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Captive particles and Dr. Who show physicists are human too

Technicians look at computer screens during the preparation of the beam in the Control Room of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the Europe
Technicians look at computer screens during the preparation of the beam in the Control Room of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the Europe

By Robert Evans

GENEVA (Reuters) - Physicists are deadly serious people, right? Clad in long white coats, they spend their days smashing particles together in the hunt for exotic creatures like quarks and squarks, leptons and sleptons -- and the Higgs Boson.

At night their dreams are all about finding them.

When discoveries show up amid the colorful displays on their monitor screens - as the Higgs Boson did last summer - they may share a glass or two of champagne, but then get down to writing learned papers for the heavy science journals.

True? Well, not quite. They do have a sense of humor too.

At the start of this month, a blog from the Great Temple of the particle hunting profession at CERN, near Geneva, offered a captive boson of the Higgs genus to each of the first 10 readers to e-mail in a request.

Simultaneously, across the Atlantic the U.S. Fermilab announced a months-long search for a new director was over with the appointment of "the obvious candidate," the Time Lord.

It WAS April Fools' Day, and no one was misled, right? Wrong, they were, according to both august institutions.

At CERN, scientist-blogger Pauline Gagnon now reports that over 1,500 eager respondents entered her boson lottery.

"Most of them wrote very enthusiastic notes, explaining why they wanted a Higgs," - so far no more than a ripple on a graph she told Reuters.

"Even some physics students fell for it.... One told me it would help to win his girlfriend's heart as he was about to propose."

Nearly half the entries came from Belarus or Russia. Gagnon suspects that a serious report on the "lottery" by a regional news agency may have had something to do with that response.

Other applications for an original of the ephemeral Higgs came from Australia, China, Canada and Finland - which have strong physics communities. One came from Rwanda, which doesn't.

"Many applicants were not completely fooled but happily played along," says Gagnon. Ten of them, finally selected at random, will get a cuddly toy boson in reward.

Over at Fermilab, which for years competed with CERN in the Higgs chase but lost its particle collider in a U.S. government economy drive, spokesperson Andre Salles reported a "tremendous response" to their April 1 announcement.

Run in its online daily Bulletin, it said the new director to replace departing Pier Oddone - an Italian-born physicist with his feet firmly on the ground - would be "someone dedicated to exploring the mysteries of space and time"

"On July 1, the Time Lord known as the Doctor will join Fermilab," said the Bulletin, alongside a portrait of British actor Matt Smith with a scientifically suitable mop of ruffled hair and tweed jacket.

Smith is currently playing the title role in the cult British television science fiction serial, "Dr Who", now in its 50th year in which the hero battles alien villains seeking the destruction of humankind.

"After facing down Daleks, Cybermen and the Master, I can't think of anyone more qualified to take on a congressional budget committee," the Bulletin quoted Oddone as saying.

But Bulletin readers were not so easily misled. A number of emails came in, one from a Nobel physics prize-winner, appreciating the joke.

Just one writer "was fooled for a few seconds," said Salles. A local reporter, "she initially couldn't believe we'd picked a new director who was so young."

(Reported by Robert Evans, editing by Paul Casciato)