When Joe Incandela was growing up in Chicago's west suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, his parents enrolled him and his three older sisters in Saturday classes at the School of the Art Institute.
CHICAGO — When Joe Incandela was growing up in Chicago's west suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, his parents enrolled him and his three older sisters in Saturday classes at the School of the Art Institute.
"Both my husband and I were interested in art, and we thought one of them would have this great talent," said Incandela's mother, Rose, 83.
Her son, who spent Saturdays immersed in art from the time he was 7 through high school, became an outstanding glass sculptor. But he also had an outsize love of science.
"I said he was going to be the scientist," Rose Incandela said. "No, my husband said, he was going to be the artist. And I won."
Indeed she did. Incandela, 55, a graduate of Elgin High School with a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago, will take leadership Jan. 1 of what is billed as the largest single international science experiment in history: the hunt for the elusive "God particle."
Incandela will direct 3,600 scientists working near Geneva at the 3-year-old Large Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful particle accelerator. He was elected by his scientific peers in April to a two-year term as "chief spokesperson" of the Compact Muon Solenoid detector experiment in Europe.
His title, a bit of scientific tact to avoid bruised egos, belies that he is effectively CEO of the CMS experiment, an epic effort to solve what many believe to be the most vexing problem in science: proving or disproving the existence of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle. It is the only elementary particle predicted by the Standard Model theory of particle physics that has never been observed.
Knowledge about the Higgs boson would generate data that could begin to answer many questions about the universe: Are there extra, undiscovered dimensions in the universe? How did the universe come to be? Are there undiscovered principles of nature? What is dark matter? What is dark energy?
"It's an exciting time for particle physics," Incandela, who grew up in Addison and Wayne, said on a recent visit to Chicago. "A little bit like the launching of the Hubble Space Telescope."
The scientists working with Incandela, 2,200 of them physicists, are drawn from 178 institutions in 39 nations. At their disposal in the hunt for the Higgs boson is the 15.5-ton, four-story-tall CMS detector, which is attached to the 16.8-mile CERN particle accelerator ring buried 350 feet underground.
The accelerator is so powerful it put Fermilab's 28-year-old Tevatron accelerator ring in suburban Batavia, Ill., which is four miles in length, out of business.
Though he abandoned his pursuit of art early on, Incandela is approaching his latest scientific undertaking with the soul of an artist.
"Most artists and most scientists are idealists who do what they do not to make lots of money or to produce something practical in the immediate sense," Incandela said. "They both strive for something that is timeless, that contributes something significant to culture and to humanity."
He speculates his father pushed him toward art because of his father's frustration over dropping out of architectural school one semester shy of graduation. He went on to build a successful electrical contracting business.
As a boy, Incandela loved his Saturday classes at the Art Institute and bought into his dad's dream.
"I was really passionate about art and wanted to make it my life," he said.
By the time he finished high school in 1974, he was an accomplished sculptor in glass, heavily influenced by Dominick Labino, who used his knowledge as a trained chemist to make distinctive glass pieces.
"I decided I had to do the same, to become a chemist to help my sculpture," Incandela said. "So I went off to the University of Colorado to study chemistry."
He soon realized chemistry did not excite his imagination, but a course in physics did, so he gave up his ideas about art and transferred to the University of Chicago's renowned physics department.
With his doctorate, Incandela was working on a project in Italy when he received a fellowship to do research at CERN, a French acronym that stands for European Organization for Nuclear Research. While working there from 1987 through 1991, he met his British wife, Helen, a librarian at CERN.
He then came back to work at Fermilab, becoming a co-leader of one of several teams using the Tevatron collider to find the so-called top quark, whose existence was suggested by the Standard Model.
The Standard Model was formulated in the 1970s as a theory of fundamental interactions of elementary particles — elementary because they are not composed of smaller particles. They're the stuff of which atoms, matter and the universe itself are composed. Fermions, quarks, leptons and bosons — many were given names before anybody knew for sure if they existed, though mathematical modeling strongly suggested they must.
One by one, experiments confirmed the existence of most of them. In 1995, Fermilab experienced one of the century's great scientific triumphs when its researchers, which included Incandela's team, observed and confirmed the existence of the top quark, one of the last unobserved quarks.
That left the Higgs boson as the last predicted elementary particle to be identified. After the top quark success, Incandela moved on to a professorship at the University of California at Santa Barbara and helped design the CMS detector for the Large Hadron Collider, built specifically to search for the Higgs boson.
Since the collider was first turned on in 2008, researchers have been gradually increasing its power as it sends streams of protons racing around the 16.8-mile ring 11,245 times a second, near the speed of light, producing high temperatures "that have not been seen since the Big Bang," Incandela said.
Beams of trillions of protons are squeezed down to a stream one-third as thick as a human hair to generate 600 million particle collisions a second. The CMS detector uses extremely sophisticated 3-D cameras that record the tracks left behind by the colliding protons. Researchers look for telltale track patterns that will pinpoint Higgs boson particles if they exist.
"The camera can make something like 20 million (collision) images in a second, so many that we can't keep them all," he said.
"We use very fast electronics and special types of processors that reduce the number of photos to 100,000 per second. We use 60 computer centers all over the world to analyze those 100,000 images individually. We keep perhaps 300 events every second out of the tens of millions of them recorded."
The hope is that in the next year, the detector will capture the Higgs boson on film, he said, but the experiment is so big and unprecedented, the hope also is that it will open unforeseen windows into the universe.
During his recent visit to Chicago, Incandela was meeting with most of the 30-person leadership team put together for his two-year tenure heading the experiment. Since his election in April, he and his leadership team have gradually started working in tandem with the experiment's current administrators so the turnover of authority is seamless.
"We can't stop the experiment Jan. 1 and have it wait while my leadership team learns its jobs. We can't afford to miss a beat," he said.
Incandela is the first American scientist to be elected as spokesperson of a major experiment on the Large Hadron Collider, a singular honor because the CERN facility is largely financed and run by Europeans.
Frisch said he is not at all surprised to see Incandela running the CMS project.
"Joe got that experiment because he is special," Frisch said. "When he was here, he was with a lot of can-do people who knew how to go after things. He is very talented, skilled and good with people, bright, direct and straightforward in a way that I think people appreciate."