Friday, September 12, 2008

CERN for dummies

Obviously, I haven't been posting lately. That's mainly because what little time in my life I still dedicate to writing has been absorbed by a project that isn't for public consumption. At least not now. Probably never. Anyway ...

My good friend Colin Laisure-Pool, a professional engineer and rank amateur in every other walk of life, put together an explanation of the whole CERN/Collider thing, which I found extremely edifying. With his permission, I'm reprinting it here, since some of you might be interested as well.

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The what of CERN is pretty much public knowledge at this point: huge European collider ring that smashes particles at ridiculous energies. The how is irrelevant, really, to anyone who isn’t very much involved in particle physics (I could explain maybe about 60% of it, and about half of that would be accurate). But the point is that, a few years back, only physics majors and hardcore trivia nerds knew what CERN even stood for; now everyone who has an MSN account has heard of it, which I consider to be a good thing.

What isn’t such a good thing is the fact that the why has hardly been presented to the public at all, and, really, this is the most important question. Especially as far as the public is concerned, I feel that the physics community has dropped the ball in conveying the rationale and gravitas of this and other experiments of its kind. On the other hand, I can certainly see why and explanation of the why hasn’t been widely disseminated; it is a very difficult thing to explain.

And it’s not even like it is some sort of I-am-so-much-smarter-than-you type of situation; it took me 4 years of schooling and a considerable amount of my current free time to even know the half of it. Many people don’t have a solid physics background, so it is hard to find common ground or make pertinent references. As with anything, it is much easier to explain something to your colleagues than it is to someone with no background in a given field. It’s like trying to explain moment frames, or heat transfer vectors to your doctor. Your doctor is not a stupid person, by any means, but has no idea what you are talking about unless you break it down to the most fundamental of concepts. This means that you basically have to build the analogy or concept from the ground up, and that could take forever.

So, that being said, I’m going to take a swing at this:

The Good: CERN consists of a giant, underground ring on that uses large magnets (and electric fields, too, like a stellerator) to accelerate various subatomic particles (protons being pretty common, but anything with charge will do) in opposite directions within the ring and guides them on a collision path that occurs near the particle detector (the huge device ubiquitously accompanying any article on the matter). By smashing these particles together, we can then see what they are made of. It’s like a caveman trying to see what is inside of a baseball; he would have to throw it at a rock as hard as he could to break it open, and once he knows what is inside, he gains clearer insight into what makes the baseball travel the way that it does. But, what if he only breaks the outermost layer? He would have to throw it harder and harder in order to get down to the most essential elements of what is in that ball.

Like a matryoshka doll, you just have to look deeper and deeper until you find the final, smallest, and most essential component of that object. A hydrogen atom consists of a proton, neutron, and electron. Protons, neutrons and electrons are all made up of different combinations of up and down quarks (there are 6 known varieties of quark). Well, what are quarks made up of? We just have to keep throwing harder and harder to see. DØ (the Tevatron) at FermiLab throws pretty hard, like Roger Clemens. RHIC at Brookhaven (the gold nuclei) is like Nolan Ryan. But CERN would be like the EXPRODING GYROBARR of colliders, which has got people so excited and interested in the first place.

The search to find the essential particle, the last and smallest matryoshka doll, is important for many reasons. If we can find evidence that the Higgs boson exists (one of the sought after particles here), we can begin to unravel some of the mysteries behind why we are observing such very strange (only strange because we don’t understand it) phenomena at the relativistic quantum level. Basically, at very small scales and very high energies, quantum theory is wigging out on us. [Aside: Quantum theory is a theory in the same way that gravity is a theory. Quantum mechanics is a time-tested, verifiable science; the device that I’m using now is a testament to this.] We suspect that this is because we aren’t accounting for all of the elements involved; the stuff within the stuff that we are looking at could be the culprit behind this ‘weird’ behavior. Lots of super-nerds have lots of super-theories, some more popular than others, but to really advance in this field we need to have a look see. A hadron, by the way, is just jargon for any particle that is subject to the strong nuclear force, which is one of the four (or three, depending on who you ask) fundamental forces and the one that is the most important here.

The Bad: As you and everyone else are already aware, this kind of thing is e-x-p-e-n-s-i-v-e. Also, partially for reasons to be mentioned below, politics have become involved, which is never good for anything, ever. Particle colliders are huge, costly, and controversial. Google the SSC (Superconducting Super Collider) for an example of what I mean. Also, there is a possibility that this is not the final step! It is entirely possible that this will only get us through the next layer of the matryoshka, and even bigger colliders are needed, which could generate more questions that answers. When people commit this much money, time, and effort to something, they expect answers. They may not forthcoming, and it is likely that everyone not involved in the scientific community may not be prepared for this outcome. Is it possible that the universe could be infinitely parsed? I don’t think so, but it remains to be seen.

The Ugly: The most widely disseminated story surrounding this collider is that of these nut-jobs claiming that this collider will end the world in some sort of singularity collapse. Frankly, they are either ignorant, fame-seeking, or a combination of the two. While it is always prudent to be concerned about the dangers of such powerful devices, it is never appropriate to try to shut something like this down because of some cockamamie garbage about the end of the flipping world. The black holes that would be created by this experiment would be so miniscule and unstable as to be no more than an object for study. At these energies, the possibility of a black hole being created that is large and stable enough to consume the planet is about the same as an x-ray (or cosmic gamma ray, for that matter) causing a thermonuclear chain reaction after reaching your colon. Unfortunately, though, this is what is bound to happen when you have a largely misinformed public and a litigious culture that actually goes out of its way to find something to sue someone for. People hear “end of the world” and freak out. The world is not going to end because of this experiment; and even if it did, the planet would be crushed to the size of a ping-pong ball so quickly and violently that we wouldn’t even notice. Either way, there is no cause for alarm.

Long version: .........I’m getting cramps in my hands, so I’ll just suffice it to say that this issue is more nuanced and layered than can possibly be illuminated in one e-mail. The broadstroke is that this experiment will advance our understanding of the world and have long term impacts on future technologies unable to be predicted at this time. The laser was developed out of concepts that had been formulated hundreds of years prior to anyone ever envisioning such a device. And even when the laser was invented, nobody could have predicted the uses that we now have for it. Today’s seemingly trite nerdery is the groundwork for tomorrow’s next great technological achievement. The possibilities are endless; if we can only figure out how this damn universe works. We’ve come a long way from rubbing sticks together, but still have a long way to go.