The Closet Moderate: The hell with the LHC. Let's fix something in space!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The hell with the LHC. Let's fix something in space!

You all have probably heard of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) by now. It's basically the mac-dad of all particle accelerators, and they just fired up the 8 gigadollar (-ish) French machine this week. There was a little kerfuffle (I am still bewildered that this word is in common usage...) when someone decided that they thought (for no particularly good reason) that it might make tiny black holes which would swallow the earth. So that's been in the news too, god help us consumers of mass media.

Thing is, the LHC was designed for one purpose: search and destroy. Wait, that's those Setinels from the Matrix. No, the main purpose of the LHC is to "bag the Higgs". This is cool-kids physics-talk for creating and measuring the Higgs Boson. I am no particle physics pro (unlike my namesake), but I've taken enough fancy classes to decode things from the Higgs wikipedia page, so you don't have to read about how it  "spontaneously breaks the electroweak gauge symmetry". 

One question  that has always irked people in particle physics is why particles have the masses they do. Each particle, each with it's own wacky particle physics name (can I interest you in a strange quark? How about a Z boson? An anti-tau lepton?) , has some mass, but it's never really been clear why. The standard model by which we understand how these particles interact, which got pretty well nailed down in the 60s and 70s, needs the Higgs field (of which the Higgs is a member) to lend mass to these suckers. Oddly, the mass of this Higgs particle itself is itself is not dictated by theory, but previous experiments have shown that it is above 2x10^-25 kilograms. Or 112 Giga( sure, go ahead and pronounce it 'jigga': it's an acceptable pronunciation , and you've earned it) electron-volts (GeV), if you want to chat up a particle physicist. We do seem to know from theory that it should be less than 1000 Gev (a TeV).

So here's the thing. The LHC should, over time, bag the Higgs. And the standard model will be complete. We'll finally know that the Higgs has a mass of 621 GeV (or whatever it is, but that's what I have in the office pool). Unfortunately, that's just not that interesting. Indeed, a result wherein we rule out the existence of the Higgs below 1 TeV would be much more interesting, shattering our understanding of how particle physics works and sending my snooty colleagues back to the drawing board. But nobody really thinks that's going to happen.

To be fair, the LHC is supposed to investigate a lot of things by smashing protons into each other - quark-gluon plasmas, dark matter, etc. But the fact that it's main goal is to put the capstone on the Standard Model should tell you, dear reader, that particle physics is kinda dead. The 20th century (again, in particular, the 60s and 70s) saw a huge number of gorgeous interweaving theories created and proved and a number of very beautiful and well-designed experiments carried out. I salute you all. But here in the future, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of interesting work being done in particle physics, perhaps because we just don't have the power to access yet higher-energy particles in the lab anymore. To get the Higgs is gonna cost 8 billion dollars (at least) - one can imagine what going to even higher energy (particle mass) will cost. The paper that publishes the Higgs discovery will probably have 1000+ authors on it, and while it will be an achievement to be sure, it may not capture the imagination the way Feynman and friends did all those decades ago with their cloud chambers, bongo drums and roguish good looks.

Fear not, my friends, Hubble Space Telescope to the rescue! I must admit, I was once a Hubble hater - my thinking at the time was that while it is a great telescope, it was just too expensive. A prof of mine once told me that by the time Hubble was launched and fixed it had cost as much of the rest of the history of Astronomy combined. That's right, as much as the mighty Keck telescopes + the Arecibo 305m radio antenna + however much money Tycho Brahe paid his psychic dwarf Jepp on his dystopian island in Denmark ( I am not making this up) + my summer salary hanging out in the basement of Princeton's astro department and then some. While this of course depends upon a lot of possibly inaccurate accounting, the fact that someone could even make this claim makes one realize how much it cost to put a fancy telescope in space and service it with astronauts. 

A few things changed my mind. A big one is that NASA would exist without it, and they'd just be doing more idiotic things in space otherwise. Dr. Lasswell and I differ on the purpose and value of manned spaceflight, but we don't disagree that NASA wastes a hell of a lot of money (on the scale of science, not on the scale of the DoD or healthcare) doing stupid shit, like, say, I dunno, the fucking international space station. I will save that rant for another post, but the point is money in space costs less because it's keeping our braintrust of aerospace engineers entertained, and we may need them someday to build an even cooler super weapon to blow up the moon, when we get into our next war with the ruskies. Or whatever. So they may as well get paid to make a cool telescope. 

