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Flip Tanedo | USLHC | USA

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The Joy of Physics

Dennis Overbye, the New York Times reporter with a physics degree from MIT and the newspaper’s local LHC expert, wrote a nice essay about the joy of doing physics. In it, he goes through the usual question of why anybody but physicists should care about the LHC. He goes through all the usual arguments that fundamental research in high energy physics has led to all sorts off spin-off technologies, including MRIs and PET scans that now play prominent roles in medical science. He goes on, however, to write

But better medical devices are not why we build these machines that eat a small city’s worth of electricity to bang together protons and recreate the fires of the Big Bang. Better diagnoses are not why young scientists spend the best years of their lives welding and soldering and pulling cable through underground caverns inside detectors the size of New York apartment buildings to capture and record those holy fires. They want to know where we all came from, and so do I.

And I think this is the point that people don’t seem to understand when talking to physicists. People don’t don’t devote their lives to fundamental research for possible spin-off technologies or fame or money. The reason that people do science is the unbridled curiosity to understand what makes the universe tick.

This doesn’t get said enough, probably because it sounds so corny, but there’s something very wonderful about being able to ask nature how it works. Physicists feel like there’s nothing more noble than this pursuit of scientific truth, and it says something bright about our society that it values these pursuits enough to support them.

Along with other bastions of culture such as the arts or history, our scientific progress — how we understand the universe — is an indelible part of who we are. In college I took a course on Meso-American Archaeology, and I would wonder, why would anybody today care about Mayan cosmology? (Other than desperate movie producers.) The answer is that it tells us more about the Mayans as a people and how they understood their place within existence. What will our science tell future societies about us?

For every day people, this is the beauty of understanding that protons are made of quarks or that a fantastic phenomenon called the “electroweak phase transition” occurred early in the universe: it enriches our lives by putting it in the ultimate context.

Unlike our grandparents (or even parents, for those a bit older), we can definitively say based on the scientific method that we are made up of mostly empty space, but the stuff that isn’t empty is a wonderfully complex scaffolding of atoms, which in turn are made up of a lattice of nuclei surrounded by a gas of electrons. These nuclei are held together by a force so strong that separating the components of a nucleon produces a shower of additional particles that weren’t actually “inside” the original object but are only created from the exchange of virtual (not quite physical) particles. These subatomic, despite being very small, played key roles in the development of the billions of galaxies in the universe when it inflated early in its lifetime: the little quantum fluctuations in the primordial plasma gave rise to the large scale structure we see in the sky. Further, the universe is still expanding today. So here we are: little carbon-based life forms on a chunk of rock that developed sentience only few million years ago, and we are able to know these magnificent things.

If that’s not simultaneously humbling and self-congratulatory, I don’t know what is.

Happy New Year everyone,
Flip, US/LHC blog

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5 Responses to “The Joy of Physics”

  1. Andrew says:

    I really enjoy reading your blog, especially your articles on physics. Keep it up.

    Greetings from Greece and Ukraine.

    Happy New Year!

  2. Michael says:

    Hi Flip,

    you expand upon Overbye’s article very nicely. I particularly like the double-parallel with Mayan cosmology, and the connection of proton structure, energy/mass equivalence and modern cosmology. You even manage to make a salute to human-kind, quite appropriate for the beginning of the new year and the first real year of LHC running!

    bravo!
    Michael

  3. Jon says:

    “we can definitively say based on the scientific method that we are made up of mostly empty space, ”

    How can that be definitively said given how much is still not known about the universe?
    What could be said is “using the scientific method, we are all apparently made up of mostly empty space”.

  4. Flip Tanedo says:

    You’re absolutely right Jon. The technically correct expression that I should have said is something like:

    “we can say that there is overwhelming experimental evidence”

    To be even more technically accurate, one could include a confidence level with which we associate our overwhelming experimental evidence. This number would be something like 99.99 …. 9 percent, where the “…” represents a lot of nines. The fact that this number is so large means that we will effectively always operate under these assumptions.

    The statement that protons are made of quarks is a statement with so much experimental evidence (i.e. no evidence against despite many experiments) that it is as sensible for a physicist to say “protons are made of quarks” with no further qualification as it is for a person to say that Bill Clinton was the 42nd president.

    The point I want to make is that ‘loose’ phrases sometimes have to be used when speaking in a non-technical context. This is part of the reason why there was this ridiculous “LHC-will-end-the-world” media nonsense: some physicist was being technically correct and said that there is a possibility that a black hole will eat the universe. This might be a technically correct statement, but the confidence with which it is said is so small that you could make other nonsensical-but-technically-correct statements (e.g. Bill Clinton wasn’t really the 42nd president… it was actually Bob Dole, but every single encyclopedia and media outlet made gross errors over the past 17 years).

    So in short, yes, I was playing it loose with my language, but I stand by it because these statements are made with such scientific certainty that they are effectively truths, and certainly so in colloquial discourse.

  5. K.C. says:

    Thanks for the article, and reminding me of why I am studying physics. :)
    Since my grad school, I did not really think about why I am here.

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