Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Atom Smashers

Physicists at Fermilab, the most powerful particle accelerator in the United States, are closing in on one of the universe’s best-kept secrets: what is known as the Holy Grail of physics or the reason why everything has mass. With the Tevatron, an underground particle accelerator buried deep beneath the Illinois prairie, Fermilab scientists smash matter together, accelerating protons and antiprotons in a four-mile-long ring at nearly the speed of light. They do this to find the God particle—the Higgs boson—whose existence was theorized nearly 40 years ago by Scottish scientist Peter Higgs.

The physicists searching for the Higgs boson are excited; they may be approaching the discovery of a lifetime and there’s almost certainly a Nobel Prize for whoever finally finds it. Wars, natural disasters and a growing deficit are chipping away at America’s ability to maintain its role as science leader. In the midst of this uncertainty, Fermilab struggles to stay alive, just as a new and more powerful accelerator in Europe prepares to open its doors and potentially make the discovery first.

This tightening race makes Fermilab physicists like Nobel Laureate and elder statesman Leon Lederman, rock band front man ben Kilminster and newlyweds John Conway and Robin Erbacher contemplate their future in physics. Despite dwindling support, the scientists show infectious enthusiasm as they wrangle the cantankerous Tevatron to record-breaking energies, increasing the odds of a discovery.

Then, in December 2006, research findings indicate that the Higgs might be lighter than previously believed and, therefore, easier for Fermilab to find. Then comes the bombshell: governmental budgets are slashed and a key project is canceled at Fermilab. The Tevatron is scheduled to be turned off permanently, unless a major discovery is made. A race to the finish begins.

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cinndave said...

They have a point about competition for funding among other science fields like medicine and nanotech that promise to have more tangible benefits. When the 80km Superconducting Supercollider in Texas got canceled before completion in 1993, people weren't too bummed about it. It makes sense now that Hadron makes it redundant and obsolete.

Plus, you have to remember that the higgs boson might not exist. It's just something that was made up in order to fit an existing conventional theory. It's akin to the "ether" that all the pre-Einstein astronomers believed was stuff that filled the vastness of space that light traveled through. Yeah, they just made it up. Doesn't exist. And it led the whole physicist community in the wrong direction for centuries. Like with the discovery of relativity, the truth might be something far more complicated and mind-bending to comprehend.

Edmund said...

While it is a matter for debate where funding would be best employed in the sciences, the important conclusion is that there should be funding available. As the production points out, funding has been reduced from an already beleagured research budget to better fund alternative sectors of public interest.

While the Higg's Boson may indeed not exist, it is precisely in the pursuit of its existance that great and potentially 'mind-bending' truths will be discovered. It was in the pursuit of evidence for the aether that a host of advances in electrodynamics were made. Ultimately its disproval as a hypothesis was far more beneficial.

If the Higg's particle is not found, then we are assured of discovering a new process in the standard model previously unknown. If we're lucky it may be the stuff of a new paradigm!