Physicist Joe Incandela, AB’81, SM’85, PhD’86, masters the art of discovery.
On a train from Paris to Geneva in July, physicist Joe Incandela sat in first class, facing backward. And for the first time in months, he spent an afternoon looking backward, reflecting on the rush leading up to his presentation two weeks earlier documenting the Higgs boson discovery.
It was a short journey from that recent memory to another, much further back in time, of the greatest mystery Incandela’s ten-year-old mind could conjure: “I was thinking about the space in the room in front of me and I was imagining what happens if you took everything out of that space, and it was a pure vacuum. Would there be something there or not?”
An aspiring artist as a child, he didn’t understand what those thoughts indicated about his mind’s orientation toward physics. He just wondered.
Now 56, he still does. Incandela, AB’81, SM’85, PhD’86, runs the Large Hadron Collider’s Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment, leading thousands of scientists who study data from particle collisions to search for new phenomena—such as the Higgs—to answer fundamental questions about the universe.
As the CMS spokesperson, the chief scientist’s title, Incandela deals with bureaucracy and diplomacy in addition to mystery, leading a 40-member executive board and a management team of hundreds. He’s also the designated tour guide for dignitaries visiting CERN, the particle-physics lab near Geneva that houses the collider.
While politics and ceremony occupy his time, Incandela’s position offers him a view he’s seldom had in his career. “I have the biggest picture of anyone from where I sit,” Incandela says. He has the responsibility and the luxury to discuss physics in the broadest terms with experts in any facet, to grasp the whole of the experiment.
“Now,” he says, “I spend a lot of time thinking exactly that thing when I was ten: what’s in the empty space? And, realizing it’s not empty at all, then what the hell is it?”
Art is in Incandela’s blood. He says his father was “an amazing artist, just a real natural” at painting, drawing, and sculpting. But he had a technical knack too and repaired airplanes for the Navy during World War II. Back from the service, the elder Incandela put that skill to use, starting an electrical-contracting company.
He passed his artistic ambitions on to his son, who learned to paint and blow glass in classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I always wanted to be a great artist,” he says. Instead, pursuing art led him to science.
Incandela’s favorite glass sculptor, Dominick Labino, was a chemist, “so he was doing things that no one else could do, designing his own glass, his own colors.” Inspired, Incandela enrolled as an undergrad at the University of Colorado to study chemistry.
The subject bored him, but in his physics classes he found the stuff of his youthful fascination. Now he had a framework to understand his inner monologue. Others had a hard time believing it. When Incandela told a friend from high school that he had decided to get a PhD in physics, “he couldn’t stop laughing for the longest time. He just thought that was hysterical.”
Incandela took the idea so seriously that he left Colorado’s party-school atmosphere for UChicago’s intellectual sobriety, completing his undergraduate degree and staying until he got his physics doctorate.
With a PhD, knowledge of French and Italian, and an affinity for Europe, he applied for a CERN fellowship. Turned down because his application was late—“I assumed that was a polite way of saying buzz off”—he was automatically included in the next year’s pool and accepted, the first in “an accidental coincidence of an unbelievable number of things” that led Incandela to the top of the CMS experiment.
At CERN in the late 1980s, his focus gravitated toward the search for the top quark, another fundamental particle that eluded observation for decades. “We tried to find it in Europe; couldn’t find it,” Incandela says. “Then I decided I really wanted to find it. I went to Fermilab and ended up being one of the guys leading the top-quark search when we discovered it” in 1995.
While working at Fermilab, he also discovered that science and art had more in common than he’d realized. His teacher in a downtown art class, fascinated that he was a scientist, saw a connection between the disciplines: “We’re all idealists,” she said.
Incandela interpreted that to mean that artists and scientists think beyond themselves, working to deepen the understanding of ourselves and the universe we inhabit. “How can you contribute something that will last forever?” he says. “Physics does that. Art does that.”
Whether in art or science, Incandela always wanted to do something big. Although the Higgs discovery, like the particle collisions that produced it, yields innumerable fragmentary questions still to be answered, it stands on its own as a scientific masterpiece. “Recently I’ve had this feeling like there’s this box checked off somewhere,” he says over roast beef and Coke Light as the train glides through the French countryside. “I had to do something, be part of something, that’s going to hang on the wall.”
Data compiled this past spring suggested that both the CMS experiment and the competing ATLAS project were close to completing the half-century search for the Higgs. By April “tantalizing hints” in the data made it clear to Incandela that there would be a result significant enough to present at the international high-energy physics conference in July.
Those hints, teased out over the previous year when there had been a lot of openness and communication between the competing experiments, also bred risk. On the brink of a discovery, the temptation to guide the results in the right direction, or just rush to judgment, can lead to mistakes. Concerned about even unintentional biases compromising the results, Incandela convinced the teams to blind the data. “Everyone was very good about it,” he says. “Nobody looked” until the appointed hour on June 14.
Incandela’s relentless weeks of fine-tuning and cross-checking began that night. Under the strain of an encroaching deadline and intensifying global interest as rumors seeped out, a team of hundreds worked virtually around the clock. “The young guys doing the analysis looked thinner and thinner every day,” Incandela says. “I call it the discovery diet.”
He lost weight too, facing tension he had never experienced in his career. When sleep did come, it was fitful and often tormented. He felt like he was locked in a closet with a lion. “You feel so much pressure, it’s like you’re hunted,” he says. “You have to keep putting all the disaster scenarios out of your mind.”
In the days before the announcement, his worry was no longer about the integrity of the data, but about the quality of the talk he would deliver. “The timing was so tight,” he says. July 4, the day of the presentation, was a Wednesday. The main results had been approved the previous Friday.
Incandela commandeered a conference room, camping out for days with experts from each part of the analysis to sift through about 250 transparencies and haggle over the best way to present them. Finally, around 10:30 p.m. on July 3, Incandela’s friend and colleague Bob Cousins ordered him to go home and sleep. Cousins would ensure the final changes were made.
Back in the office by 8 a.m., an hour before showtime, Incandela grabbed the modified talk and made his own last-minute tweaks. “So I wrapped it up, 8:42, and uploaded it,” he says. “At 8:50 I was done and I walked over.”
A calm settled over him then. He felt confident about the talk and energized by the 500 enthusiastic colleagues who filled the CERN auditorium. The night before, he even had more than six hours of sleep, making him better rested than he had been in weeks.
He had Cousins to thank for that. As Incandela took his seat for the presentation, he saw his friend in the audience just past a bank of photographers. Standing up, he gave Cousins a thumbs-up in appreciation for his help.
A photo of Incandela’s personal thank-you gesture came to represent the day’s sense of triumph, appearing in the New York Times. “I’ve learned, if you want to get in the newspapers, gesticulate,” he says with a laugh. As an image of what Incandela has been working toward all his life, though, it’s a picture worth hanging on the wall.
1986 To the surprise of friends who knew him as an aspiring artist, Incandela completes his PhD in physics under Henry Frisch.
1995 Working at Fermilab, Incandela leads one of the teams that discovers the top quark.
2000 Incandela joins the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he remains a professor.
2007 Named the CMS experiment’s deputy physics coordinator, Incandela begins work at CERN in Geneva.
2010 Incandela becomes a CMS deputy spokesperson.
2012 The first American ever elected to the post, Incandela begins a two-year term as CMS spokesperson, leading the final stages of the Higgs boson discovery.