Cern. Photograph: Getty Images
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It’s all gone pear-shaped

The Higgs boson was small beer. Exploring the properties of the fruit-shaped nucleus could finally reveal the reason for our existence.

At Cern, the European laboratory for particle physics, it’s no longer just about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the Higgs boson. Last year’s discovery has left the scientists there a little deflated because the Higgs has turned out to be a boring, just-as-they-predicted kind of particle. The nucleus of the radium atom, on the other hand, is much more interesting.

Early last month, researchers at Cern’s ISOLDE accelerator unveiled a surprising discovery. ISOLDE is fed from the same proton source as the LHC but it smashes its protons into static targets, rather than each other. They were looking at the nucleus of a kind of radium atom that contains 88 protons and 136 neutrons. The agglomeration of these particles, they found, was pear-shaped.

This may seem a little underwhelming at first sight but it may have more significance than the discovery of the Higgs boson. All the Higgs discovery told us was that the theory of nuclear physics known as the “standard model” seems accurate in its estimation of where mass comes from. The pear-shaped nucleus tells us where the standard model might be wrong. If that’s not enough for you, it might also tell us why we are here – why there is something, rather than nothing.

How do you see the shape of an object that is just a hundred-thousand-billionth of a metre in diameter? Throw something at it and listen to the noise it makes. What the researchers at Cern used was another atomic nucleus. The noise comes from the collision energy, which makes the nucleus emit radiation at a frequency that depends on its size and shape. It’s not unlike spinning a selection of coins on their edge on a metal table; as they each settle on to the table, they will make different noises that can be used to tell them apart.

Finding a pear-shaped radium nucleus is not a total surprise. Theories and experiments had already alerted us to the possibility that they exist; there should be some banana-shaped nuclei out there, too. Yet here’s the joy of it all: as researchers find these exotic shapes in their experiments, it allows them to choose between various ideas about the world of subatomic particles. That may be the key to finding out why anything exists at all.

Our best theories tell us that when the universe first came into existence, matter and its nemesis, antimatter, should have been created in equal measure. Because of this, they should have annihilated one another, causing the physical universe to disappear in a puff of liberated energy almost as soon as it was born.

That you are reading this is proof that it didn’t happen and physicists would dearly love to know why. We do have tweaks to the standard model that account for the excess of matter over antimatter and other predictions involve strangely elongated electric fields associated with the positive electric charges held in atomic nuclei. An apple-shaped, perfectly spherical nucleus will not have an elongated field. A grape-shaped nucleus will likely have one, but too small to detect. The warped, extended field of a pear- or banana-shaped nucleus will be much easier to find.

The race is on to find which theories of non-annihilation match with the kinds of stretched fields researchers are just starting to encounter – and thus which theories are candidates for explaining everything that is. See? The Higgs boson was small beer. Exploring the properties of the fruit-shaped nucleus could finally reveal the reason for our existence – or, as they say where ISOLDE sits on the French-Swiss border, our raisin d’être.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State