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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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Theory and experiment come together — bazinga!

Regular readers of Quantum Diaries will know that in the world of particle physics, there is a clear divide between the theorists and the experimentalists. While we are all interested in the same big questions — what is the fundamental nature of our world, what is everything made of and how does it interact, how did the universe come to be and how might it end — we have very different approaches and tools. The theorists develop new models of elementary particle interactions, and apply formidable mathematical machinery to develop predictions that experimenters can test. The experimenters develop novel instruments, deploy them on grand scales, and organize large teams of researchers to collect data from particle accelerators and the skies, and then turn those data into measurements that test the theorists’ models. Our work is intertwined, but ultimately lives in different spheres. I admire what theorists do, but I also know that I am much happier being an experimentalist!

But sometimes scientists from the two sides of particle physics come together, and the results can be intriguing. For instance, I recently came across a new paper by two up-and-coming physicists at Caltech. One, S. Cooper, has been a noted prodigy in theoretical pursuits such as string theory. The other, L. Hofstadter, is an experimental particle physicist who has been developing a detector that uses superfluid liquid helium as an active element. Superfluids have many remarkable properties, such as friction-free flow, that can make them very challenging to work with in particle detectors.

Hofstadter’s experience in working with a superfluid in the lab gave him new ideas about how it could be used as a physical model for space-time. There have already been a number of papers that posit a theory of the vacuum as having properties similar to that of a superfluid. But the new paper by Cooper and Hofstadter take this theory in a different direction, positing that the universe actually lives on the surface of such a superfluid, and that the negative energy density that we observe in the universe could be explained by the surface tension. The authors have difficulty generating any other testable hypotheses from this new theory, but it is inspiring to see how scientists from the two sides of physics can come together to generate promising new ideas.

If you want to learn more about this paper, watch “The Big Bang Theory” tonight, February 5, 2015, on CBS. And Leonard and Sheldon, if you are reading this post — don’t look at the comments. It will only be trouble.

In case you missed the episode, you can watch it here.

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