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UW physics professor Anna Goussiou explains the underlying science to the crowd. (Click for larger photo)

You could call it a magnetic attraction that drew about 175 people to a midnight party thrown by the University of Washington’s Physics Department, Pacific Science Center and KCTS television to celebrate the discovery of a new particle.

Microphone in hand, pint on the table, UW physicist Gordon Watts delivers the play-by-play for the crowd in the bar.

“This is once in a generation,” said Stephanie Fitzwater, who helped organize the event about the Higgs Boson. She is a program specialist for the Pacific Science Center’s Portal to the Public program, designed to bring science out of laboratories and right to the public. In this case, right into a darkly-lit Irish pub — McHugh’s — near Seattle Center.

Cheers rang out from the crowd, divided between three different screens in various sections of the bar, happily watching the live stream from scientists in Switzerland at the giant complex known as CERN, where the Large Hadron Collider data was being reported to the world. CERN stopped short of saying they found the Higgs, but said they found a new particle that sure looks a lot like the Higgs.

Finally discovering the Higgs would be a key to understanding why elementary particles have mass and may help explain other elements of physics.

Gordon Watts, a professor of physics, used a microphone to deliver play-by-play comments on the graphs and charts being shown during the very technical live feed. The feed began at 11 p.m. Anna Goussiou, another professor in the UW physics group, described the LHC as one of the greatest experimental endeavors of humankind.

This post is by Sally James, volunteer president of the Northwest Science Writers Association, a nonprofit group dedicated to increasing science literacy and improving the professional lives of its members. See the NSWA website for more information and details on joining.

Gossiou and Watts are both collaborators on the Atlas detector , which was one of two detectors reporting results. You can read more about the UW’s collaborations on Atlas here. Watch an archive of last night’s CERN press conference on this site.

Among those eagerly watching were Lois and Harsha Ramalingan of Kirkland. Harsha, who works with software, said his physics interest is just for fun. Lois said that as soon as she heard about it – she knew they would have to attend.

Another spectator described the electric and giddy atmosphere inside the pub by comparing it to how people gathered together to see the first moon landing. James Cook, an information technologist, explained his fascination by saying his childhood heroes were: Bruce Lee, Ben Franklin and Albert Einstein.

“I had to come and watch this,” he said.

Pacific Science Center and KCTS collaborate regularly on what are called Science Cafes, informal gatherings in Seattle and Kirkland where scientists present research. The Higgs event was an extension of that format. But nobody expected the overflow crowd, said a delighted Meena Selvakumar, who is acting vice president for strategic programs at the Science Center.

“This is proof of how big this is for the community,” she said. “It is a once-in-a-generation thing.”

Updated since original post to correct references to UW professors.

Sally James writes about science and medical research for magazines and websites. Find her on Twitter @jamesian and posting on Facebook for NW Science Writers. 

Editor’s Note: Jake Ellison of KPLU was also at the event and took this video of Watts reflecting on the discovery and its implications at the end of the night.

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