Looking for the deepest laws of the universe

Physicists at CERN crash protons together, slow down antimatter, and look for the elusive "God particle".

    Thousands of magnets guide protons' journeys through the Large Hadron Collider, a 27 km-long tunnel [Al Jazeera]

    Geneva - Most of us live in a visceral world of traffic jams, human or automotive, and the immediacy of dealing with our own bodies.

    Even the things that seem so removed from most - tanks firing into Syrian crowds, the weight of millions of brittle bodies starving somewhere in the Somali desert or the fear of nuclear contamination in Japan - pack a physical punch.

    So what to make of laboratories where physicists celebrate having successfully weighed antimatter or feel the frustration of having yet to prove the existence of a "God particle"?  Given that we are dealing with the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, where the struggle to contain the radiation from the Daiichi plant damaged in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami continues, what sort of consequences might such research - as removed as it might seem from the reality of quotidian life - have down the line?

    And what happens when their great machines, filled with some sort of promise, break down?

    Al Jazeera visited The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (or Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire - formerly known as Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), one of the most whiz-bang scientific research institutes in the world, for interviews with three of the centre’s scientists to address those very questions.

    Among the work being done at CERN are experiments in searching for the Higgs particle - the aforementioned "God particle" - which is thought to bestow mass to other particles as well as one looking to solve the mystery of antimatter in the universe.

    Masaki Hori, research physicist, Atomic Spetroscopy And Collisions Using Antiprotons (ASACUSA)

    Hori is a man facing heavy dualities - on the one hand, he has a healthy respect for the basic laws of particle physics known as the Standard Model.

    On the other hand, he’s dealing with the fact that there is no explanation within that model for what he is observing - namely that when matter is produced, so is the exact amount of its counterpart, antimatter. And yet, there seems to be more matter than antimatter in our universe. So where did all the missing antimatter go and how can its absence be reconciled in what Hori describes as the "robust" Standard Model? 

    At the moment, it can’t, which is awkward, yes - but also exciting, even if what ASACUSA is doing doesn’t seem to have much immediacy to the average person - yet. But Hori has a realistic expectation of when and how society becomes acquainted with science.

    "In Japan, we've had this accident in Fukushima, now all housewives and everybody, everybody, knows what a microsievert is. Everybody knows what Caesium 137 is. Everybody in the country knows," Hori said, standing atop a concrete floor under which antiprotons circulated.

    "It would have been impossible in January. In June, suddenly, radioactivity and these particles are so close to us in Japan. And that’s a characteristic that is built into the universe - it arouses the curiosity of people, so that they want to understand what is in here," he said, pointing to a railing, painted Big Bird yellow, on ASACUSA’s mezzanine.

    Which brings us to what the experiment does: It slows down antimatter particles until they’re stopped. They are then held in a magnetic field, measured and studied with unprecedented accuracy.

    "If you think about it, it's very strange that this (he points to the railing again) is made of atoms, okay, which are mostly, well, there's nothing inside. In the centre, there's a nucleus, which is infinitesimally small. And around it, there's an electron, which at a very large distance, is revolving around it," said Hori, who is prone to making very definitive statements, pausing for a moment to push his glasses up the bridge of his nose before closing off with a "probably".

    "Matter is almost made of nothing, but a lot of it. So all the atoms that make this object are all the same. Identical. Now, you would wonder, where did it come from? … We see in experiments, that we can make it out of energy. Which is a little bit strange, but okay, we accept this. Now we are told that at the same time, we can make this dark companion, which is called antimatter, but this dark companion disappears somewhere," said Hori, also struck by the fact that matter and antimatter - two things which are the opposite of each other - are so precisely identical to start with.

    And therein lies the greater question of what exactly happened at the start of the universe, when the Big Bang or "the singularity", came about.

    "For a long time - maybe until the beginning of the last century, it was believed that the universe is unchanging, but now we believe that the universe had a beginning, and before the beginning, there was nothing," he said. "Probably."

    Physics, said Hori, basically has the universe starting at the Big Bang, and before that … well, it's best not to ask.

    "As far as we scientists are concerned, there was a beginning of the universe at time equals zero (T=0) and before that we cannot answer any questions, so we pretend it doesn't exist. But maybe you have a different idea?" he asked, leaning in briefly before returning to his point.

    "The size scale that we live in is such a limited part of the universe … maybe our understanding of nature is not enough to answer such questions. Maybe it’s not time for us to answer such questions … our understanding is insufficient to answer that. We have to be humble, you know. Within our lifetime, we cannot answer these questions," said Hori.


    Mirko Pojer, engineer in charge of operations at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

    To understand the search for the Higgs particle, one needs to understand the massive underground engine that drives the effort. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the LHC and one of the engineers who helped build it.

    Mirko Pojer’s job is about as tangible as they come in at CERN - he refers to himself as a "bus driver" there.

    "Essentially, what we do, we drive the machine - we are on shift around the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week … maybe 300 days or so (a year), I would say," he said.

    The LHC is powerful particle collider which uses thousands of magnets to guide and correct the direction of beams no thicker than a human hair, carrying protons (or, in some cases, lead ions). The magnets are large and imposing, and yet Pojer’s eyes went soft as he looked at a 30-ton dipole magnet that could pass for a giant robotic femur.

