Why does Particle Physics matter?

“[S]cience is not a consumption good to be expanded in good times and restricted in bad times. The doing of science as well as the supporting of science is an expression of faith in the future. It would have been possible to have told Newton and Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg that, given the poverty and squalor around them, their research were luxuries which could not be afforded. To have done so would be to destroy the economic c progress that came out of their science and which was the main factor in relieving that poverty and squalor. We seem to be on the verge of saving one percent but sacrificing untold scientific discoveries and their unpredictable economic benefits.” -Leon Lederman

The Universe is a remarkable place, full of wonder on scales large, small, and everywhere in between.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and A. Evans.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and A. Evans.

What we learn about those scales isn’t limited by our curiosity; history has proven pretty solidly that so long as there are unexplained phenomena or unanswered questions, people will try and find the best explanations and answers. Even when we have good ones, we’ll always be searching for simpler, more elegant, and more complete solutions.

Image credit: Contemporary Physics Education Project (CPEP).

Image credit: Contemporary Physics Education Project (CPEP).

I’ve talked at length about why I think we should invest in science, but what I don’t often talk about is my first experience with science and scientific research.

Image credit: CERN, via http://kjende.web.cern.ch/kjende/en/wpath_lhcphysics1.htm.

Image credit: CERN, via http://kjende.web.cern.ch/kjende/en/wpath_lhcphysics1.htm.

Before I became an astrophysicist, before the largest scales and questions in the Universe became my passion, before any of that, I had to learn about “the basics,” which meant getting a solid foundational education in all of physics. And the first hands-on research opportunity that came my way — the first chance I had to work with real data, real equipment, the full, modern theories and real, current research — came at what was then the most powerful particle accelerator in the world: Fermilab.

Image credit: Fermilab, Reidar Hahn.

Image credit: Fermilab, Reidar Hahn.

(Full disclosure: the main injector ring, shown in the foreground, was not completed when I worked there!)

That was back in 1997. Sixteen years later, it’s been surpassed in energy by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and it was shut down a little under two years ago. Since that time, there has been no effort to probe the energy frontier in the United States, and it looks like there’s unlikely to be going forward into the future. Despite hopes for the dream machine that I’d advocate for, there has been very little political or economic initiative to keep cutting-edge particle physics alive in this country.

Image credit: Wikipedia user Ich weiß es nicht, of the defunct SSC site.

Image credit: Wikipedia user Ich weiß es nicht, of the defunct SSC site.

But particle physics matters! It’s the way we understand, at the smallest, highest-energy, most fundamental level what makes up all the matter and energy of the Universe! And there’s been a wonderful initiative undertaken by Fermilab, SLAC, and the U.S. Department of Energy to bring some of the best reasons — the reasons why particle physics matters — to everyone.

Image credit: Symmetry Magazine.

Image credit: Symmetry Magazine.

Starting today, you can publicly view the 29 brave particle physicists who’ve stepped up to create a video explaining, in their own (very personal) words, why particle physics matters to them. Some of these have been inspiring to me, and I’m pleased to be able to share them with you, and to highlight some of my favorites.

There’s Markus Luty’s take, which I can totally relate to. When you have passion for what you do, for what you’re trying to do, you not only want to be able to do it, you want others to share in that joy as well.

There’s Robin Erbacher’s passionate plea, which (at least at the time this article’s being written) is the most viewed — and deservedly so, IMO — of all the videos up there.

There’s Heidi Schellman’s words of wisdom, which hold a special place in my heart, considering she was one of my very first physics professors at college. Because of her, I’ve always known exactly why relations like Gauss’ Law and Birkhoff’s Theorem cannot apply to systems of discrete particles, and I hope I’ve been able to pass on what I’ve learned from her (and others) in just as clear a way as she passed it on to me.

There’s also JoAnne Hewett’s tale of why particle physics matters to her. You may recognize JoAnne as a science communicator in her own right from her contributions at Cosmic Variance (among other places), and she gives a great, timeless perspective here.

