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Margaret Thatcher knew about the W boson discovery before everyone else

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Margaret Thatcher was many things – including a scientist. And, thanks to her scientific inclination, she was one of the first people to be told about the discovery of the W boson at CERN.

Thatcher visited the UA1 experiment, which ran on CERN’s Super Proton Synchrotron, in August 1982. She kept her visit low-key, reportedly asking to be treated like a fellow scientist (she did, after all, have a chemistry degree). During Thatcher’s visit, Herwig Schopper, then Director General of CERN, promised that he would tell her when they found the W and Z bosons they were searching for at the time.

The W and Z bosons, known as the weak bosons, mediate the weak interaction between particles. They were one of CERN’s major success stories, a big piece of the standard model puzzle that particle physicists were very happy to put into place.

After Schopper made his promise to Thatcher, she didn’t have to wait long.

On 20 December, 1982, Schopper sent this letter to Thatcher:

From the letter:

I am ever mindful of the promise I made on the occasion of your visit to CERN, in August of this year, that I would report to you immediately and directly on the day CERN obtained confirmed experimental evidence for the existence of the “intermediate boson” (W+, W- and Z0) for which we are actively searching.

I should have liked to combine seasonal greetings with the report that such a discovery had indeed been made, but, in the absence of incontrovertible evidence, I am nevertheless pleased to inform you, in strict confidence, that the results recently obtained point to the imminence of such a discovery.

The first event that would lead to the discovery was seen in November 1982, and reported at a workshop in January 1983. The day after the workshop ended, January 25, CERN held a press conference to announce the discovery of the W boson to the world.

Four months later, the W was followed by the Z boson. In 1984, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Mee for their contributions to the discoveries.

Later, when the Large Hadron Collider needed funding, her colleagues were apparently sceptical. Thatcher’s response: ”Yes, but isn’t it interesting?”

You can watch a video taken during Thatcher’s visit to UA1 here.

Image of letter: CERN via Fermilab

Kelly Oakes About the Author: Kelly Oakes has a master's in science communication and a physics degree, both from Imperial College London. Now she spends her days writing about science. Follow on Twitter @kahoakes.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. curiouswavefunction 9:46 pm 04/11/2013

    Thatcher seems to figure in particle physics in unexpected ways. One of the best analogies for the Higgs boson was given by a physicist who pictured Thatcher gliding through a room and “acquiring mass” by virtue of people gravitating (pun) toward her.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Kelly Oakes in reply to Kelly Oakes 4:33 am 04/12/2013

    Indeed, in fact I heard (though I can’t remember where) that they came up with that analogy after Thatcher herself had asked them to explain the Higgs in a way that ” even a politician would understand”. They did it – so they got the money…

    Link to this

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