Broad strokes and big dreams.

by Justin

It’s been days of dense, often incomprehensible science. Thrilling, magical, and unlikely. The theoretical madness of particle physics becomes so much more real when you’re face to face with the machinery designed to unravel the universe into its fundamental components. The LHC detectors are more swoon-worthy than you can imagine.

Much, much more on that to come. Complete with photos and videos and all that goodness. But when I sat down to write this evening, I was more interested in communicating the value of the work here at CERN. That puzzle is the reason physicists here will find time to talk to a budding journalist. They want to sell the product that fills them with passion and pleasure. A pursuit that inspired a 27 kilometer underground tunnel that collides hadrons.

Into a stream of consciousness, saving the physics for another day:

Broad Strokes and Big Dreams

Children ask questions to serve their own curiosity. So do grownups, but we tend to have a narrower curiosity-band. By and large, adults I know ask questions with the expectation that the information will be useful. The answer may or may not generate more questions, but wouldn’t it be lovely if it didn’t?

Kids play by different rules.

A question often necessitates another unanticipated question, and answers are seldom sufficient. This is, of course, not a universal quality among children. But it’s useful to consider the way children are struck by the unknown and want to understand it. Maybe fear is a motivator, maybe pure curiosity. Maybe they throw out a series of “whys” with such skill because they are unencumbered by any awareness of the limits of knowledge.

Maybe it helps that none of the questions are designed to answer the demand of bills, occupations, healthcare, blah blah blah.

Diving into particle physics requires the same suspension of disbelief. The dream-machines puttering around CERN embraced the limitless potential of knowledge a long time ago.

Maybe it’s because I represent the press, but scientists are reluctant to make pronouncements with any kind of categorical certainty. Any truth is qualified. This not only makes it difficult to conjure a headline, but it encourages complexity and further alienates an already alienated public.

This narrative is wandering, but stay with me. A kid that asks why repeatedly will ultimately exhaust most people’s patience. Fair enough. Often the questions become more of a game than a genuine pursuit.

But the nature of theoretical physics (and a thousand other experimental fields) is to mount question on question. The known immediately summons the unknown. Secrets hide in the shadow of every discovery. The brilliant minds here at CERN gamble on that unknown.

So they respond to simple questions with a series of maybes, of well-reasoned predictions based on theoretical models. But accepting scientifix uncertainty is difficult for a public already intimidated by the physics field. For journalists, it demands that you leave a dozen loose ends in your story.

The challenge, then, is to not just accept the question as worthy in its own right, but to encourage the embrace of pure science. Journalists have to honor both the poetry and the mathematical elegance of physics.

And we must invite the masses to ask: Why am I massive?

There are many obstacles to making that question sexy. It’s not as though ignorance regarding the origins of mass prevents us from holding our shapes or holding a sandwich. The universe works, we work, so why decode this phenomenon?

Fair enough. It’s not an applied science – not immediately, at least. But bare in mind that MRI machines and the World Wide Web are two byproducts of the mad science of particle collisions.

So curiosity isn’t enough. Pure science isn’t enough. It should be. Awareness is its own thrilling reward. But we live in a world of cherished ignorance, so that’s not the best angle to work.

The best pitch I’ve heard in defense of the work here at CERN and at the colliding masterpiece that is the Large Hadron Collider still relies upon a bit of imagination.

In 1897 J.J. Thomson worked some magic with cathode rays and discovered the electron, a building block of the atom. He divided the indivisible into something more fundamental.

Science lost it’s footing and stumbled into an unknown world of wonder.

There are a number of perhaps apocryphal stories about the immediate wake of that discovery.

One, related to me by CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector coordinator Gigi Rolandi, went something like this.

When knighting Thomson in 1908, the Queen of England asked him how this ‘electron’ might ever be useful.

She appreciated the excitement in the science community, but wondered how the revolution might benefit more than academia.

Thomson answered honestly. He could see no immediate application. In fact, he suspected it was largely worthless beyond the pursuits of pure science.

But he threw the queen of bone. If someone found some clever use for the electron it would yield new inventions, and the crown might very well tax them.

The electron gave birth to the electronic age. And, after a fashion, to the atomic age. No discovery in history may have contributed more to the rapid development of our society in the past century.

Will the Higgs boson offer similar applications? Who knows? It’s unlikely, sure. But that was the opinion on the electron, which is driving the generation of every thing on this screen. And all those turn-of-the-century geniuses were wrong as wrong could be.

The blog will move into the actual science of particle accelerators in the coming days, and I’ll lean on the engineers and theorists to explain it themselves. This was a post about curiosity and its poor market value.

I’ll close with a point about naming your particles. Higgs makes a fine last name. It isn’t the catchiest title for a fundamental component of the universe.

Higgs who?

That’s not a stab at Peter Higgs. Listen, I would not dream of challenging the imagination or genius of the ballers in this field. But the Higgs boson? The Higgs field? Why in a sea of quarks, leptons, muons, gluons, neutrinos, photons, and whatever other nonsense, would physicists adopt a name?

And Higgs was not the only theorist doing similar work in the early ‘60s, and word on the street is that some of those gentlemen are/were less than thrilled to be left out. Some six slayers were proposing a similar mass-granting mechanism. But Higgs proposed the particle, and the rest is history and headlines.

But if Thomson had named the electron the Thomson(on), we’d be living in the age of advanced Thomsonics. To the credit of his contemporaries, they rejected calling it a corpuscle, as Thomson himself did. Electron won out in the end. And that name is all kinds of sexy.

But Higgs boson? Why not invent something? Call it the masson. Or the interaxon, or zazion, or whatever you want. Hell, call it the sexon and grab those headlines.

Don’t, members of the media, call it the “God particle” if you can help it. It isn’t the most popular parlance among physicists. Even though one of their own, Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, coined it.