was not involved; we were neither on time nor under budget. However, we did a job estimated to take eight years in eight and a half years, and we spent $294 million, as against the kids' original estimate of $287 million. In large scale government contracting, that's as unusual as "on time and under budget." We made no apologies, and none were asked for, as long as we produced results.

For three of those eight years Kevin was in graduate school at M.I.T. That was a hoot. He and Kay decided that when they went off to graduate school to get their Ph.D.s they would undertake doctoral research the grew out of their graduate programs, and not take the problems of the Higgs boson with them. They were publishing papers as Fellows of the IAD on Higgs boson related work while at M.I.T. and Cal Tech (for Kay). The faculty at M.I.T. was fully aware of the work being done at the IAP relating to the search for the Higgs, but they were startled to learn, after Kevin's arrival, that he was intimately involved in it–as an undergraduate. That he was one of the three lead researchers never occurred to them. He was asked to lead several gatherings at which he outlined in general terms the work going on at the IAP. His intimate and detailed knowledge and understanding of the work was completely unexpected.

His own research project at M.I.T. involved working on other aspects of the Standard Model, the widely accepted theoretical model that would rise or fall along with the Higgs boson. By his third year at M.I.T. he was publishing significant papers based on his M.I.T. research as well. Kevin was destined to be one of the outstanding physicists of the early twenty-first century.

Kay was no slouch herself. She headed off to Cal Tech with Cam (who attended USC) two years after Kevin left for M.I.T. Her experiences at Cal Tech were similar to Kevin's at M.I.T., except that since the Higgs project had been going two years longer when she got to Cal Tech than it had when Kevin got to M.I.T., the faculty at Cal Tech was more aware of just whom they were getting. Kay spent a good deal of effort during her four years at Cal Tech just trying to be an ordinary student and not a celebrity, but every time a new paper was published by the IAP with her name as one of the principal authors, not being a celebrity in her graduate program became a little more difficult.

Kevin, Kay, and Roger had some serious conversations about graduate school. Kevin and Kay had known for years that they wanted to go away to work on their Ph.D.s. Roger, on the other hand, thought that he would prefer to stay at UND, continuing as part of the Colloquium, and remaining a Fellow of the IAP. Both Kay and Kevin realized that that would be perfect for them, as it meant that in the year that both of them were away, Roger would be at UND. However, they were concerned that Roger was aware of this, and was thus sacrificing his opportunity to study elsewhere so that they could. They put that to him squarely and he replied, "Look, I'm willing to be as honest with you as you are with me. I want to stay here. I like the IAP, I'm recognized as an important part of the Colloquium, and this way my Ph.D. research will grow right out of our work on the Higgs. Now you two simply have to believe that and get on with your lives. But, thank you, for your concern. I really do appreciate it."

For Kevin and Kay to remain active in the ongoing research at the IAP, they communicated daily by email. Each had direct access to the IAP computers and databases from "home," wherever that was. However, they did need to be at the Colloquium from time to time. They agreed: at least once a month. That was a big transportation challenge, especially for Kay, who had a long way to travel from southern California to eastern North Dakota. She'd get a red-eye from Los Angeles to Minneapolis on Wednesday night, and then fly up to Grand Forks early Thursday morning. Going home she had to be at the Grand Forks Airport by 5:00 a.m., but because of the two time zone difference, she was able to change in Minneapolis and get into Los Angeles well before noon, and be at her 1:00 p.m. Friday seminar. Luckily, Kay was able to sleep on airplanes, and she was usually able to function in the seminar. She tried not to make a big deal out of her Thursday disappearances, but soon everyone knew she was at the IAP Higgs Colloquium when she was away on Thursday, and people–faculty and students–would want an update.

In September of 2005 Dr. Kay Littleton was back at the IAP, and the team was again complete. And so was the particle detector–by the end of the year. The complete unit was turned on on December 12, 2005. I would love to be able to say that it worked perfectly from the first day, and I think it did. However, you have to understand this machine. Protons that you can't see, strike other protons that you can't see, or other particles or collections of particles that you can't see strike others that you can't see. Some kind of explosion or reaction occurs inside a cylinder where you couldn't see it, even it the things involved were big enough to see, but the aren't. A detector sits there quietly churning out masses of data in the form of electronic dots and dashes (or ones and zeros as they're characteristically displayed). Who on earth knows whether that data accurately reflects what is going on, or whether it's just random dots and dashes? It takes months of analysis, by very sophisticated computer programs that are written specifically for that purpose, to make any sense out of the masses of data, to determine whether the data does accurately portray what is going on inside the cylinder, and then, and only then, to try to figure out what in fact was going on. It's as if the proverbial television set on the streets of New York is collected piece by piece, with the location of each piece noted and converted to electronic bits, then shape and composition of each piece is similarly converted into electronic bits, and all those bits are fed into a computer. The first thing you try to ask the computer is, "Are these really pieces of a television set?" Then you try, "Did somebody kick them around before you could study them?" Only then can you try to answer the question of what program was showing on the way down.

By September of 2006 we were agreed that the detector was working and that its data were reliable. Almost a year later, in August of 2007 the IAP called a press conference. Roger Aston, Kevin Littleton, and Kay Littleton, principal investigators; Ron Littleton, Sharon Littleton, and Kyle Rogers, co-investigators; Will Carleton, project manager; and about a dozen other IAP and Physics Department faculty as project participants, sat in the front of the largest lecture hall of the IAP, and announced to the world that they had conclusive evidence that Higgs bosons had been created by the United States Super Collider. It was very early in the century, but very soon people were calling it the major event of the century in the world of particle physics.

That was certainly hyperbole, but it put the IAP and the United States Super Collider on the world scientific map in ALL CAPS.

There were skeptics, of course. But the press conference, anticipating skeptics, and the need for outside confirmation, addressed the issue. A journal article, summarizing the data, its analysis, and its conclusions, was at that moment being submitted to the journal Physics. Simultaneously, the complete design specifications for the detector, the complete data set that had been used to established that the Higgs existed, and the complete code of the programs used to analyze the data would be available to the world via the World Wide Web. The world was invited to look over their shoulders and follow their work step by step. It was an unprecedented level of openness.

Over the course of the next year, several major research teams published articles confirming the original analysis of the data. And new user teams, from M.I.T., UC Berkeley, and I.I.T., replicated the experiments.

The idea that Roger, Kevin, and Kay wouldn't get the Nobel prize for their work simply couldn't be imagined. And in fact the magical trip to Stockholm took place in December of 2008, when Roger, Kevin, and Kay became the youngest recipients ever of the Nobel Prize in Physics, receiving it from the King of Sweden on the traditional day, December 10, 2008. The concerts, banquets, lectures, and other celebrations of the event began a week before and ran several days afterwards. Fred, the entire Gang, the entire faculty of the Physics Department and the IAP, and the entire staff of the United States Super Collider, right down to the janitors, made the trip. Fred was in seventh heaven. Of course, there wasn't room at any of the venues of the official events for all of these guests, but they watched from a live television feed in the ballroom of the hotel where Fred had them all booked. The University of North Dakota could now boast, and believe me it did, of three Nobel Laureates on its faculty.

And Ronnie, Sharon and me? We were the proud parents of two Nobel Laureates, and if you are a parent you know that's better than having one of the things for yourself.

Roger's parents were simply stunned. They had known since he was very little that his intellect was special. But it wasn't until reporters started calling on the phone to find out about the childhood of the most recent Nobel prize winner, that they began to realize just how exceptional he was.

As for Tim, he didn't come down off his high for a month!

Talk about this story on our forum
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily. Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]