Feverish Over Particles
Some years ago, we were working on a project to find a very weak sound in a very noisy background using a device known as an adaptive line enhancer. We were using a spectrograph to determine if we’d been successful. The display placed a small bright dot at the location of the signal, which did not stand out before we processed the sounds. If the signal was found, the bright dot would rise above the background. One afternoon, we finally got the thing working and had quite a little celebration. The following day, Kevin, a programmer, told us that when his wife had asked him what he did at work, he told her, We got a little white dot to move about half an inch. Everyone got pretty excited. Of such descriptions, humility is born.
I felt a bit like our friend Kevin last night when I went to see the film, Particle Fever, at the Artsy-Farsty Theater. No, it is not about a disco for physicists … it is the story of the initial tests of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva Switzerland told through the eyes of six brilliant … and quite interesting … physicists. The Collider is the largest and most expensive experiment ever conducted by mankind with a purpose so esoteric that one wonders how the project ever happened. The fact that it was built by a multi-national consortium, including physicists from countries that are mortal enemies makes its completion even more astonishing. By any standard, the scale of the project is mind-boggling – the cost, number of people involved, the twenty-plus years needed to build it and its size. The Collider is built in an underground ring 17 miles in circumference with equipment over five stories high, mostly underground. These are electronics circuits on a grand scale, much of it hand built and soldered. According to Wikipedia, data collected from proton collisions were also anticipated to be produced at an unprecedented rate of tens of petabytes per year, to be analysed by a grid-based computer network infrastructure connecting 140 computing centers in 35 countries(by 2012 the LHC Computing Grid was the world’s largest computing grid, comprising over 170 computing facilities in a worldwide network across 36 countries. The initial goal of the LHC was to verify the existence of the Higgs boson particle, a cornerstone of what is known as The Standard Model.
The physicists’ enthusiasm and commitment are infectious and although they are clearly capable of speaking of the subject well beyond even above average intellects, they are quite articulate, sometimes even funny. One of them, asked by an economist what the economic benefit of the HLC, says this (I paraphase): I can give you two answers. One is that the economic benefits of pure science are never known until after discoveries are made. Radio waves were just a form of radiation when they were discovered. Or I can say that personally, I don’t give a damn. With pictures and simple analogies, the film almost makes you think you understand why the Higgs boson is so important to the Standard Theory and why its mass may determine whether the Standard Model or Multiverse theories are more likely. With most of the physicists having committed their lives to the Standard Model, it is intriguing to watch their reactions as data initially suggests that their life’s work is wrong. And it’s touching to see Peter Higgs, who hypothesized the particle in 1964, cry when the data confirmed he was right. How was it confirmed? As the data was processed over millions of collisions, a peak in the data gradually rose above the background. That’s when I thought of my friend, Kevin.
For me, the film raises philosophical questions, too. In discussing something called the Cosmological Constant, one physicist pointed out that even a small change in its value would change the universe dramatically, making it unstable and unsuitable for life. One could conclude that someone out there cared very much to make it just so, he said. But then he talked about the Multiverse model in which there are an infinity of universes with random values of the Cosmological Constant … we’re just fortunate to be where we are. Some questions seem to defy answers at every scale. It certainly raises questions as to whether such basic research is worth the cost in a world where people are starving. And watching the initial data show a heavy Higgs boson that gradually appeared lighter as more data was processed (providing more support for the Standard Model) made me wonder. If you spend twenty years and billions of dollars to prove the existence of a particle and support a theory that physicist want to be true, isn’t it likely to do just that?
It isn’t a film for everyone. If an episode of Nova sent you running from the room or induced a coma, skip it. But if you enjoy science, even at a Popular Science level, you’ll enjoy the film. And chances are if you’ve made it this far, you should catch Particle Fever.