Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Big Press

Big story in the New York Times, written by our interview subject Peter Overbye: "A Giant Takes On Physics' Biggest Questions." All about CERN, how huge it is, how wonderful it will be when it turns on. They've got their targets set firmly on The Higgs boson:

[Dr. Fabiola Gianotti, a CERN physicist] listed possible discoveries like a mysterious particle called the Higgs that is thought to endow other particles with mass, new forms of matter that explain the mysterious dark matter waddling the cosmos and even new dimensions of spacetime.

“For me,” Dr. Gianotti said, “it would be a dream if, finally, in a couple of years in a laboratory we are going to produce the particle responsible for 25 percent of the universe.”

But this part really interested me, as you can imagine:

Game of Cosmic Leapfrog

The advent of the Cern collider also cements a shift in the balance of physics power away from American dominance that began in 1993, when Congress canceled the Superconducting Supercollider, a monster machine under construction in Waxahachie, Tex. The supercollider, the most powerful ever envisioned, would have sped protons around a 54-mile racetrack before slamming them together with 40 trillion electron volts.

For decades before that, physicists in the United States and Europe had leapfrogged one another with bigger, more expensive and, inevitably, fewer of these machines, which get their magic from Einstein’s equation of mass and energy. The more energy that these machines can pack into their little fireballs, the farther back in time they can go, closer and closer to the Big Bang, the smaller and smaller things they can see.Recalling those times, Dr. Evans said: “There was a nice equilibrium across the Atlantic. People used to come and go.”

Now, Dr. Evans said, “The center of gravity has moved to Cern.”

The most powerful accelerator now operating is the trillion-electron volt Tevatron, colliding protons and their antimatter opposites, antiprotons, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. But it is scheduled to shut down by 2010.

There is also a really terrific page or so on the Higgs boson, our favorite little particle. Oh, what the heck, I'll just paste it in here. It includes a quote from our own John Conway.

Cocktail Party Physics

The payoff for this investment, physicists say, could be a new understanding of one of the most fundamental of aspects of reality, namely the nature of mass.

This is where the shadowy particle known as the Higgs boson, a k a the God particle, comes in.

In the Standard Model, a suite of equations describing all the forces but gravity, which has held sway as the law of the cosmos for the last 35 years, elementary particles are born in the Big Bang without mass, sort of like Adam and Eve being born without sin.

Some of them (the particles, that is) acquire their heft, so the story goes, by wading through a sort of molasses that pervades all of space. The Higgs process, named after Peter Higgs, a Scottish physicist who first showed how this could work in 1964, has been compared to a cocktail party where particles gather their masses by interaction. The more they interact, the more mass they gain.

The Higgs idea is crucial to a theory that electromagnetism and the weak force are separate manifestations of a single so-called electroweak force. It shows how the massless bits of light called photons could be long-lost brothers to the heavy W and Z bosons, which would gain large masses from such cocktail party interactions as the universe cooled.

The confirmation of the theory by the Nobel-winning work at Cern 20 years ago ignited hopes among physicists that they could eventually unite the rest of the forces of nature.

Moreover, Higgs-like fields have been proposed as the source of an enormous burst of expansion, known as inflation, early in the universe, and, possibly, as the secret of the dark energy that now seems to be speeding up the expansion of the universe. So it is important to know whether the theory works and, if not, to find out what does endow the universe with mass.

But nobody has ever seen a Higgs boson, the particle that personifies this molasses. It should be producible in particle accelerators, but nature has given confusing clues about where to look for it. Measurements of other exotic particles suggest that the Higgs’s mass should be around 90 billion electron volts, the unit of choice in particle physics. But other results, from the Lep collider here before it shut down in 2000, indicate that the Higgs must weigh more than 114 billion electron volts. By comparison, an electron is half a million electron volts, and a proton is about 2,000 times heavier.

“We’ve nearly ruled out the Standard Model, if you want to say it that way,” said John Conway, a Fermilab physicist. The new collider was specifically designed to hunt for the Higgs particle, which is key both to the Standard Model and to any greater theory that would supersede it.

Theorists say the Higgs or something like it has to show up simply because the Standard Model breaks down and goes kerflooey at energies exceeding one trillion electron volts. If you try to predict what happens when two particles collide, it gives nonsense, explained Dr. Ellis of Cern, a senior theorist with the long white hair and a bushy beard to prove it.

“There is either a violation of probability or some new physics,” Dr. Ellis said.

Nima Arkani-Hamed of Harvard said he would bet a year’s salary on the Higgs.

“If the Higgs or something like it doesn’t exist,” Dr. Arkani-Hamed said, “then some very basic things like quantum mechanics are wrong.”

A result, Dr. Gianotti said, is “either we find the Higgs boson, or some stranger phenomenon must happen.”

Once I was of the opinion that our story was growing cold. Now I think we're poised pretty well --- assuming we don't drag our feet...

Sunday, May 6, 2007

First Act...

...finished. What's a first act? Movies, whether you notice or not, are made in a 3-act structure. Nothing very provocative about it: Act One: setup. Establish characters, situation, set an objective in motion. Act One ends with a hint of difficulties to come. Act Two: introduce complications. Obstacles. Conflict is built. Act Three: resolution, one way or another. In a feature film of say, 90-95 minutes, you might have a 30 min act 1, a 45 min act 2, and a 15-20 min act 3. Our act one? Clocks in at a tidy 31:05. Curtain rises on act two today...

PS thanks for the comments to the last post. Don't worry, most of that was metaphorical hand-wringing. Part of it is also a little excitement that ours is definitely not a "dead" topic. I'd much rather have to struggle with where to cut off following an exciting story than ... well, you get the picture.

PPS Congratulations to us! (OK, to our producer Andrew, mostly): we just were awarded a $10,000 grant from the Illinois Humanities Council!