Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Talk About Your 5-Sigma Events!

As of this moment, the NY Times's fourth-most emailed story is a survey of current doings in particle physics.

What's up with that?

It is a good article. The author, Dennis Overbye, always does a nice job demurkifying things. There's also a fun flavor of gossip running throughout -- one thread in the story has to do with physicists, their blogs, and the rumor mill therein.

A couple of weeks ago, on a "Science Saturday" edition of, physicist Sean Carroll talked about the frequent interest he sees, among laypersons, in what's happening on the cutting edge of research in his field. Even here in Amurrika. This "most emailed" ranking adds weight to his assertion. A real sign of hope, I'd call it.

By the way, the headline is "At Fermilab, the Race Is on for the 'God Particle'." (The term refers to a particle called the Higgs boson, the search for which cannot be called anything other than a holy grail for particle physics.) This made me think that was the explanation for the high ranking, but a moment later, I realized that just clicking on a link to a story with a catchy headline and making the effort to share it are two different things.

Also by the way: I thought Leon Lederman was the guy who came up the term "The God Particle." Overbye does not give a source. It could well be that he didn't write the headline, of course. Anybody know if Lederman was the originator of this phrase, or if he borrowed it from someone else?

Lederman did say he titled his book as such because the publisher wouldn't let him call it "The Goddam Particle." This is one of my favorite books of all time. If you want a more in-depth look at what Overbye's article discusses, this is a good place to go.


Sornie said...

It's all just a bit over my head, and by a bit I mean way, way, way, way, way over my head.

bjkeefe said...

Well, you know what Feynman said …

Anonymous said...

They left out the best Feynman quote of all, i.e., "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics"

bjkeefe said...

You're right, TC. That was the one I was thinking of, but it didn't pop up on a good site when I quickly Googled for the sake of my comment.

Unknown said...

It is amusing that the Standard Model so compellingly requires a Higgs boson, and so much would have to be scrapped if it weren't true, that I think most physicists just assume that there is such a particle.

Where have we heard this before (luminiferous aether, Aristotelian inertia, steady-state universe, parity symmetry)? The most interesting physical developments were always revolutionary and required (no don't say it! OK, I'll say it..) a paradigm shift.

I personally am hoping they don't find the Higgs boson, making CERN's Large Hadron Collider the most expensive boondoggle since the Big Dig in Texas (Boston too for that matter!)

bjkeefe said...

Good points, Dan, although there have been some particles that were discovered after theory predicted them. The positron comes immediately to mind. A quick look at this speech reminds me also of the pi-meson.

The speech, which was the presentation of an award given to Murray Gell-Mann, mostly details behaviors and interactions that Gell-Mann had predicted (the pi-meson wasn't his). In other words, he came up with a "glue" theory to make observations hang together coherently; he turned out to be right; Nobel Prize City.

I'm not at all in your camp about the SSC. Have you ever read Lederman's book (that I mentioned in the original post)? If not, I urge you to. Besides being a plain fun read, it completely changed my mind about the worthiness of these machines.

I admit that we do seem to be reaching a point of diminishing returns in the field of high-energy particle physics, and I'm made uncomfortable when contemplating what other research is going unfunded as a consequence. Still, I'm not rooting against the LHC.

P.S. (Paradigm Shift?) I do agree with you that the most interesting physical discoveries were unexpected. However, it's their unexpectedness that makes us call them the most interesting. I'd also argue that unexpected discoveries are usually made by people toiling away, just to move things one more step forward. For most workers, though, they just at best achieve that next small step, and incremental progress is not front page news.

Except when the president says we're making it, when we're really not. But that's another rant.

Anonymous said...

Mystery solved. You queried whether Lederman coined the appellation "God Particle" ... On page 22 of his book he says: "The Higgs boson is a primary reason for building the Super Collider. Only the SSC will have the energy necessary to produce and detect the Higgs boson, or so we believe. This boson is so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive, that I have given it a nickname: The God Particle.

Lederman claims to have personally given it the nickname. I have no reason to doubt him. I second your recommendation of the book. Very well written and anyone smarter than George Bush can understand and enjoy it even with next to no physics background.

bjkeefe said...

Hey, thanks for noting that reference, TC!

I'm also glad to hear another fan of this book step up and shout out. (I now remember that we've talked offline about this.)