Russell Blackstock

Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

It's the Godzone particle

David Krofcheck. File photo / Brett Phibbs
David Krofcheck. File photo / Brett Phibbs

New Zealand's involvement in the most important scientific breakthrough in decades was plotted on a back porch in Ashburton.

Scientists at the world's biggest atom smasher near Geneva, Switzerland, announced to the world on Wednesday they'd discovered a new subatomic particle.

It looks like being the elusive Higgs boson, sometimes called the "god particle" because its existence is fundamental to the creation of the universe.

The news was a personal triumph for David Krofcheck, a senior physics lecturer at the University of Auckland.

In 2001, Krofcheck and expatriate Kiwi physicist Alick Macpherson first cooked up a plan to get New Zealand involved in the $12 billion, 37 nation-strong project at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN), sited along the French-Swiss border.

"The people at CERN contacted Alick and asked him where New Zealand was in the collaboration. He got in touch with me because I was the only one interested," Krofcheck told the Herald on Sunday.

"We would meet on his mother's porch in Ashburton and scheme about how we could get involved.

"It took a couple of years and some persuasive meetings with colleagues at Canterbury University before we got proper funding.

"It was only when I came up with the idea of approaching this as funding for medical research and had people from CERN visit our then Minister of Science, did we finally get the go-ahead."

Krofcheck first had to find a project that was "New Zealand-sized". Assisted mainly by graduate students, he came up with developing new beam radiation triggers which give signals whenever there was a "good and clean" collision between proton beams inside the main detector equipment in Geneva.

This emerged as an important component attached to a $650 million, 12,000 tonne atom smasher at CERN.

Krofcheck, 54, is an American who moved to New Zealand with his Kiwi wife Liz in 1995.

Since 2003, he has helped enroll about 30 Kiwi students and researchers in summer programmes at CERN.

Krofcheck revealed how getting the news about the Higgs boson discovery on Wednesday was almost scuppered by sparkies working at his Auckland home.

"I wanted to watch the webcast from CERN in the house but the electricians blew the power out and I drove back to my office and watched it from there, on my own.

"When the results came through it was like when the All Blacks lifted the Rugby World Cup. I was cheering and dancing around the room," said Krofcheck.

"All of New Zealand should be very proud of the country's involvement in such a major international effort."

- Herald on Sunday

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