Symmetry has also put together a best of compilation from all of the 29 videos, which you can watch below.

And finally, there’s a contest! Symmetry has chosen five videos to compete for the best explanation of why do particle physicists do what they do, and why it’s important for everyone. Here they are, in no particular order, with links to the voting below each video:

Breese Quinn, from the University of Mississippi.

Elizabeth Worcester, from Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Hugh Lippincott, from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Peter Winter, from Argonne National Laboratory.

Dhiman Chakraborty, from Northern Illinois University.

Go ahead and vote for your favorite and please, enjoy all the videos, and remember why scientists (and physicists in particular) do what we do, and how important it is to not just our development of knowledge, but to the long-term growth and prosperity of our world, and all the people in it.

Comments

  1. #1 Julian Frost
    Gauteng East Rand
    August 20, 2013

    Hello Ethan,
    I don’t know if this is the appropriate place to put this, but I saw a news story that I thought you would be able to explain or shoot down.
    It seems that Professor Christof Wetterich at the University of Heidelberg has questioned the Big Bang hypothesis.
    http://www.timeslive.co.za/thetimes/2013/08/20/big-bang-idea-shot-down.
    Thanks.

  2. #2 steve
    August 20, 2013

    I’m tired of particle physicists hyping themselves and their work. The energy and size scales at which quarks and gluons and many other subatomic particles exist make them fairly inaccessable on this planet, and I can imagine no pratical application for this knolwedge – nor have I heard of any.

    I agree the particle physics is worthy of study, but please tell me why particle physics should get more funding than something like solar cells. The funding priorities seem wrong.

  3. #3 Wow
    August 20, 2013

    Well, I feel dumber just after the first paragraph reading that, but I’ll give a very short and terse overview because, frankly, it doesn’t deserve any more time nor anyone more competent than me to have their useful life wasted on it.

    “He said light emitted by atoms is also governed by the masses of their constituent particles, notably their electrons.”

    No, they’re all the same weight, electrons. The gravitational mass of an isotope does not change the emission spectra of atoms, more proof that this assertion is not only “not even wrong” but brain-numbing in its insanity.

    “The way these absorb and emit light would shift towards the blue part of the spectrum if atoms were to grow in mass”

    Rather requires that the idea that the mass of the atom is the determinant. It isn’t. So rather falls down.

    I just feel as though that’s a trolling. There’s absolutely NO OTHER explanation for it other than someone is faking the whole kit and kaboodle up just to wind up the credulous morons.

  4. #4 Wow
    August 20, 2013

    Note that the piece only has the reporters words in it, all paraphrasing what someone else said.

    Who knows what the hell is going on.

  5. #5 OKThen
    Ok Back to these Videos
    August 20, 2013

    It’s fairly easy to find the paper
    http://arxiv.org/pdf/1308.1019v1.pdf
    But it’s not very easy to know what the author is talking about. Aside from the abstract, this research paper is totally unreadable to me.

    OK back to these videos.
    I started with Hugh Lippincott, from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Very nice. Why? is reason enough.

  6. #6 CB
    August 20, 2013

    @ steve

    Without particle physics solar panels (and the computers we’re using to have this conversation) would not exist.

    Also, there is a lot of economic incentive that exists for developing better solar panels. There is no immediate economic payoff of pure research, only unknown future benefit that we may not be able to imagine (think Heisenberg trying to predict the computer revolution).

    Which is not to say I don’t think there shouldn’t be more funding for pure research in the area of applied device physics. Just that for government-funded research, it makes sense that it should be more focused on the forward-looking than the applied where industry can work more effectively.

