Tuesday, March 10, 2009

All kidding aside... go Corolla, go!

Things are starting to get very interesting.

In February a spate of articles started showing up, first starting with the realization that CERN was not going to recover from its near-catastrophic breakdown in the summer as expected, but would need until September. Because it was a later start, the decision was made to keep CERN running through the normally scheduled winter break --- to basically run the thing non-stop for a year to try to make up lost time.

This announcement seems to have started a chain reaction of articles that promoted the idea that CERN's stumble last fall could have dire consequences for the massive particle accelerator. As our film pointed out, Fermilab's Tevatron has been cranking at full capacity for some time now. It's a little like having a $100,000 Porsche on the shoulder with its hood up while a $6,237 Toyota Corolla hums along at 80 mph. Even though the Porsche could blow the Toyota's doors off, if it sits out of the race long enough, guess who will win?

So, first we saw the article I referenced in a previous post, and here's one from the NewScientist, called "Fermilab 'closing in' on the God particle." (It's an interesting exercise in nuance when discussing the concept of competition between the two labs. Pier Oddone is quoted as saying "we're not racing CERN" yet the very next sentence says "Other scientists at Fermilab ... [say] the sense of competition is real." And how's this for spin: "'Indirectly, we're helping them,' says DZero spokesman Dmitri Denisov of his European counterparts. 'They're definitely feeling the heat and working a little harder.'" That's a little like the driver of one race car say he's helping the other race car driver when he guns his engines at him.)

(Incidentally, this racecar analogy is all over the place: In an article called "Fermilab, European accelerator race for glory" in the Chicago Tribune says "The idea Fermilab could pull ahead in the Higgs search seemed about as likely as a Model T beating a Corvette in a drag race." (Further evidence is the fact that this story has been mistakenly filed under the "Sports Archives" section).

But just three days ago the rhetoric in the media stepped up a notch. Monica sent me this article from Newsweek, called "God's Broken Machine" (oh, the drama). The subhead reads "As Europe makes repairs to its shiny new particle accelerator, U.S. rivals prepare to steal the prize," and a later line reads "phyiscists at the world's biggest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, are seeing their dreams of Nobel Prizes go down the drain..." due to Fermilab's "exploiting the lull by staging a last-minute comeback, threatening to leapfrog the Europeans to the prize."

Now, hold on. Aside from the ridiculous idea that Fermilab is staging a comeback, as though they huddled around and decided to suddenly launch an aggressive play, this is sounding typical of media hyperbole. But there's a little more to it:

This week scientists at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, will announce new data that not only narrows the gap between them and the coveted God Particle, but also suggests that the LHC may not be particularly well placed to make the discovery at all. The finding is a public-relations blow to the LHC and tarnishes Europe's newly burnished image as a leader in Big Science.

I asked John Conway what this "new data" was, and if it was related to the press release from Fermilab we were emailed yesterday (yes, it's fun to be on Fermilab's press release list, the same list with the Associated Press, The New York Times, Scientific American, The Washington Post, MSNBC, Discovery, etc.!) that announced Fermilab had discovered a single top quark. Nope, not related. The "new data" is new results from the Higgs search.

Without going into the details of the science that I don't understand, I'll jump back now to the newsweek article to give us an idea of what this new data implies for the search (race) to find the Higgs particle:

The standard model predicts that the Higgs will fall within a range of energies—from 114 giga-electron-volts to 185 GeV. The LHC is, without question, master of the upper portion of that range. Using it to hunt the Higgs at the lower energies, however, would be like shooting quail with a cruise missile. Fermilab's smaller Tevatron collider, it turns out, may be better suited. The Higgs, the new Fermilab data show, does not exist for a portion of the upper range, putting it in the Tevatron's cross hairs and suggesting that the LHC may be more peripheral to the search than previously thought. "We've made their jobs a little bit harder," says Fermilab physicist Dmitry Denisov, "because we've excluded the region they're good at."

Ah. So, in a sense, the Toyota Corolla has just revealed the racetrack doesn't have any straightaways where the Porsche would really have a chance to blow it away. Instead, it's mostly narrow, curving suburban neighborhood streets with children playing and beige houses, perfect for the Corolla.

It gets more complicated here, as there are actually two types of Higgs that might be out there: Standard Model ones like those mentioned in the Newsweek article, and supersymmetry Higgs, which is what John Conway has been looking for. From what I can understand, the Standard Model ones are less likely (perhaps a 50% chance in two years), while the supersymmetry kind are more likely.

I think that's the reason for the range of 50-96% that the BBC article mentions. Whew. No wonder media people (read: me) like to use simplistic analogies like Corvettes and Model-Ts, Davids and Goliaths, and Porsches and Corollas. And why scientists get so frustrated with us.

Go Corolla, go!


Hi Kooky said...

Crippled Top Dog vs. High-Functioning Underdog. It's an interesting race indeed... Someone needs to make some "Team Fermilab" shirts. I'd buy one.

Also, I'm pretty sure I live in that neighborhood - the one with beige houses and children. Except the Toyota model du jour is the glorious Sienna minivan.

Siderite said...

There was this story, I don't know how much of it is true and how much a joke, but here it goes:
NASA sends people into space and notices that no pen would write without gravity. So they start a spinoff project to create a pen that needs no gravity. After 10 million $ of budget and a few years of research, they get a working prototype and everybody is happy.
Meanwhile, the Russians were using pencils.

Sometimes more money doesn't mean a better implementation. We still need brilliant designers and people that think outside the box.