MAD SCIENCE!!! Psychedelic God Particles

Oct 29 2010 Published by under [Physical Science], What I'm Reading

First, I am a physician-scientist. I love squishy, biological stuff, things I can hold and see, even if I need an electron microscope to accomplish that visualization.

Second, when I started the BA/MD program at University of Missouri-Kansas City, there were two majors that were easy to achieve along the way, biology and chemistry. I chose biology because I loved it, but also because I did not have to take physics. See, physics always bored me. And subatomic particle physics? Puh-lease!

The next frontiers of nephrology have sort of a mad science quality to them. Transplant tolerance, xenotransplantation, and completely implantable artificial kidneys - I can't get more mad-scientist than that! I mean, we already take the organs from dead people and use them on a daily basis!!! So what was I to do for our Halloween theme?

A couple of weeks ago, I received an advance copy of Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science (ISBN 978-0-465-01947-2)by Ian Sample, a science correspondent for The Guardian. The book presents a history of subatomic particle physics focusing on the search for Higgs boson, sometimes called the God particle. I figured I was a perfect reviewer for the book: educated enough, but definitely not a physics geek (see the second point above).

The book starts out with Higgs on sabbatical in North Carolina. He has just described a theory to explain mass in the universe. It is built on the work of others, but also argues for a novel particle that provides that mass. The early chapters jump around a bit, from the ideas of Newton up through the early 1960s. Eventually it manages to explain the progress in physics, especially in the subatomic realm. For those of us who are not physicists, studying subatomic particles depends on ramming streams of high energy together and then detecting what is formed or, more often, what breaks down. The initial accelerators were small bench-top devices, but they could not achieve the levels of energy necessary to find quarks or confirm the existence of "the weak force." Eventually, scientists came together in a number of centers to develop giant collaborative colliders of various types. Notable centers include Fermilabs near Chicago, Brookhaven on Long Island, and CERN on the border of France and Switzerland. Having lived in Chicago in the late 1980s, the chapters dealing with the competition for the next generation US facility, the Superconducting Super Collider, were especially interesting to me. I recall news stories discussing the potential economic impact of the facility, as well as the public's fears of it. Eventually the project went to a site in Texas, and it ultimately got cancelled.

So what is Higgs boson and how does it give mass to stuff? In 1993, William Waldegrave, a British science minister, called on physicists to explain this "God particle" to lay people. The winner was David Miller, a physicist at University College London:

Imagine a cocktail party full of MPs [members of Parliament] who are evenly distributed around the room, all talking to their nearest neighbours. All of a sudden, a woman appears at the door. When the politicians look over, they realise it is none other than the former prime minister herselof, Margaret Thatcher. As she walks through the room, those of you nearby forget what you were arguing about and form a cluster around her. By gathering around her, you impede her progress, you slow her down. It's as if she's become heavier.

One of my favorite parts of the book surrounds public fears over these giant scientific toys. The public feared that colliders might produce a black hole that could destroy the earth instantaneously. When Scientific American received letters asking about this in 1999, the editors asked Frank Wilczek to provide a reply. He allayed fears of black holes, but offered up the strangelet:

Carbon 12 (left) and Strangelet 12 (right) from Yale Physics

Usually, when the ions collide, the quarks that are released huddle back together and form harmless subatomic particles. This time, they recombine in a way scientists considered so unlikely they ruled out the possibility of it ever taking place. The unusual speck of matter is flung out of the main accelerator chamber and gets lodged in a giant magnet surrounding one of the detectors.

Once embedded, the fragment behaves in a curious manner. It begins to attract and engulf the atoms around it. As it swells in size, it brushes up against more and more of its atomic neighbors and consumes those too. When it has grown to the size of an ordinary atom, it falls unnoticed to the laboratory floor, where it promptly sinks through the concrete and into the ground.

Out of sight, the growing shard spirals down toward the center of our spinning planet, transforming matter as it goes and releasing enough heat to melt rock and ore. Before long, the ground beneath southeastern New York City starts to shudder and creak in a terrible process that pulls in more and more of our world. Later, after cities have folded and oceans boiled away, the planet crunches in on itself. All that is left of Earth is a quite, hot ball of matter that could sit inside PNC Park in Pittsburgh without touching the sides.

Makes me feel better to think about that scenario. After publication of the issue, scientists had some damage control to do with the public. Seriously, the strangelet sounds like something out of a Tim Burton flick or a bad psychedelic drug experience, not a product of intense mathematical calculations by PhD's with pocket protectors.

Alas, the book seems incomplete because the Higgs boson still eludes detection. When the Large Hadron Collider opens at CERN, the Higgs particle will be a primary goal for its scientists. Higgs himself is retired. He hopes that eventually his theory is confirmed; he suspects we will find a whole family of Higgs particles that will open wide new frontiers for exploring the nature of matter and our universe.

For those of us with curiosity but little background in such matters, Massive provides a welcome introduction to the world inside the atom.

Now, how can I dress as a strangelet for the trick-or-treaters on Sunday? It's the scariest thing I can think of...

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