    "I must say I have enormous respect for this machine," he stated before adding that he loves the machine, seeing each magnet as a Formula 1 engine. When it is not operating smoothly, he "really feels physically … not good".

    Unlike a troubled nuclear plant in a seismically active country, the LHC tunnel is stable, and Pojer said that the subterranean nature of the machine provides shielding from the radiation produced as a result of experiments.

    Although the stated research at CERN won't pose the same kind of threat a nuclear plant in full meltdown mode does, make no mistake, the sort of power required to produce millions of high impact particular collisions at a time is formidable.

    These dipole and quadropole magnets, laid end-to end through the 27 km tunnel that hold the LHC, produce a magnetic field of 8.3 tesla - roughly 160,000 times stronger than that of our planet.

    When running at full energy, the two proton beams - which take each proton around the tunnel 11,000 times per second - have about as much energy as a 400-ton train traveling at 150km an hour.

    And in order to prevent things from overheating, the temperature of the cables carrying the charge for the magnets has to be kept at 1.9 kelvins - or -271 Celsius, which, says Pojer, makes it the coldest point in the universe, where the average temperature is estimated to be around 4 kelvin.

    "All that we do is potentially not safe for the equipment, but it is safe for the personnel," said Pojer, adding that personnel aren’t allowed in the tunnel when the magnets are powered up, just in case things go wrong.

    And things did go horribly wrong once, on September 19, 2008, a day Pojer refers to as "the worst day in CERN history."

    Nine days after going online, suddenly, "Poof. We fell into the abyss," said Pojer.

    The abyss came via what was essentially a short circuit - poorly-done soldering in the junction connecting one dipole magnet to the other. This caused over-heating and serious damage to around 400 meters of magnets. It took a year for the LHC fully come back.

    "There was an incredible sadness at CERN, above all for the team that was involved," said Pojer.

    "It was like a losing one person in your family - I might compare it to that."

    Thilo Pauly, deputy coordinator of the ATLAS project at the LHC

    Pauly’s job is not one most of us would understand too well - he helps oversee an experiment that basically entails colliding "bunches" or two series of protons lined up on beams going in opposite directions. At nearly the speed of light. In an underground tunnel that runs between Switzerland and France.

    Smashing these protons creates huge energy reactions which they study at ATLAS, essentially recreating conditions at the time of the Big Bang several million times per second. The biggest of these collisions - what Pauly refers to as "noisy" or "messy" ones - are studied for clues attempting to prove - or, possibly, ultimately disproving - the existence of the Higgs particle.

    But the Higgs theory is, after all, just a theory.

    "Maybe there’s just a little elephant that produces mass," he jokes, making light of the significance of what proving or disproving the existence of the Higgs particle - the only particle in the Standard Model of particle physics which has not been nailed down - might mean.

    But even the method of Higgs hunting is fairly heady stuff. To consider that the average person can't install a bookshelf straight without using a level is to appreciate the intricacy and meticulousness needed for this proton-colliding business.

    Yet, despite the somewhat ephemeral nature of what he does, Pauly said the biggest misconception about what he does isn’t the technical details of the experiments. Rather, it’s that there is nuclear research at CERN (which, to be fair, can be put down to a bit of a branding problem - think Chernobyl rather than the humble nucleus).

    "They always think we're doing some nasty nuclear things, building a nuclear bomb or (researching) nuclear power. Or that everything we do is top-secret, and in fact, the opposite is true."

    Nuclear research, he says, "is huge - a million times bigger than what we do. We’re interested in much smaller things".

    For his tribe, the understanding of the natural world takes place on a teeny, tiny level.

    "Certain things like this they even have philosophical impact … one hundred years ago, when (the theory of) relativity and quantum mechanics came about, we actually learned that the world isn’t completely deterministic, and there is a certain randomness in there," said Pauly.

    "Suddenly you're not as arrogant anymore."

    "Sometimes you can even build something from it - the accelerators, they’ve figured out they can use them as microscopes, you can use them to produce isotopes you can use in medicine. The detectors we have here have millions of medical applications", he said, while admitting that yes, it can take years before any sort of result can be gleaned.

    You'd think that the slow rate of progress might dampen the motivation at CERN - we live in a world that seems to trade in instant gratification (just ask anyone keeping track of President Obama’s approval ratings).

    But even though his days are, by his own account, repetitive, Pauly seems happy to focus entirely on the miniscule, particular world. Looking into the future - and the potential ethical consequences of discovering or disproving the existence of the so-called God particle - do not come into play for him.

    Even the most useful discovery could be deadly if misused.

    "With nuclear energy, it is the same thing. If you use it right - you have to define what it is - then it’s actually safe. But of course, maybe it’s best not to use it. You have to really be sure about the risks."

    States, he said, should prevent people from misusing science, and for his part, he can’t be too concerned with how his research impacts daily life.

    "Our normal physics that we have - you know, you drop something or you bump into a car - this is all unchanged by all this," said Pauly, swinging a finger in a circle around him.

    "But … you never know."

    Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @DParvaz

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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