The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) team at CERN are now enlisting volunteers who have home computers to contribute in the search for the Higgs boson. Details of the project, called LHC@home 2.0, can be found at http://lhcathome.web.cern.ch/LHCathome/Physics/.
Although superficially similar to other home computing collaborations, such as that used by SETI, the underlying concept of LHC@home fundamentally differs from earlier such projects.
'When people first linked their computers to the SETI@home experiment,' explained the SETI Institute's chief executive, Tom Pierson, 'large numbers believed that if they located extraterrestrial life, the aliens would materialise near their computers. Many kept a spare bed made up for such a visitor and a few extra cans of beer in the refrigerator. This,' he continued, 'was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the science. SETI scans signals from space to find messages from other worlds. There is no possibility of personally meeting an extraterrestrial. The home computers simply analyse data.'
'LHC@home differs because it is not just about analysing data,' emphasised Lyn Evans, project leader of the LHC team, to BBC News. 'Because sub atomic particles, like the Higgs boson, can be transmitted in the same way as any other digital information, the participating home computers actually form a physical extension of the main LHC ring.'
When asked why it was necessary to route the particles through thousands of home computers, worldwide, Dr Evans explained that increasing the length of the ring would allow particles to slow down. 'The proton collisions in the LHC occur at 99.9% the speed of light,' he explained, 'and so any Higgs bosons that fly off are travelling pretty dammed fast. It makes the little buggers virtually impossible to catch, even using butterfly nets with the very finest mesh. We almost got one in March 2011,' he confessed, 'but someone had left the laboratory door open, and we think it got out that way.'
Dr Evans went on to explain that the extended length of the LHC ring due to LHC@home should mean that bosons will eventually come to a halt inside some participating computers. CERN has therefore issued instructions about how to retrieve and store a Higgs boson if LHC@home software on a home computer indicates that one has come to rest inside a volunteer's machine.
'We don't know all the properties of the particle,' warned Dr Evans, 'so it is advisable to wear a full radiation suit. If people haven't got one at home, they should wrap themselves as well as possible in aluminium foil.
'The next thing is to locate the particle, which will require dismantling the home computer and possibly breaking apart some of the circuit boards. A hammer, chisel and hacksaw should be adequate for this task. The Higgs boson will be very small, but if sought with a magnifying glass, should be visible emitting pulsating, greenish, iridescent light - very similar to the isotope discarded by Homer in the title sequence of the Simpsons.
'The boson can then be recovered with tweezers. It's ideal to store it in a lead container, with walls at least six inches thick. However, if people don't have one in their kitchen or garage, they can put the particle in a resealable plastic bag, wrap it in several layers of newspaper and place it in a sturdy cardboard box.
'After that,' Dr Evans concluded,' the box should be posted to me, Dr Lyn Evans, at Freepost Higgs Boson, the European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN, CH-1211 Genève 23, Switzerland.'
The LHC@home website offers further advice to anyone who has had contact with a Higgs boson. Such individuals are advised to be vigilant for effects on themselves, and others within a one block radius, for at least 24 hours. Abnormalities to look for are listed on the site, but include: X-ray vision, ability to fly, superhuman strength or sudden death.
The site advises that any such unusual symptoms should be reported to a doctor and also to CERN at the above address.