'God particle': Pays to ask questions

By Alan Perrott

Alan Perrott talks to an adopted Aucklander whose obsession with knowing how and why has helped solve one of humanity’s greatest unknowns.

David Krofcheck says he loves the whole notion of ideas about ideas. Photo / Greg Bowker
David Krofcheck says he loves the whole notion of ideas about ideas. Photo / Greg Bowker

"It's unique, like finding a unicorn. You can't explain how it got there, you're just amazed that it has."

Actually, David Krofcheck's take on the discovery of the strangest piece in the tiniest jigsaw in the universe makes a fair self-description.

Because if there's anything that rivals the unfathomable Higgs boson for rarity, it's a scientist with past ties to the American nuclear arsenal and Star Wars weapons project working in clean, green, no-nukes New Zealand.

Yet here he is, Dr Krofcheck, an American nuclear particle physicist whose work has become so esoteric that he speaks a different language. His work is so obscure that if he wants to discuss it in any depth he has to call two colleagues in Moscow.

When his explanation of the Higgs particle discovery, back in July, failed to find traction in my brain, he resorted to a double fist-pump to demonstrate how excited I should be.

It's reassuring to see that scientists still come with a slice of mad.

There is his office library where scientific doorstops sit alongside St Augustine and an anthology of W.D. Yeats' poetry - every one of them has a specific place and must not be moved.

Then there was his old trick of cadging free theatre tickets by looking sad and lonely. Or that he got his job by answering an ad for an oceanographer.

Or that he's married the same woman three times.

Yet without this 54-year-old, New Zealand may have had no part in the greatest and most expensive scientific experiment of all time, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

Not only do he and his associates spend a month each year smashing up lead atoms there, he also drove a local project that built the machine allowing us to see these infinitesimal collisions. As a bonus, it turns out that this machine also takes coloured, 3D X-rays and has been sold to institutions such as leading American medical specialists the Mayo Clinic.

So, where do such uber-smarts come from and, much like the Higgs, can they be found here?

Krofcheck grew up in industrial Pittsburgh, only three blocks from the steel mill where his father, Edmund, worked, having helped to put his older brother though university before going on to do the same for his own children.

Their relatives couldn't understand why they didn't use the money for holidaying.

"[My parents] just wanted me and my sister out," the younger Krofcheck says. "They said, 'we don't want you working there, we're saving so you can get away'."

This was a time when boys were expected to grow up to do what their fathers did while girls, well, they got married.

They shouldn't have worried, the steel mill was never in the running. Krofcheck was in his own world with his own language before he'd even left school. He fossicked around building sites for fossils then, after getting a book on astronomy for Christmas, bought himself a telescope and started taking weekend science classes at the Pittsburgh planetarium.

If his father didn't quite get his interest - normal conversation featured the Steelers' football team or the weather - he certainly recognised the passion.

Edmund Krofcheck was a tinkerer who repaired televisions at home. At night their living room was illuminated by vacuum tubes and meters.

While his son was never allowed to touch - every part had its place and could not be moved - he could look up the various part numbers, tell his father what settings to make and pester him with questions.

His curiosity was a problem for the nuns at school. If awkward questions and corrections got the same response - "shut up, Krofcheck" - what really wound them up was when he decoded the encrypted answers in the back of his exercise books.

On leaving school he toyed with engineering but became frustrated with the "this is what this does, don't worry about how it does it" approach. He wanted to know why it worked and, if possible, be the guy who made it.

"I didn't want to be someone's technician, I wanted to be in charge. I wanted to ask and answer my own questions and that meant I was going to grad school."

Krofcheck was 22 when he arrived at Ohio State and finally met his own kind. To break up the endless studying, he took long cycling trips across the flat countryside or in winter he would ski from his front door. "And I loved the theatre, I'd stand outside by myself and look pathetic. I got more than my fair share of free tickets that way."

Then the American military found him. After a spell at a weapons lab measuring gamma rays and studying the interaction of atomic particles, he was invited into the Strategic Defence Initiative (also known as the Star Wars Project) to help figure out how lasers, particle beams, rail guns and even mirrors could protect the US from missile attack.

The carrot was a subsequent post at the prestigious Brookhaven National Laboratory. "It was very, very tempting," says Krofcheck, "but after about a week I decided it was stupid and wrong, and left."

All he really wanted was a nice university job. What he got was a wife.

A friend studying at Michigan University had a problem. An old girlfriend, an auditory verbal therapist from New Zealand, was dropping by and he wasn't sure how his fiancee would react. Could Krofcheck fly over and make it a double-date? Sure.

Liz eventually joined him in California and they were married - she needed a green card. Then they were married again in a church before flying to New Zealand to do it yet again in front of his wife's family (that's the anniversary they celebrate but Krofcheck wears a three-banded Russian wedding ring to mark all of them).

Liz Krofcheck was the sole money-earner until 1995 when he somehow convinced Auckland University that while their advertisement said they wanted an oceanographer, what they actually meant was a nuclear particle physicist.

Since settling in Auckland he's been hard at work overturning a few long-held scientific beliefs while discovering a whole new something-or-other, quark-gluon plasma (you'll have to look it up for yourself).

And despite being far from the action, he knew New Zealand could help the Higgs hunt. So, in co-operation with some Christchurch scientists and a budget of only $100,000, he set about building a detector from junked bits and bobs at Cern (the European Centre for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland.

Essentially their creation can tell when the two particle beams whirling around the facility's circular tunnel hit opposite ends of its collision chamber at the same time. As they move at the same speed, this meant they would also meet in the middle at the same time and the scientists would know when to look for the bang.

It was simple, it was cheap and it worked. Well, it did until the beam became so powerful it was moving too fast for the trigger to work. They're working on fixing that problem now.

This is what gets Krofcheck jumping out of bed every day. A computer in his office tracks the latest beam experiments as they happen. We watch the red and blue lines - one for each beam - zigzagging up the screen as they ramp up to collision intensity. Then just as they're being squeezed into torrents powerful enough to blast through steel, they drop stone, cold dead.

"Rats," says Krofcheck.

He knows the same reaction is happening inside the control room under the Swiss countryside. He's been there often enough to know their excited awe, and was there when they first heard the boson was nigh.

Anticipation was huge and, despite arriving for the announcement two hours early, he only got a seat at the back of the theatre.

"It was like a concert, a rock concert for physicists," says Krofcheck. "There were guards everywhere checking badges, people were standing outside trying to hear through the doorways. Then, when the graphs with their beautiful bumps went up, there was this huge standing ovation ... you could smell the excitement in the air. It was just an amazing moment."

He couldn't be in Geneva for July's big event - when scientists announced they had captured the elusive Higgs boson particle - so instead settled for an evening of popcorn and celebrations with his family. Until his internet connection died and he ended up munching on a sandwich while watching it in his office, alone with his books.

Which is appropriate. He was alone with a book when he fell in love with science, so that's how he should welcome the greatest discovery of his lifetime.

"I think I got a bit carried away with the moment. I should really have invited some people to join me, but it was still really exciting. I did some double fist-pumps to celebrate ... I love all of this, it's that whole notion of ideas about ideas.

"Look at the Higgs boson: this really is a big step, a huge step, but we're still walking in a really tiny garden. If we can only see 4 per cent of the universe, what is the rest of it made of? So, for people like me, science is often about understanding that we know an awful lot about relatively little."

- NZ Herald

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