The God Particle
Compared to the total theoretical knowledge possible on the topic, I know an amount indistinguishable from nothing about physics. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, or Einstein might have felt similarly, so to further differentiate: compared to the sum of human knowledge about physics, I- ah, the same problem, while less likely to apply, still may. Let’s try this:
Compared to “A moderately competent physicist”, I know an amount practically indistinguishable from nothing. There. Now the physicists-in-training safely know much more than me, the moderate physicists know tremendously more (approaching infinity!) and the tremendous physicists know a simply impossible amount. But compared to a random person I might know some things, about which I’m probably wrong. The common phrase is “know enough to be dangerous.”
Yet, I think that somewhere down the road I might be interested in being a physicist. How to crack that nut! Well, for starters, I’m reading The Feynman Lectures on Physics, and today I began reading a book I picked up years ago, “The God Particle“, by Leon Lederman. It’s an account of the search for the ultimate atomic indivisible building blocks of the universe, as well as an account of the search for the Higgs Boson. It was written back before the Superconducting Super Collider was cancelled, and before the Tevatron at Fermilab was closed down, so it’s looking to the SSC as the champion that could find the Higgs, which is a little sad.
The SSC was planned to be able to smash particles together at up to about 3 times the energy levels that the Large Hadron Collider does, in a 54-mile tunnel under the Texas desert. Unfortunately, it ballooned from its originally estimated cost of $4.4 billion to over $12 billion, at the same time that the International Space Station was in full swing and costing a similar amount. For a bunch of reasons(high cost, Russia had collapsed so we didn’t have to compete with them, other ways to spend that money), the SSC was cancelled in 1993. Many physicists were sad.
The book has already had a pretty great analogy about particle physics as being like watching a soccer game where, for some reason, you can’t see the ball. If you’d never seen soccer before, it would just be people running about kind of randomly. If you pay attention and observe them, you might come up with theories about who runs where and when, and give each of the players labels. You might notice that there’s a property of symmetry that, once seen, vastly reduces the complexity of your theories. But still, you’ll just have models that predict people running around until you postulate the existence of a ball.
The indirect evidence of a ball is a rare event — every once in a while, just around the time the goalie jumps or reaches or falls down — the back of the net is pushed outward in a hemispherical way. You can’t see the ball itself, but you can see an effect it’s having on things. And once you start thinking about the game with a ball in it, you suddenly see why everyone’s running around, and why your predictions work in most cases. I’m very pleased with it! For me, great analogies are one of the best parts of physics. Sorry to Leo for pulling that out so closely of the book!
Stand on Zanzibar
The concept of a synesthizer came up while I read it today. Effectively, these are people in the world of Stand on Zanzibar who are paid good salaries (I think he says $50,000 — and it’s written in 1968!) to research a wide variety of things for a short period each day, and to look for patterns and try to report interesting things to whoever would be interested in them. Aside from that, they’re expected to keep things kind of spicy to maintain their vigour. That’s it. Noting needs to be produced or written and nothing is checked on. Reminds me of this xkcd. And the key qualifying attribute is being pissed off at not being able to dick around learning what you want! Sounds like Brunner did some Mary-Sue’ing here.
But mannnnnn, I wish that were real. Of course, I suspect that there’s a catch, but I’m shying away from writing spoilers on here for the time being, so I won’t get into it.