Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Searching For The Elusive God Particle

Animation courtesy MSNBC

A Grand Physics Experiment Is Underway

During the physics class, it would amuse me no end when our lecturer would jot down a few equations on the board, and then proceed to tell us pompously how one equation followed from the other, "quite logically". For the life of me, I could never figure out quite how the logical progression happened. My more intelligent peers would nod understandingly, in a way that intelligent people nod when they hear something profound, which made me feel even more sheepish. It was much later when I replaced the word "logic" in his content with "empirical observations", that I began to understand the connection.

Image by MSNBC

Actually once you realize that entire science is based on empirical observations, and that scientists use them to formulate a set of axioms which you decide to believe in, then understanding all their gobbledygook becomes very easy. The trick is to be always aware what these guys construe as axiom and what they construe as hypothesis. The interesting part of the game is, that what was considered an absolute, irrefutable axiom till yesterday (remember that light was supposed to travel in a straight line?), becomes shaky today.

Image courtesy MSNBC

And these physicists are now seeking to create a toy for themselves. This toy is in the form of a pair of pipes being laid in a circle-shaped tunnel about one hundred meters underground between the borders of Switzerland and France. The tunnel has a circumference of 27 kilometers, and a diameter of 3.8 meters. So the toy is, uh, kinda huge. Goes by the fancy name of "Large Hadron Collider" too. Obviously somebody grew up on a diet of science fiction and Asimov. What the wise men and women will do with the pipes is to start a beam of sharply focused light in each of the two pipes. The beams, steady streams of protons bunched together, will be guided to travel in opposite directions such that they collide with each other at four points in the journey.

And pray what will happen as a result of the collision? The theory - or the hope - is that it will result in the creation of a special particle of mass that is heavy by subatomic standards. This particle is technically called the Higgs Boson particle, which a physicist in a particularly eloquent mood christened "the God particle".

Amazon Image, book cover by Leon Lederman

They say the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment seeks to recreate the early stage of the Universe's conception, you know, just as the crown was about to come out. The existence of the particle will be proved when the contraption's computers detect its decay. Not when it has been formed, but after having formed, when it begins decaying. How ironic. And what if its existence is proved? The scientists will pat each other on the back that their theory about God has been proved right. This queue please for the Nobel. And if its existence is not proved? Well, they will still pat themselves on the back on the theory continuing to remain to be proved. Tomorrow is going to be yet another day, and so yet another toy.

[The 'November 26, 2007' mentioned in the narrative above was the earlier date of launch of the LHC]

There are a few doomsday predictors who think the whole experiment might unleash something evil and macabre which might even gobble up the earth whole. Now haven't we heard this line before? In another age, another time?

We ordinary mortals really shouldn't mind these scientists and their toys. For it was their little games that gave us all these material comforts. You know, the bulb and the AC and the oven and the car and the TV and the computer and the internet and the cell phone and ... So what's a few billion dollars here and there?

image by evobrained, sxc.hu

The show is scheduled to begin sometime in June 2008. So take the ringside seat folks, get that popcorn bag and the Coke, and get ready for a face-to-face with this God particle! Hopefully we will live to tell the tale to the grandchildren.

image by criswatk, sxc.hu

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