The Large Hadron Collider

A quick break from my self-imposed exile before I put the “Gone fishing” sign up again.

Michelson–Morley; Eddington’s expedition to the 1919 total solar eclipse; Edward Jenner injecting himself with smallpox; Pasteur’s S-shaped flasks; Millikan’s oil drops. If any readers are wondering what this seemingly random collection of words represents, they’re famous experiments in the history of science. Tomorrow sees the addition of another item to this list – the turning on of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Other than Eddington’s expedition, which left these shores to the island of Principe to verify or disprove the bizarre predictions of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (that gravity could bend light), never has an experiment been quite so hyped. Having once applied to CERN for a summer job when I was still at school, I hope it’s understandable if I feel compelled to add my two-penneth.

There have been huge tunnels underneath the Swiss countryside (and crossing into France) for more than half a century. CERN’s where Tim Berners Lee developed the hypertext markup language that made the world wide web possible – the very first webserver was info.cern.ch. It’s a place where many notable scientific milestones have been achieved such as the creation of genuine antimatter in the form of anti-hydrogen atoms – now no longer the stuff of Star Trek. It was also where the weak nuclear force (which governs radioactive decay) was able to be combined with electromagnetism in one of the great steps along the way to that holy grail of physics – the grand unified theory (basically a theory of everything).

It’s hoped that the LHC will be able to explain one of the great asymmetries of the universe – why there appears to be so much more matter than antimatter. Another mystery that nearly everyone has been told about is the possible existence of the so-called “God particle”, the Higgs boson. It’s important because it could help explain why anything has mass at all. When we delve very deeply into the structure of matter, we find that almost all of it is made up of empty space. The once unbreakable atom became a tiny (but incredibly dense) nuclear core with distant, diffuse electrons in shells around it. Then the protons and neutrons that comprised the unbreakable atomic nucleus became made up of tiny quarks. What does it mean to have mass when matter itself is made of next to nothing? If the Higgs boson is found (and its identification is probably within the design spec of the LHC) then its associated Higgs Field provides a possible answer to the puzzle. If you want to hunt for Higgs yourself, try this interactive game from The Science Museum.

Some scientists and philosophers of science believe the process could go on forever – that we can keep dissecting and dissecting smaller and smaller “fundamental” particles. Others think the truth is just around the corner (officially the Higgs boson is the final piece of the jigsaw of what physicists call The Standard Model). In a way this mirrors the debate between the realists and the empiricists. Can scientific theories in some way be judged as “true”, an explanation of how the universe really is, or are they a useful tool that doesn’t claim to be a fundamental reality?

I fully expect the God particle to be found in due course, but I’m not sure how much further the idea of fundamental particles and the Standard Model can take us. Normally I stand in the empiricists camp, but when I step out to become a true blue realist I enjoy the mathematical; beauty of ideas such as Garrett Lisi’s E8-based “exceptionally simple theory of everything”. In this, the Higgs particle comes out of the geometry as just one way of looking at things, and there are others.

That’s one of the joys of physics. For instance, an atom of antimatter hydrogen can be viewed as having a negatively charged proton (an anti-proton) as its nucleus and a positively charged electron (a positron) around the outside, but it can also be viewed as an atom of regular hydrogen travelling backwards in time. Or you can just look at it through a bathroom mirror.

However you look at the universe, I’m delighted that the fuss about it ending tomorrow has apparently died down. Safe in the knowledge that the Earth isn’t about to be swallowed by an artificially created black hole or than Big Bang the 2nd won’t begin somewhere near Geneva on 10 September 2008, I shall take up my fishing rod and return to the luminiferous ether (disproved by Michelson and Morley) to keep writing Johnny Mackintosh and the Fountain of Time.
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~ by keithmansfield on September 9, 2008.

One Response to “The Large Hadron Collider”

  1. you’re too clever.

    I can’t wait to find out what the hadron collider discovers, though, and I’ll let you explain to me exactly what it all means…

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