Saturday, December 01, 2012

ISEPP Physics Lecture


Sean Carroll's talk was somewhat a continuation of Lisa Randall's.  Just as Lisa would shortly appear on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show (after her ISEPP talk), so had Sean just been on the Colbert Report.

Both Sean and Lisa are students of high energy particle physics with high aptitude for explaining their studies to a lay public.  Sean's topic was the Higgs boson, which he's recently written a book about.  The LHR is the world's largest machine ever if you define machine a certain way, really impressive in scale, a 17 mile underground ring that penetrates an underground river.  The process is relatively innocuous:  it collides protons at high speeds (closer to the speed of light than bullets by a long shot) and, just as importantly, collects the results with layers of detectors.

I dropped Carol (mom) and an oxygen tank at AFSC for the seasonal open house and headed downtown, where I was cast in a supporting role as one of the ushers.  A lot of us Wanderers were there for that purpose:  Patrick, Mark, Barry, Jeff, Christine, Dave, Glenn, Don, Lynn, myself.  This was a new venue.  Oregon's chancellor's office no longer has the funding it once did and these civic science lectures needed to squeeze into a smaller less expensive venue.  First Congregational Church is but a few blocks from the Schnitzer.  We still had our dinner in the Heathman, per usual.

The Higgs boson is what the $9 billion supercollider at CERN was supposed to discover, and apparently it has.  The Standard Model now seems uber-confirmed.  Quantum field theory is poised to enter a new era, with the sense that conventional reality has the particles it needs, and now it's time to turn to dark energy and dark matter to find out what makes those tick.

It's less the discovery of a particle that's at issue than the incorporation of a new field, the Higgs field, which is at relatively high energy compared to other fields which average around zero.  Will confirmation of some super-symmetry theory be a next outcome after this?  There's some hope of that.  The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is due to shut down for two years and when it reopens, will be upgraded to ram protons together even more violently.  Detecting and sifting then takes place, with an eye towards isolating what's interesting versus what's mundane.  The vast majority of collisions are uninteresting whereas aggregate statistics may tell a story.

As a phenomenon, the Higgs boson is conceived to last less than a zepto second.  Finding it was hard because the signature resultants could just as easily be the signature of non-Higgs decay.  Only aggregate statistics suggest that there's a Higgs field at work.  Once this field is accepted, it helps explain why fermions have mass.  The Higgs is what delays them and prevents any light speed electrons.  The Higgs field may be treated as their source of mass.

The lay audience asked many intelligent questions.  One lady gave a sermon.  It turned out later at the dinner that Sean is not especially friendly towards religionists.  He's not one of those who thinks science and religion need to "get along" although he's quick to admit religionists may do the same science, and just as admirably.  A young woman wanted to know about spin, and whether some particles might have spin greater then two.  Higgs bosons have zero spin, and a consensus seems to have developed that bosons have at most a spin value of two.

Sean's lecture contained an interesting subtext:  it's also about the people.  He dwelt on Nobel Prize winners not just because they're celebs but because one may learn from them, and he had.  Organizational skills matter.  Why CERN and not Texas?  Thereby hangs a tale (several in fact).  But in sharing credit where due, how fair is the limitation of Nobels to like three at the most.  And was it the Higgs field because he had the most interesting name of the group?

He dwelt on the fact we were looking at a guy-heavy roster and addressed that with his scientific assessment that women have in fact been subjugated by their "lesser half" (as some fondly refer to XYs, though I'd say this is more about archetypes than relatively "simple" genetics).  Trends were moving rapidly to overcome and/or heal this rift in access however.  Public libraries have made a difference (they did in his case for sure).  He showed some graphs to make his point.  The audience was cheered and expressed relief and encouragement of these trends with sincere applause.

Even if QFT (quantum field theory) is getting work done, in the way of glass beads, simply re-presenting existing content with remapped terminology could be done for exercise.  Calling them quarks was quirky and quirky sticks, like I'm not saying "muons" and "gluons" aren't cool, as phonemes (phonemic memes), just that we could remap the constellations the same way, wrap them with alternative namespaces.  And sometimes do.  Or we look at it as other civilizations did or do, or will or might or might have already (same diff in some ways, civs are flip sides of cosmic casts of characters).

A whole subculture has grown up around high energy physics, with its own ethos and characters.  Although the economy has gone through a lot of resources, it's mostly value added.  They're not trying to kill anyone, just figure out what makes things tick.  The demands / stresses placed on tooling, data processing, constructing, planning, collaborating, yield benefits outside of CERN, certainly.  Take the World Wide Web for example, to which the CERN ecosystem gave rise, in complement with Tim Berners-Lee and the hypertext true believers (count me a young convert, reading Ted Nelson's book in Jersey City, hoping the Web might really happen (and it really did)).