Battle in Print: Particle physics is sexy!

David Perks


Marilyn Monroe is said to have had a thing for Albert Einstein. Sadly, it is unlikely they ever met. However, in recent times it seems the press have been more interested in Einstein’s womanising than in his contribution to physics. In an article entitled ‘E = Einstein, the galactic womaniser’, The Sunday Times claimed last year that Einstein was a ‘thoughtless man’ whose ‘celebrity and attraction to women always seemed to perplex him’ (Wavell 16.7.2006). Einstein is only deemed to be interesting in as much as we can uncover the secrets of his personal life, rather than for his contribution to laying bare the secrets of the universe.

This was not always the case. In 1919, when Arthur Eddington observed a solar eclipse off the coast of West Africa, he witnessed the gravitational lensing effect predicted by Einstein in his theory of general relativity. Overnight Einstein became a media sensation, with a headline in The Times proclaiming: ‘Revolution in Science: New Theory of the Universe: Newtonian Ideas Overthrown’ (cited in NASA 2006). When Einstein arrived in New York in 1921 he was mobbed by reporters. Fundamental physics had caught the public imagination in a ferment that spread across Europe and the US.

It is difficult to imagine such a reaction occurring today. The promise of science, once held to be that of a brighter future, has paled into insignificance compared with the post-modern scientific message of human culpability in our planet’s demise. It seems that it is just those aspirations of the modern era that have brought us closer to the abyss. Whether it is nuclear power and its threat to poison the air we breathe or genetic engineering and the threat it poses to biological diversity, science is held to be as much responsible for our ills as it is for progress. We have reached a particular impasse in which our view of science and of the future is clouded by uncertainty and doubt. The big scientific message we are offered today is the IPCC report on climate change which sets out to prove human causation in climate change and warns of the impending catastrophe we all face as a result.

It is hard to imagine ‘big physics’ creating the same stir today that Einstein provoked in the early twentieth century. Yet we are on the verge of a round of discoveries that has the potential to seriously challenge our view of the stuff from which the universe is made in ways we have not seen for nearly 30 years. The standard model of matter has remained more or less unchanged during the period since the discovery of the bottom quark in 1977 and the subsequent confirmation of the existence of the top quark in 1995. According to the accepted view, all matter in the universe is composed of six quarks and six leptons including the familiar electron. This highly successful model of matter is about to be tested at both CERN in Geneva and at Fermilab outside Chicago in the US.

If things go as predicted then you should expect to hear the name of Peter Higgs, a British physicist, a bit more. He predicted the existence of the ‘Higgs field’ in 1964 in a paper covering less than two pages (Higgs 1964). He attempted to explain the mass of the fundamental particles by their interaction with the Higgs field. Put crudely, we can imagine the universe as existing in a sea of ‘treacle’ and that all matter has to move through this sticky substance. The more the particles stick to it, the heavier they become. The trick is to find the ‘treacle’ - the Higgs field. The two competing physics labs are using incredibly powerful particle accelerators to create conditions energetic enough for the Higgs particle - the force particle of the Higgs field - to emerge for the briefest of instances. Unfathomably complicated detectors and their associated computing networks - the most powerful array of computing power ever before assembled - have to sift through the countless particles released from the debris of the accelerator collisions looking for the unique signature of the Higgs particle.

Its discovery will tell us much about the consistency of the standard model of matter and whether we need to drastically rethink our idea of what the universe is made of. This work could help point the way to understanding the so-called missing dark matter which according to astrophysicists makes up most of the universe, amongst other unresolved paradoxes (NASA 21.8.2006).

It is difficult to grasp that it is only just over 100 years since science finally accepted the atomic explanation of matter. In the intervening period our knowledge of physics has catapulted us forward at a phenomenal rate. Einstein’s 1905 papers lit the blue touch paper of modern physics and for most of the twentieth century new ideas have flowed thick and fast. However, the dynamism of the last century has petered out, leaving physics in danger of being sidelined as a historical curiosity, funded almost as a heritage project at a few select universities. No one really has a clear idea of what we are spending money on ‘big physics’ for any more. CERN received funding for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in the 1980s at about the same time that the US backed down from funding its own superconducting super collider (SSC) in 1993. The prospects for continuing the project will likely be called into question once the LHC has outlived its usefulness after a few years of operation. Are we witnessing the last gasps of the international accelerator programme in Europe and the US? Has particle physics run its course?

Competition with China may replace the old Cold War rivalries and reignite national pride in the US, as it has done at least momentarily for Bush in terms of his ‘vision for space exploration’ (White House 14.1.2004). The idea that the Chinese might actually go to the Moon would be bound to provoke the US to react. But there was always something different about fundamental physics research. It was never going to help with a missile programme or supply any weapons systems. Particle physics is a pure line of research whose promise for spin-offs is limited. The latter can hardly be held up as the reason for building $6bn accelerators. This is science carried out for its own sake on a big scale. There may be competition to be the first to win the prize, but the prize is knowledge, pure and simple.

It is justifying science for its own sake just to enhance our knowledge of the world around us that is perhaps the hardest task science faces today. In the UK the government is clearly concerned to promote science and is worried about the fall-off in undergraduates studying physics over the last couple of decades. The closure of university physics departments in Britain has left the subject working from a much smaller academic base, with nothing to suggest this trend is about to reverse. Such is the pressure on universities to both attract students and justify the existence of undergraduate courses that some universities are adopting courses which require no mathematical background or are as much an appreciation of physics as actually studying the subject with the potential to pursue research (NASA 10.10.2006).

At the school level, science has become so watered down that it is now thought a waste of time to teach academic science to the majority of pupils up to 16. Even the 11-13 science curriculum has been drastically reduced in terms of mandated content in favour of the development of so-called ‘critical skills’ (Waters 2007). These changes are usually justified in terms of the perceived lack of relevance of fundamental science education to young people. But the dreary diet of ‘relevant’ science being served up in schools today will hardly inspire anyone to make the effort to understand this difficult and demanding subject. Understanding microwaves in order to question whether mobile phones are dangerous to teenagers is hardly a satisfying way to begin comprehending electromagnetic waves. Physics is powerful because it is a set of abstract ideas that allow us to develop a much deeper understanding of nature far outside our common sense grasp of phenomena and their impact on our daily lives.

What gripped the popular consciousness about Einstein and his ground-breaking work on gravity was the ability not just of one man but of humanity to question our notions of physical reality and explore through science the very fabric of the universe. I would like to think that if enough young people get the chance to witness the feats of particle physics in its search for the constituents of matter in the next year or so they will be able to see beyond the limited horizons of today’s education and aspire to take on the challenge that science puts before us. What could be more attractive than that?

David Perks is head of physics at Graveney School in London. He is lead author of What Is Science Education For? (Academy of Ideas, 2006)

 References

Higgs, P.W. (1964). ‘Broken symmetries, massless particles and gauge fields’. Physics Letters 12 (2): 132-133.

IOP (10.10.2006). ‘Institute of Physics launches new science degrees’. Institute of Physics.

NASA (2006). ‘Einstein’. Technology Through Time 44. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa).

NASA (21.8.2006). ‘NASA finds direct proof of dark matter’. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) News Release.

Waters, M. (2007). ‘Science: an element of the curriculum’. Presentation to ASE conference. Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

Wavell, S. (16.07.2006). ‘E=Einstein, the galactic womaniser’. The Sunday Times

White House (14.1.2004). ‘President Bush announces new vision for space exploration program’. White House Office of the Press Secretary.

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"The Battle of Ideas sounds like it ought to be feisty - and it is."
Alyson Rudd, The Times