  7. #7 Tõnu Eevere
    Eesti
    August 20, 2013

    Autoril on sedavõrd õigus, niikui igal teadlasel, kes isiklikult osales mingi eriala buumi ajal, saades tulemusi.
    Mina isiklikult kuid kahtlen selliste, ülikallite seadmete ehitamise vajaduses – enne kui teoreetiline füüsika samale tasemele ei tõuse. Muidu jäämegi jälle maigutama: miks pidime ehitama aatomielektrijaamad, mida loodusjõud purustavad?
    Primaarseks loen: katsete TULEMUSTE SELETAMISEL AINULT LÄHIMÕJU PRINTSIIBI KOHASELT – kujtledes endile ette “virtuaalseid osiseid”, mida EI PEA OLEMAGI.
    PS. KUI mingi osake “tekkis” – on see (edaspidi) OLEMAS, kas see siis interakteerub millegagi või mitte.

  8. #8 Rick
    August 21, 2013

    So called conservatives want to limit big science budgets severely, citing deficits and debt. The same folks can’t see a reason to spend money repairing roads and bridges now, rather than waiting and spending much more to replace them. There is nothing conservative about this sort of thinking. It is a “take the money and run” mentality. Investments in education save money on prisons later. Investments in science keep the US number one in technology and innovation — thus ensuring economic security. Economic security is national security. Spending on big science should be a priority for true conservatives.

  9. #9 Wow
    August 21, 2013

    Spending to the rich means diluting your power, handing it over to multiple others.

    Galtian edict says that those with money have it because of their Manifest Destiny to have lots of money, which corollary means that those without or with less money are less deserving of money than they are, or deserving of no money at all. Therefore by giving money to these poorer people they are going against the Manifest Destiny of everyone and this is a Great Evil.

    Tie it with God’s Master Plan and how He Loves You, rather than the anti-theistic mumbo-jumbo Ayn Rand wrote about and you have an impenetrable fortress holding on to the rich person’s money.

    Spending money is therefore a great evil to be avoided at all costs, and anyone poor getting money is another great evil for the exact same reason.

    Great for psychopaths and sociopaths among humans.

    Sucks for the humans in humanity.

  10. [...] Why does Particle Physics matter? (Ethan Siegel, ScienceBlogs, 8/20/13) [...]

  11. #11 eric
    August 21, 2013

    Steve @2: I believe ‘why particle physics matters’ is the entire subject of the first video. Did you watch it before asking your question?

    please tell me why particle physics should get more funding than something like solar cells. The funding priorities seem wrong.

    Basic research creates the applied research of the future. Its the “seed corn.” Sure, you can eat it now. You won’t starve today, but you’ll starve later. Shifting funding from basic research to applied research means that in 10, 20, 30 years there won’t be any new research to apply. And just to put this in context, Federally funded basic research is probably about 5-10% of total federal R&D funding right now (as an example, see here You’ll note that DOD’s 6.1 budget is about 10% of its total R&D budget, and this has been the case for the last 10 years). About 90% of federal R&D funding goes to applied research or development (i.e., moving a technology from the protoype phase to general use)

  12. #12 eric
    August 21, 2013

    Ack, html fail. Apologies for the excessive italics.

  13. #13 Rick
    Earth
    August 21, 2013

    The goal of basic science is to gain more understanding. In order to go to the Moon in the ’60′s we had to get a lot smarter. The reward from Apollo wasn’t an American flag on the Moon. It was a generation of better educated people. With more smart people on this little planet there is a better chance that solutions to the difficult problems facing us. The best spinoff from basic research is smarter people.

  14. #14 Semmel
    August 21, 2013

    @ Julian Frost:
    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As much as I can see it, he is not providing evidence. Without reading the paper, I think there is already a counter-argument: Andromeda is blue-shifted. According to his theory, it should be ever so slightly be red shifted. It is approaching the milky way and if the matter of particles would change over time, we would see that by observing the physics of bright stars in Andromeda. As far as I know, there have been no contradictions to the current model. Also, how would he explain baryon acoustic oscillations? This paper does not seem to be worth thinking about.

    Cheers,
    Semmel

  15. #15 OKThen
    What we really need
    August 21, 2013

    What we really need is the Chinese to start building their on the biggest super collider. Then suddenly, we will worry that they will get all of the technological spin off.

