Thursday, September 6, 2007

In search of Higgs

Yet another lengthy article about high-energy physics in the paper this week. I suppose the proximity of Fermilab to Chicago does mean that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) nearing completion in France/Switzerland has greater significance for this area than many scientific endeavours; for once the LHC bursts into life, Fermilab will have lost its status as the leader in particle physics. A brief survey of the Fermilab website reveals the extent of its contributions to uncovering various quarks, charm, bosons, neutrinos and so on. The world of particles has moved on a bit since my education when we were pretty happy with protons, neutrons and electrons.

Even now the physics community is migrating to Europe where the seven times greater energy of the LHC will afford greater probability of identifying the illusive "Higgs Boson." What's that you may ask? According to Wikipedia; my first resort when seeking information, and it is by no means half as bad as purists want to make out; the Higgs is the only particle of the Standard Model of physics yet to be observed. It is the icing on the cake to borrow a hackneyed phrase. There is almost a sense that it is simply a matter of time and with the right equipment, so solid does the theory seem to be; after all, everything else has fallen into place. But the work still has to be done, and the thing still needs to be found in order to be certain; and I suppose in that there is the anticipation and tendency to wonder "what if it isn't?"

What indeed would be the upshot if the Higgs doesn't make its expected appearance? Uproar in the physics world, new theories no doubt; but for us, the simple folk, will there be any difference? Does the presence or absence of Higgs make any difference to our lives? The most probable answer, no, is probably why the Superconducting Super Collider, once sought after at Fermi but later moved to Texas, was eventually axed. So little gain for the pain.

Astonishing is the human effort dedicated in this: the article stated that 7,000 scientists will be working at the LHC. It is unclear as to whether this army is dedicated to the single cause or many causes, but it is an amazing figure, and one that is in stark contrast to the early tradition of science as being the work of individuals. Consider that almost all the great scientists of history were individuals; the theories and laws have almost always a single name attached. The personality traits of scientists often include introspection and isolation. Some of them were downright quirky, even shunning public exposure. It is fascinating to consider how this army can be organized coherently in the search for the Higgs; what egos must be soothed, personal ambitions managed and agendas manipulated to make it all happen.


Snipper "Book Zeller" said...

I too read an article in the Trib a few mornings ago while leisurly enjoying my 10 minute breakfast before I catch a bus to the airport. Fortunately the tribute is delivered down here in farmcountryUSA.

I did not know that they were closing fermi down in a few years. Incidentally that coincides with the early retirement of the Space Shuttle Fleet... two tradgic endings to monumental programs.

Aylwin Forbes said...

I don't know that Fermi will necessarily go away altogether. There are plans for a new linear accelerator to be built there. Over the last twenty years or so it always seems to be on a bit of a knife edge.

I have mixed views on the Space Shuttle thing: how much has been accomplished really?

Snipper "Book Zeller" said...

I guess I am talking more on the technological property of the space shuttle. Here we have the most complex machine ever built with a completely unique and ground breaking design.
True, it never really accomplished what it was supposed to do in its fullest and currently I think the ISS is simply to prove it CAN be done. Things like the Hubble Space telescope, establishing inter governmental tasks (MIR, ISS) are deffinately ups on the accomplishment.
But I agree, after that it can be debatable.
But I will certainly miss the entire design and concept. The new things NASA has up its sleeves is far to reminiscent of the Apollo era and completely lacks the reusability the shuttle provides.