Thursday, July 05, 2012

Fireworks on the 4th - Higgs-like Particle Found at LHC

I've heard a lot of talk and chatter in the media about the loss of an active space program at NASA - that the real "heavy lifting" is being contracted to private partners like SpaceX. In particular, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has made the rounds, including a hearing in Congress, to decry the loss of an active space program - the resultant loss of interest in in education of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics.

I, too miss the discovery and excitement of, say, Apollo. At the Museum, we are now showing The 1968 Exhibit which features the Apollo 8 mission as a key, year-ending event that united the world - the reading of Genesis in lunar orbit on Christmas Eve. However, I am still excited by NASA's upcoming Curiosity Rover landing in a few weeks.

That said, I don't think mankind's only opportunities to challenge its ingenuity and spark its imagination are in the stars; neither does such an inspirational project need to be "American". The LHC is a scientific tour de force, and (like Apollo) the innovations and advancements in technology that it has spawned will benefit civilization for generations to come: with large scale "grid" computing, focused proton beam technology, advances in clean manufacturing, and much more.

This morning, looking deep into the fabric of matter, the good folks at CERN announced that they have found a new particle - a boson that exhibits all the properties of the Higgs boson as anticipated by the Standard Model. Two teams, represented by Dr. Fabiola Gianotti and Prof. Joe Incandela, using data collected in two separate experiments (ATLAS and CMS respectively), presented evidence of a new particle with a mass of about 125.5-126.5GeV, and with a statistical significance of 5σ, marking this as a "discovery". Boy, I hope I'm saying that right.

It was another Genesis moment, literally made by recreating conditions similar to those immediately after the Big Bang. But how do we use this event ignite new excitement in science, technology, engineering, and math? Does the general public even grok the basic concepts here? I really enjoyed watching all the physicist and other gathered "smart people" erupt in applause when the two 5σ announcements were made - but who else could possible get that? These two slides literally threw the crowd into fits:

Prof. Incandela:
Dr. Gianotti:
You know how, when you're a kid, the first time you go to the symphony, and people don't applaud until after all the movements for a piece are done? It's like that, right? When people first saw Earth-rise in lunar orbit, they understood the significance of the event. When people see oddball computer-generated fireworks and graphs that spike to 5σ at 125.5-126.5GeV, how do we know what that means?

In the vein, here's a quote from Stephen Wolfram in WIRED:
I think it could be justified almost just for the self-esteem of our species: that despite all our specific issues, we’re continuing a path we’ve been on for hundreds of years, systematically making progress in understanding how our universe works. And somehow there’s something ennobling about seeing what’s effectively a worldwide collaboration of people working together in this direction.

Indeed, staying up late to watch the announcement early yesterday morning reminded me more than a bit of being a kid in England nearly 43 years ago and staying up late to watch the Apollo 11 landing and moonwalk (which was timed to be at prime time in the US but not Europe). But I have to say that for a world achievement yesterday’s “it’s a 5 sigma effect” was distinctly less dramatic than “the Eagle has landed”. To be fair, a particle physics experiment has a rather different rhythm than a space mission. But I couldn’t help feeling a certain sadness for the lack of pizazz in yesterday’s announcement.

Latest update in the search for the Higgs boson (Geneva, 2012-07-04T09:00:00)
Press Conference: Update on the search for the Higgs boson at CERN on 4 July 2012