Monday, August 11, 2014

Of fundamental particles and logs

This is a plug for the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast. In fact for Guardian podcasts overall. I reckon that were the Guardian a radio station it would be up there with BBC Radio 4 as one of the world’s best. The episode of Monday 28 July featured British physicist Professor Jon Butterworth discussing his work at the Large Hadron Collider.  Just a lot of quite ordinary people getting on with their jobs in a building with shabby corridors, he says, yet they're unlocking the laws of nature and the secrets of the universe.

The whole episode lasts 44 minutes and the Jon Butterworth interview takes up the second half, starting at minute 22:40.  If you have time for just a three minute snippet, try from minute 36:30 to 39:36. Listen to the professor’s thoughts on finding that the Higgs particle is really there, and seeing confirmation of the Z-boson.  By the way don't worry, there's no need to understand exactly what the Higgs or the Z are, other than to know that they are fundamental particles that it takes expensive equipment to detect ... and upon their existence or non-existence rests our whole conception of the laws of nature.

Hear Jon Butterworth say “The fact that we understand nature so well, that when we turn on the Large Hadron Colider for the first time, we see the Z-boson, and it's where it should be, still impresses me, I still get goosebumps even talking about it now.” 

A bicycling engineer leans on a magnet in the 27km-long tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider
(Image: Cern/Maximilien Brice)
The thought he's expressing here isn't new, but when I hear a scientist say it gives them goosebumps, I get goosebumps myself.  I'm put in mind of another physics professor Frank Close, commenting on Dirac’s achievement in predicting the particle known as the positron (a positive electron). Dirac predicted the positron using maths alone, four years before the particle was actually discovered by experiment in 1932. 

“To me it’s remarkable, in a strange way I find it quite uncomfortable, that Dirac is writing things on paper, and the equations say: you can’t just have an electron, you must have a positive version as well.  And it turns out the equations know about nature; for then we go out and do an experiment, and we find that’s how it is.  It’s a very profound, in some way, a disturbing thing.” 

Prof Close was speaking on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time in 2007. His words made such an impression that I included them in my personal collection of quotes from scientists talking about science.

To conclude about that episode of Science Weekly, Prof Butterworth was invited into the studio to talk about his new book Smashing Physics, his insider's account of the discovery of the Higgs boson. And the first half of the episode is a report from a symposium on the origins of life - did life begin on Earth or elsewhere, and how likely is it that we are alone. Science Weekly is presented by Guardian journalist Ian Sample. The episode of 4th August is another must-listen-to: “How AI could be the end of us”, in which Nick Bostrom believes if we're not careful, the creation of a super-intelligent computer could be our last invention. 

I listen to Science Weekly through my headphones as I go about my morning yard duties, and here's a picture to prove it:-

The log carrier by the way is a little thing of my own invention, loosely based on a traditional Swedish carrier made of birch bark.