Blogmeister's Note: Today Jen-Luc Piquant is going incognito in her spiffy ninja garb, because we're featuring a guest post by Brian Frank, who is taking a science writing class with KC Cole at the University of Southern California. Technically, he's responding to a May 14, 2007 article in The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert, "Crash Course," about anticipating the start-up of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). But it's not like the salient points have changed much in the past year -- or the fear-mongering. Or just downright embarrassing ignorance: check out Blake Stacey's satirically sorrowful rant at Science After Sunclipse on Rush Limbaugh's sad attempt to twist the LHC's search for the Higgs boson into a religious issue. Um, Rush? Buddy? Would it kill ya to do some homework once in awhile? The Higgs has nothing to do with proving or disproving the existence of god; the "god particle" is just a popular moniker. Physicists hate it. Ten minutes on Google would have told you that.
Limbaugh was responding (if one could call it that) to this TIME magazine article on Peter Higgs, the theoretical physicist who predicted the existence of the Higgs boson. Of course, it's not like Limbaugh has ever cared about truth and accuracy. Nor do his listeners really expect him to know what he's talking about. They like to hear the windbag rant, and confirm their worst fears about the world. Facts just spoil the fun. Nothing we say will change their minds. But perhaps fresh young voices like Brian can! We're delighted to welcome him to the cocktail party; it's a brave, brave thing he's doing. Check out Kolbert's original article -- you might have missed it the first time around, or forgotten about it -- and then read Brian's critique, see if you agree with his assessment/ruminations, and perhaps add your own thoughts in the comments. And now, heeere's BRIAN!
So-called new physics operates on a level so unfamiliar to our everyday experience that the conversations of the scientists who study it sound absurd. It's Dilbert for physicists. Case in point: Elizabeth Kolbert's article, "Crash Course." Kolbert manages to give us a sneak-peek at the world of particle physicists searching for "the god particle," and on the way down the rabbit hole, she points out the photinos, the strangelets and the Zs. She shines a spotlight on the quibbling quantum mechanics who call each other out on their absurdities and sometimes stop to deal with John Q. Public. It's to her credit that she manages to convey some of the playfulness here at the edge of the known (micro)world without adding too much of her own commentary. Instead, she lets her characters reveal themselves while she works her way around to explaining the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a miles-long, circular underground race track designed to smash up tiny particles and thereby reveal the secrets of the universe (42, anyone?).
Doubts about the science-ness of the search for ever-smaller particles pervade even the scientific community, it seems. One of the goals for the LHC is to create what one physicist has termed the "God particle" ["Damn you, Leon Lederman!" a chorus of frustrated physicists wail], otherwise known as the Higgs particle, whose existence would indicate that "the void of space is not really void but is permeated by an invisible field that acts a bit like cosmic molasses... lending mass to particles that otherwise wouldn't have any."
The problem, Kolbert writes, is that without the existence of such a particle, "Physicists have no way to explain why fundamental particles weigh anything at all, since, according to theory, they should be massless." From one vantage point (admittedly cynical), the quirky querists appear to have exhausted their alternatives, so that the whole of physics seems to rest on a particle that may not even exist, prompting "one Nobel laureate to label [the Higgs particle] the rug under which the discipline sweeps its ignorance, and a second to dismiss it as the 'toilet' into which physics flushes its inconsistencies."
Indeed, the masslessness of particles is a tricky bit to decrypt. The deputy head of CERN's physics department, Michael Doser, tells Kolbert that some of the tiniest particles, such as the quark or electron, "have no spatial extent.... In a way, they're mathematical figments, and they're separated by vacuum -- mathematical figments in nothing." The average person taking in the world through his eyeballs may have trouble reconciling the physical matter he can see and touch with the emptiness from which it's made. He must think he's seen a rabbit pulled from the hat.
Listening to physicists debate the merits of basing something (everything) on nothing has its appeal, but watching them explain to John Q. Public why he and she should pony up the funding and be not afraid of the big bad doomsday machines is almost delectable. Big particle accelerators, or colliders, like the LHC, generate as much fear as they do data, it would seem. Kolbert relates how a disagreement among physicists about the form of a potential catastrophe might take led to a headline in the newspapers that read, "BIG BANG MACHINE COULD DESTROY EARTH!"
Oops. The disagreement had been whether the collider would open earth-swallowing mini-black-holes or would "convert surrounding matter into strangelets [particles whose existence has only been postulated but whose name has been aptly chosen] and the world as we know it would vanish" -- this last position held by physicist Frank Wilczek. Brookhaven National Laboratory, which operated the collider in question [the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider], quickly appointed a committee to investigate the possibility of disasters arising from the operation of its equipment. The committee, of course, concluded that "We are safe from a strangelet initiated catastrophe," according to Kolbert.
I would have liked to have seen the backroom discussion among physicists when that committee was appointed. The Dilbert version might have run like this:
"Yes, sir. Of course, sir. We'll get right on it." [click] "Bob, go run some calculations. Don't come back too soon."
"What do you think? A week maybe?"
"Yeah, that's good. And Bob, choose numbers that are really big. Really big. You know what I mean."
It's silliness, really, when extremely intelligent physicists spend so much time and money explaining to the public why their toys won't blow up the earth or open a vicious mini-black hole. After all, Doser tells Kolbert that "any black holes created... would be entirely benign." Comforting.
But CERN's chief science officer, Jos Engelen, tells Kolbert how a small slip could panic the public: "In quantum mechanics, there s a probability that this pen will fall through the table," because it is made of particles that can also behave like waves, and so, like a radio wave, penetrate solid objects. "It is a very small probability. But it never happens. I've never seen it happen. You've never seen it happen. But to the general public you make a casual remark, '[The probability] is not identical to zero, it is very small,' and..." And the rest is an installment of Dr. Dilbert.
The potential for damage is not zero, either. The LHC employs giant magnets to keep protons traveling smoothly through a curved tunnel when they would otherwise fly straight and burn right through the side, Kolbert writes. And the magnets are so strong they could fling a stray bolt so hard that, like a bullet, it could easily pierce the metal walls.
Big physics isn't funny at all, really. But how do you resist cracking a smile when physicists, in their quest for quixotic particles, come up with such monikers as strangelet, W (just W), and squark. Quark? Squark. "You begin to feel like Sbozo the clown. Or Bozo the clownino. Or swhatever," physicist Lee Smolin write in a critique of contemporary theories in physics. With a new particle invented to solve each new problem, one begins to suspect those are right who say human beings are ultimately responsible for creating the universe. But that's absurd.
All of this is not to suggest that Kolbert's article was a satire of contemporary physics. Rather, the absurdity changes hands like hard currency on the black market -- the rest of the world never sees it, but the wider economy feels its effects. Kolbert's article seems to capture some of the backroom physics without compromising the broader validity of the field. But if you still have more questions than answers about quantum mechanics, queue up; you'll probably be standing right next to a physicist.