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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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Mayan pyramids and the LHC

Today’s New York Times features an article on the front page of the Week in Review section by James Glanz, who holds a PhD in physics and is just coming off a stint as The Times’s Baghdad bureau chief. (Tooting my own horn here, but I met the guy once myself. He’s done some great reporting and explanatory journalism on the physics and engineering behind the collapse of the World Trade Center towers after the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks.) He describes a recent visit to an incomplete Mayan pyramid, which was apparently mysteriously abandoned by its builders, and compares it to the Large Hadron Collider. “As a former physicist, I thought of the Large Hadron Collider, another grandiose structure with cosmic aspirations and earthbound problems that could thwart its ambitions,” he writes.

Of course, I must take some exception to his analysis. He suggests that perhaps there could be a draining of effort and enthusiasm from the project due to the current delays and the recently-announced startup beam energy. We haven’t seen anything like that take place — all the experimenters are as eager as ever to continue our work and make this project a success, as soon as possible. The scientific arguments for running the LHC remain as compelling as ever. (To his credit, Glanz quotes various sources who express little concern about his suggestions.)

He also implicitly suggests that our current theories of particle physics are a “belief system” that is threatened in such a way that support for the project could erode. To be sure, he does not explicitly say such a thing at all, but I fear that his words could be read as I describe. The standard model of particle physics is more than a belief system — it is a well-tested theory that makes predictions that have been tested by experiments, in some cases to precisions of parts in a million.

Read for yourself and decide, but this has not exactly been a good week for the LHC in my hometown paper, as evidenced here and here. It is true that we still have a challenging road ahead of us to get the accelerator and the experiments working, and that it could take us a long time to fully understand the new physics that we expect to discover, but let’s try to be optimistic!

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