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Johns Hopkins physicist to speak in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesParticle physicist David Kaplan gives a talk, "The Large Hadron Collider: Living with the Uncertainty Principle," Wednesday at the Wheeler Opera House. The talk is part of the Aspen Center for Physics' Maggie and Nick DeWolf Winter Physics Lecture series.
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ASPEN – In the late ’70s, physicists working at CERN, a research center near Geneva, Switzerland, developed what is known as the Standard Model of particle physics. The theory – which earned a group of three physicists the 1979 Nobel Prize – describes the elementary particles and their interactions.

That was the last major development in particle physics. “Meaning every truly active person in the field has not seen the actual discovery of something in this field,” David Kaplan, a physicist who works at Johns Hopkins University, said. “We have an entire generation of particle physicists who have never seen a discovery.”

The subject did not die off. The Standard Model, while still considered a valid framework, left many questions open for study. But with no further breakthroughs, particle physics went into its version of the quiet years.

That era came to an end with the advent of the Large Hadron Collider, which offered the hope that particle physics would be taken to a new level. The LHC, a 17-mile underground tunnel built at the CERN site by a consortium of 76 nations for $8 billion, is the world’s largest, highest energy particle accelerator. By colliding incredibly small bits of matter at phenomenally high speeds, and measuring the outcomes, particle physicists would come to new understandings of matter, energy and their interactions – or even discover new kinds of matter.

The LHC was fired up for its first test run on Sept. 10, 2008. Nine days later a problem with electrical connections caused a massive explosion, and the device was shut down for 14 months as 56 seven-ton magnets were replaced and enhanced safety features were installed. The particle physicists who had been waiting three decades for something to happen had to wait a while longer. When the LHC was restarted this past November, it was still in a test mode.

Particle physicists should be accustomed to such tenuous results; it is the nature of their work. Data can take years to analyze. The subject is highly theoretical: In a famous analogy, the Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman said that particle physics is like crashing two Volkswagens into one another, seeing where the various parts land, and trying to figure out how a car works based on the scattered remains.

“You can’t really open up a proton and see what’s in there,” said Kaplan, who gives a talk, The Large Haldon Collider: Living with the Uncertainty Principle, at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, in the Aspen Center for Physics’ Winter Physics Lecture series. “So we’re stuck doing this sort of thing,” Kaplan added regarding the LHC experiments.

Making the work even more uncertain, what particle physicists are after is, literally, nothing. Kaplan, who has been a regular participant in Aspen Center for Physics programs, said it has been a major misconception that particle physicists are primarily interested in finding out the constituent parts of protons and electrons – that is, what matter is made of. But he said there is widespread agreement that there are no new discoveries to be made down that road.

“We’re not actually convinced we’re going to learn more about matter. We have indirect evidence that electrons and quarks are just electrons and quarks,” he said. “We think we’re going to learn about nothing, in the literal sense – the nothing that matter lives in, the properties of space, the properties of the vacuum itself.”

Nothing – that is, space that has been emptied of all matter – has plenty to teach particle physicists. “The nothing we think of as nothing there, it actually contains all the properties of what we think is fundamental – the matter we see, and also the matter and forces we don’t see. We’re looking at, What’s produced out of the vacuum? You can convert a little part of the vacuum into something physical, a matter particle. We’re looking for new particles to come out of that vacuum.”

One particle that physicists expect to find – which would be the next major discovery in the field – is called the Higgs boson, which was a hypothetical element of the Standard Model. But the real quantum leap would be the discovery of dark matter, an invisible entity which some physicists believe makes up the majority of the universe.

Or the LHC might produce none of the above discoveries. It could be that the data from the LHC experiments leads to a dead end. Kaplan, who briefly went to film school before studying physics at a series of the most prestigious universities (Berkeley, Stanford, Chicago), has considered that possibility.

Kaplan is working on a movie, “Particle Fever,” that puts a human face on particle physics. The film, a year or two away from completion, follows a handful of physicists as they watch the first operational stages of the LHC. Those physicists are not only looking at data, but also at their careers, past and future.

“I’m watching this field of people, brilliant, devoted people, who may find out that their entire careers were a waste of time. There’s a fear, and it’s enough to create a high level of tension in the field,” Kaplan, 41, said. “Seventeen miles of liquid helium, at a temperature of almost absolute zero, built by 76 countries – all to get this one shot. This one shot, and that’s it. That’s a great story, and these people have no idea what’s going to hit them.

“It’s a heroic act. These people put their money on a path that might just be wrong. But I think we’re going to discover something great. I’ve staked my career on it.”

stewart@aspentimes.com

The 25th anniversary Aspen Center for Physics Winter Lecture series continues with three additional lectures: Etch-a-Sketch Nanoelectronics, with Jeremy Levy, on Feb. 3; Exploring the Cosmos from the Moon, with Jack Burns, on Feb. 10; and Formation and Evolution of Black Holes, with Andrea Ghez, on Feb. 17.

All lectures are free, and begin at 5:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House. Each lecture is preceded by the Physics Cafe, where the audience can informally talk with physicists in attendance.

For further information, go to aspenphys.org.


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