    Oh wait a minute, what about the “The impact of CERN on high tech industry developments. Focus: The construction of the LHC” Somebody has had to look at the economic impact of LHC on Europe. Oh, here it is http://ec.europa.eu/research/infrastructures/pdf/industrial_innovation_workshop/ri_wks_cern_impacts_j-m_le_geoff.pdf

    I mean if you’re not convinced by the poetry of fundamental science the why; then pay attention to the economic and technical benefits.

  16. #16 Julian Frost
    Gauteng East Rand
    August 22, 2013

    Thank you all for your answers.

  17. #17 CB
    August 22, 2013

    OKThen:

    Thanks. You know it’s really funny how many people seem to think that something like the LHC happens by putting an enormous pile of money on a pyre and sacrificing it to the Science Gods, from which springs forth a fully-formed experimental apparatus.

    And if they’re more sophisticated than that, they’ll understand that the money doesn’t just burn up but is spent employing people and companies to develop and build it, but say you could have spent that money in any other way and gotten the same economic benefit. Maybe they’ll cite the Broken Window Fallacy.

    But even fewer still realize that the technological developments that would only have occurred as part of accomplishing a monumental goal like building the LHC don’t just vanish once it’s done, either, and often have applications in many other categories.

    Hell, I was just watching Sean Carroll’s talk on finding the Higgs Boson, and there was (of course) some Youtuber sarcastically saying how great it was that they were playing with these toys instead of curing cancer. Not realizing that it’s only thanks to particle physics — not just the knowledge of how atoms work but the technology used to study them — that infinitely valuable medical tools like NMRI exist.

  18. #18 eric
    August 22, 2013

    Youtuber sarcastically saying how great it was that they were playing with these toys instead of curing cancer.

    Wow, talk about ignorant. Its not just the R&D component of particl physics that help with cancer research, particle beams are used right now in many cancer treatments.

  19. #19 Wow
    August 22, 2013

    Just how many people can discover a cure for cancer?

    Not many.

    So I guess until these people have cured cancer, everyone else should just sit down and wait, huh? After all, anything they’d do would be whined with

    > Youtuber sarcastically saying how great it was that they were playing with these toys instead of curing cancer.

  20. #20 Mohammad shafiq Khan
    Srinagar, Kashmir, India
    November 3, 2013

    They have finally failed to detect the Dark Matter (read http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/10/30/dark-matter-stays-hidden-as-large-underground-xenon-detector-fails-to-see-a-single-particle/ and http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2013/oct/31/lux-dark-matter-search-comes-up-empty) and I have been crying for more than a year that Dark Matter just could not exist. How could they introduce Dark Matter under the adopted Cosmological Model which is based on GR which presumes space contains nothing. Einstein was a trickster which is unraveled through published scientific research articles and Einstein’s paradigm shift of physics has been shown to be based on a crackpot theory. The scientists who proposed the experiment for detecting Dark Matter should be taken to task for wasting millions of dollars because they were time and again informed that Dark Matter just could not exist with sufficient scientific evidences.
    There is a standing (till date) open challenge to the adopted paradigm of physics which could seen at
    http://www.worldsci.org/php/index.php?tab0=Abstracts&tab1=Display&id=6476&tab=2
    and
    http://www.gsjournal.net/Science-Journals/Essays/View/4018.

  21. #21 Sinisa Lazarek
    November 3, 2013

    @20

    says a person with master in general physics, who works as a forest officer. A master of general physics would hardly be an expert in relativity and QM, and also.. what does a master in physics have to do with knowledge and expertise in forest management and ecosystems. How did you get that position. Guess it’s politics before science. You really messed up your professions.

  22. #22 Sinisa Lazarek
    November 3, 2013

    @20

    p.s. promoting your own papers under under random topics is forbidden under rules of this blog.

    please read and follow the guides we all do: http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/comments-policy/