As you might expect, we stayed up late last night to listen live to the press conference from CERN announcing that physicists found that elusive Higgs boson. They’ve been looking for this subatomic particle ever since six scientists, including Peter Higgs, now 83 years old, suggested in the 1960s that it might exist and that it could answer some questions about the early state of the universe, in particular, why we have orderly, discrete objects as opposed to mass-less chaos. Yep, two research teams working at the Large Hadron Collider have discovered a new particle, and these physicists are pretty sure that it’s the Higgs boson. There remains a one in 3.5 million chance that it’s a fluke, but those are incredibly convincing odds that this particle is the real thing. And it behaves like the Higgs boson has been predicted to behave, with the expected mass and kind of decay.
Congratulations all around. It’s good to see science as the big news story today. And in one of those serendipitous collisions that make us happy to be at Chapman University, Francois Englert, one of the scientists who originally eveloped the theory that predicted the Higgs boson, will be on campus on August 16-18 for a conference that Doug is helping to organize. If you want to read a good basic article at Reuters, click HERE. And Scientific American has pieces posted HERE and HERE. And HERE is one just for fun.
July 4 also marks the anniversary of several space shuttle events, the most important of which is the landing of STS-4 in 1982. The first four shuttle missions were flown by the orbiter Columbia, this one with astronauts Ken Mattingly and Hank Hartsfield. (See our video interview with Hartsfield HERE.) After seven days in space and some top-secret tasks up there, the two astronauts landed at Edwards Air Force Base, the first time an orbiter landed on a concrete runway. Mattingly and Hartsfield struggled to get out of their seats—Mattingly cut his head in the effort—and move around naturally after a week in low-gravity. Emerging from the orbiter, the astronauts were greeted by President and Mrs. Reagan at the bottom of the stairs. The president declared the space shuttle “fully operational.” After a rousing rendition of God Bless America, with the orbiter Enterprise behind him, Reagan added, “Happy Fourth of July, and you know this has got to beat firecrackers.”
STS-121 launched on July 4 in 2006. Aboard this second “return to flight” mission after the Columbia accident were seven astronauts, including Mark Kelly, whom we saw launch on STS-134, and Steve Lindsey, whom we saw launch on STS-135. Originally, STS-121 was supposed to be accomplished by Atlantis, but when mechanical problems crept up, Discovery jumped ahead in the mission queue to deliver several items to the International Space Station. As a “return to flight” test mission, it incorporated responses to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, namely addressing problems of debris hitting the orbiter during liftoff, a problem that had occurred on the first “return to flight” mission a year earlier. STS-121 included testing procedures to look for damage to the thermal protection system, in the event that debris had hit the orbiter during launch. When the mission concluded successfully, the space shuttle was, once again, deemed fully operational for ongoing trips to the space station.
With STS-4, flown by Columbia, and STS-121, a “return to flight” mission after the Columbia accident, in mind, we commemorate two July astronaut birthdays. Kalpana Chalwa, a research scientist who flew on the doomed STS-107 mission, was born on July 1, 1961, in India and became a United States citizen in 1990. Rick Husband, who commanded that last and fatal Columbia mission, was born on July 12, 1957, in Amarillo, Texas. Each had flown one previous mission. For all those—astronauts and relatives—who were born in July and are no longer with us, we are grateful to have shared your company for a while.