Another thing that changed my mind is all the totally rad results that have come out of Hubble lately. There basically does not exist a field of astrophysics that hasn't been upended one way other another by a Hubble discovery. Dark matter, dark energy, galaxy evolution, extra-solar planets, dwarf galaxies, star formation, you name it. Other rad space telescopes have done some pretty sweet stuff (go check out Chandra and Spitzer, and their new buddy Fermi), but the unique capacity of Hubble to be upgraded has meant that it has always been on the cutting edge. So I gotta hand it to the good people at NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute - Hubble is one badass mahfahkie. 

One major difference between these two ~10 gigadollar experiments (the LHC and Hubble) is that Hubble is very, very multipurpose, and is accessible to a large chunk of the astro community. While some of the "experiments" done with Hubble were envisioned when the telescope and instruments were being designed, most of the cool observations that have been done with it came from small groups of smart people kicking ideas around the fax machine. That is the hallmark of a field in it's heyday. The LHC, on the other hand, is not that kind of party - it is designed to answer a small suite of questions, most of which (as I outlined above) are "How massive is the Higgs?". And if you haven't had your fax-machine chat with your fellow few-hundred particle physicists already, chances are you aren't going to get to run your project on the LHC anytime soon.

This brings us to my point. You should not get excited about the LHC getting switched on - it's not going to kill us, but it will probably kill the last interesting thing in particle physics. Instead, you should get pumped about Hubble Servicing Mission 4 (SM4), which is going to start on October 8th, last 11 days, involve numerous death-defying (we hope) spacewalks and be directed by Michael Bay. While I know many of you have policies against clicking on Micheal Bay's name, the attached video is some of the best NASA-porn I have ever encountered, and it is actually rather informative. You get to learn about all the stunts they are going to try to pull and a little about what kind of science gets done with Hubble. Although, I must admit I could do with a couple fewer "This is the fanciest X we have ever put on Hubble" and "This Y will look further into the Universe than we have ever seen before". The first is obvious and the second is pretty much wrong and not half as cool as the stuff they are actually going to do with the new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) and Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and the fixed Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS).

So, cross your fingers and raise a glass to the astronauts and engineers who are going to put one of history's greatest science experiments back into the action! Huzzah!



Herodotus said...

I am not the one you call Tind. Nor did I ever refute the value of manned space flights. I find it valuable, because in exploration, the human element adds something that machines with fancy-schmancy computers can never replace...unique perspective, the ability to use judgment outside of programming parameters, and most of all, I value the opportunities for great men to accomplish great things.

I also share your enthusiasm for the Hubble Telescope. Though possibly for different reasons (I've never been aroused by pictures of cool nebulae and such), but expenses be damned. Considering all of the things the US government wastes money on, I always find science and learning worthy endeavors.

Waldorf said...

Damn it, FSH, never reveal our secret identities!

Fake Steve Hawking said...

Stricken! Let us never speak of this again!

Silent Cal said...

My understanding of physics is stuck on the Rutherford-Bohr model, but I do think the LHC is not a complete waste. Nor is the Hubbard, for that matter.

I note, however, that your blog post missed one crucial bit of information: Tycho Brahe had a nose made of gold. This should be mentioned whenever his name comes up.

Fake Steve Hawking said...

I once set designed a play in which Tycho was a character. The playwright saw fit to include the fact that he used to ceremoniously and publicly oil said metal nose. He was also a real asshole. But, damn, boy could take some data.

Fake Steve Hawking said...

Ahem, Tycho was the asshole. The playwright was just a little *eccentric*.

Anonymous Crazy said...

A minor point: the generation of black holes is not necessary "a random thought" associated with the LHC. It's just that the said BHs, if created, will evaporate nearly instantly. And even if the REAL Stephen Hawking was wrong, the BHs would be so tiny as to present a nearly zero cross section to ordinary matter. It would fall into Earth's potential well, passing right through ordinary matter, settle at the core, gobbling up ~a proton every Gigayear. Not exactly a doomsday scenario.

Fake Steve Hawking said...

Well put, anonymous crazy. I didn't want to get into the technical details of the doomsday scenario b/c I think it represents the bottom of the barrel of science reporting. I'm sure I will have a rant on that someday too.

That said, I was personally curious as to what the 'no evaporation' baryon consumption timescale was of such a cute little BH. Good to know!


Anonymous Crazy said...

But barrel-bottoms are so tasty!

anonymous crazy said...

Also, the Earth is constantly bombarded with cosmic rays more energetic than what the LHC can produce. Fast-forward ~5 billion years (age of the Earth): still waiting for tiny black holes to swallow the Earth...