Saturday, February 21, 2015

particle fever

With football season over, there's finally time to catch up on all those things I've been putting off for the past 19 weeks. My wife and I got some solid watching done this past weekend, and now I've finally taken in the particle physics flick Particle Fever, which documents the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 at the LHC particle accelerator. The documentary premiered in 2013, but I suppose one benefit of procrastination is by the time I get around to watching anything, it's available for streaming on Netflix, so I'll chalk up another W right there. 

The film follows the travails of both experimentalists and theorists as the Large Hadron Collider, the world's preeminent facility for smashing two high-speed protons into each other, comes online 175 meters below the Franco-Swiss border. It does an excellent job showcasing why some of us dedicate substantial fractions of our lives for the benefit of scientific advancement, and I would highly recommend the film for both expert and layperson alike. Myself being a relative layperson as far as particle physics is concerned, will now attempt to explain and elucidate the future of this field, although Peter Woit of Not Even Wrong does a better job (as well as one I am inclined to agree with), albeit geared a more seasoned audience.

Animated GIFs work for football, shouldn't they do the same for science?

So why do geeks like me want to smash protons travelling almost the speed of light into each other? Well to discover new particles of course! The incredibly high energies (kinetic + rest mass) of these collisions allow ample decay channels through which new particles are elucidated by their detectable by-products. This happens much in the same way as one infers a mouse infestation by holes in the cereal bag (missing mass) and poop pellets in the cabinets (decay products). By statistically analyzing trillions or so of these collisions, scientists are able to confirm the existence of a new particle. 

Okay, that's great, but what's the big deal about this Higgs Boson? Isn't it some kind of God particle? First of all, the term 'God particle' is a Bowdlerization of 'The Goddamn Particle,' the original title of a 1993 book about the history of particle physics. This is why physicists reflexively treat anyone who misuses the term as someone without the cognizant faculties necessary to perform a Wikipedia search. The reason why it's so important, amplified by the couple-decade drought in particle discovery, is because it's the only undiscovered particle in the Standard Model of particle physics (the curious reader should watch this). The Standard Model is one of the most successful constructs in all of theoretical physics, yet because it has both a boring name and is very much at odds with Einstein's general theory of relativity, you won't often hear particle theorists touting its virtues. 

The movie follows theorists that have competing ideas about which theory should supplant the Standard Model, namely a duel between Supersymmetry and the Multiverse, as if one of them has to be correct. Spoiler Alert: In the end the Higgs boson is discovered (with concomitant Nobel Prize), yet falls between the predictions of both theories, confirming nothing except the boring ol' Standard Model. The next run of the LHC begins at the end of this year, and should be the final test of the Supersymmetry theory, which mandates the existence of more massive partner particles to the ones that have already been discovered. Though I don't really think the Multiverse will go away, or Superstring theory, or whatever, no matter what happens. The false reading of the B-modes in cosmic microwave background radiation from a year ago certainly didn't kill/revive any of these theories. And the biggest beef I have is that all of them where slapped across the face by the discovery of dark matter/energy, leading me to think once again experiment is ahead of theory. 

Did I mention that I also like to rub it in? The idea for the Higgs boson came to Peter Higgs from the BCS theory of superconductivity, and it is just emerging that the Higgs boson has been discovered in a solid state system. Now while these particles aren't quite the same as fundamental particles of nature, the collective action/correlation/emergence of electrons in solid state systems has been known to mimic all kinds of fundamental particles and their respective phenomena, including:

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