Theoretical dreams

by Justin

After an over-long hiatus from blogging and my particular brand of unsubstantiated opinion slinging, I’ve decided to bring this beast back into action.

The gap in writing was filled with local reporting in Chicago and the (attempted) cultivation of “hard news” skills. This involves direct acquisition of information, attribution of anything resembling fact or opinion, and the precise excision of bias. Bias was my angle on this blog in the past and reckless opinion was my style. The reporting of my first quarter in grad school built some new fundamental skills while personal style starved on the sidelines. C’est la guerre.

But now I’m a full time science reporter (student, mostly), covering theoretical physics during most of the week. This is too dreamy. This is the stuff of atom-smashing and event horizons, of antimatter and dark energy. And Chicagoland hosts some of the world’s preeminent experts in these fields. For a few more months at least, the second most powerful particle accelerator in the world, Fermilab’s Tevatron, will operate in Batavia, Ill. – that’s right around the corner.

Until last Monday, physicists all over the world believed the massive atom-smasher had good shot at unveiling the elusive “God particle,” or mass-endowing Higgs boson. Incidentally, most physicists (even though Nobel laureate Leon Lederman coined the phrase) much prefer Higgs to any of that “God” nonsense. But it’s useful for journalists looking for headlines that might attract the interest of more than just nerds. On Monday the Department of Energy announced that funding couldn’t be found to keep the miraculous Tevatron running.

You can read my silver-lining account of what the decision heralds for Fermilab and for the direction of physics in the United States right here: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=176037

This was big news for physics and the most thrilling frontier sciences. And I had an excuse to learn about neutrinos, which are more awesome than you might guess.

Another story that I’ll plug on hear explores enhanced precision in the measurements of dark energy. This, to borrow from my sister, is the kind of science that is so big and so densely mysterious that it sounds like poetry as often as it does physics. The phenomenon of dark energy, proven to exist in 1998 and comprising some 73 percent of the universe, is the greatest mystery in astrophysics. Unraveling the mystery will reveal the future of the cosmos. No exaggeration.

Here’s the story of a new study that promises a deeper understanding of the color of supernovae and what that means for dark energy: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=176269

One caveat: my editor demanded significant organizational shifts that I believe only served to muddy the natural flow of the piece. And it even obscured the science, I think. But I am, honestly, still a piss-poor judge of “news” style.

As a final shameless plug, more for science reporting than my work, note the quotations from astrophysicist Michael Turner in the piece on dark energy. The New York Times ran a story yesterday on the Tevatron closing quoting the same source. That’s what I mean about being able to talk to the biggest figures in the field. I’m not suggesting that I’ll get Stephen Hawking on the phone, but I’ll get the experimental physicist whose work Hawking spins into magic.

As for this blog. I’m accumulating information that on its own might not warrant a full story, but is nonetheless fascinating and revelatory. So now and again I’ll do a brief article on things like 3-D atomic imaging techniques or particles that miraculously assemble into complex helices after the introduction of salt.

And finally, I’m breathing life back into this in anticipation of a blog-worthy sojourn back into the lands of ice and snow. Yes, I live in those lands right now, but I’m talking about the dreamland of snow-capped peaks and wonder.

In a few weeks I get to visit Switzerland and walk the hallowed halls of the most complex machine ever built: CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Can you believe it?! I’ll be reporting on the hunt for the Higgs, among other wonders, and exploring whatever nonsense those supreme nerds are getting into. You know, colliding particles and generating the conditions of the universe moments after the Big Bang. Blogging about the experience seems like the right thing to do.

Until then, I’ll keep posting on the science stories I encounter that are beautiful or unlikely enough that more than the usual crowd may be interested.  As Einstein understood (on some divine, intuitive level he understood everything), there are great sublime truths in science. The underlying rhyme and reason of the cosmos is stunning and seductive. I’ll do what I can to communicate that magic without my own nonsense clouding the image.

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