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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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