That What Was Demonstrated


It's been a long time since I studied particle physics in my spare time at university. However, as it looks like the clever people at CERN will soon be publishing photos of their new baby - the delightfully named Higgs Boson - I thought I ought to get caught up with some background theory so that I will be ready to fully appreciate the revelations around their new arrival.

I can remember being enthralled learning about the discovery of quarks, with their wonderful properties of charm, beauty, and (best of all) strangeness. And I still haven't figured out why they thought that changing the name of the "beauty" quark to "bottom" quark was a good idea. Maybe they just needed something to counter the "top" quark. But it's the Higgs that is the focus of interest now; and it may even provide the answers to all those questions about life, the universe, and everything. In particular, it will tell us why things are heavy. And, maybe, why we are here at all.

See, that's the odd part. For years physicists have been telling us that there isn't enough matter in the Universe; supposedly 75% of it is missing and has to be accounted for as the mysterious "dark matter" that astronomers keep saying they've seen fleeting glimpses of, but nobody can really figure out what it is and whether these astronomers are just making it up as they go along.

Yet now, as we seek the furtive and enigmatic Higgs particle, the same physicists are telling us that there's actually too much matter in the Universe. In theory the Big Bang should have generated equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, and these should have spontaneously annihilated each other so there was nothing left. Supposedly we're only here because of the Higgs making some stuff a bit heavier and clumpy during the first few minutes of creation. Mind you, heavy and clumpy is a pretty neat description of my aging physique these days - maybe I somehow got an extra dose of Higgs in the past.

So, anyway, over the last few weeks I've accumulated a small pile of (thankfully math-free) books on the general topics around what is now call Quantum Electrodynamics, or QED. This clever use of abbreviations (from the Latin "Quod Erat Demonstrandum", meaning "which was to be demonstrated") is presumably designed to show that they already know all the answers. Although it turns out that there are a couple of additional theories doing the rounds as well. Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) suggests that quarks come in three colors; red, green, and blue. Though technically these are just theoretical properties - they don't, it seems, show up in different colors in the photographs.

And Supersymmetry, usually abbreviated to just "Susy", adds lots of new particles to the possible list. Now there are squarks as well as quarks, selectrons, photinos, sleptons (the ones that are all crinkled), and even winos (probably these are the ones that follow an indeterminate wandering path through the detectors). Presumably there'll be a shiggs particle to hunt for as well.

But getting back to the books, one of the most fascinating is "The God Particle" by Leon Lederman. Or, as the strapline says, "If The Universe Is The Answer, What Is The Question?" In this book, as well as the history of this area of physics and the underlying scientific theory, Mr. Lederman talks about how they had to cut up an old US warship to get enough metal to surround the particle detector with a five feet thick iron shield. And how the computer geeks in the lab had to create programs that can analyze one megabyte of data arriving from the detector every millionth of a second.

He also quotes the following wonderful phrase taken from the thesis of one of his students: "This field of physics is so virginal that no human eyeball has ever set foot in it." I've decided that, here at p&p, we should incorporate more of this kind of enlightening phraseology into our guidance. We could start with "The web server will emit HTTP packets like a bullet from a catapult." Or "Initial configuration is as easy as falling off a hot tin roof." And for our current project on Windows Azure hybrigation techniques, how about "Components should fit the architecture like a hand in a pocket, have functional concerns that are as different as chalk and chocolate, and run like a cheater."

In the meantime, I wonder if some scientists will celebrate the forthcoming breakthrough in physics when naming their offspring. I'm fully expecting to hear of twins called Susy and Higgs Boson quite soon...

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