Why Particle Physics?
I have blogged less since Tuesday because I have been working with journalists at Northwestern to write articles and interviews on the start-up of the 7 TeV run of the LHC. This has been a very satisfying experience, since all three ladies and a young man are intelligent, attentive and enthusiastic about this momentous event and the participation of scientists from Northwestern.
We were featured on the front page of the Daily Northwestern in an article “Northwestern physicists collider particles, create history” by undergraduate journalist Ali Elkin, and on the front page of the Northwestern University web site in an article “Another Big Bang” by Megan Fellman with a slide show prepared by Matt Paolelli. Later this month, a research newsletter will include an article being prepared by Amanda Morris. And there is a short blurb about us on the departmental web site.
The most delicate question journalists ask is: What do you hope to accomplish/learn from all this?. They were sincere and took my response seriously and avoided hackneyed phrases about the origins of the universe and the dreaded awful phrase about the Higgs boson coined by Leon Lederman.
At the same time, many comments posted in response to Dennis Overbye’s article in the New York Times are highly critical of our endeavor to learn more about particle physics – why didn’t we work on a cure for cancer instead?
Indeed – we have a bad situation here, because some scientists and journalists make exaggerated, overblown, stupendous claims (“LHC physicists hope to understand the origins of the universe!”) while some segments of the general population see science as essentially utilitarian (“Go find a better source of energy and solve the problem of global climate change!”).
Why do we do particle physics – for a career? The answer from each of us has to be personal, so I can only explain my own motivations. As a teenager, I was often entertained by physics articles in Scientific American, which spurred me to read low-level science books. I loved to learn about the fundamental forces and particles of nature, and the role of symmetry and order in explaining (better said, describing) them pleased my sense of intellectual beauty. Eventually I followed my interests and earned a Ph.D. in experimental particle physics and recognized that the best research opportunities for me were to be found at LEP. Later, I worked on CDF and now I am very busy with CMS. While I admire the imagination, deep thinking and fruitfulness of my theoretical colleagues, I am convinced that insights into particle physics beyond the standard model will come from experiments in the coming years, and I want to be a part of that.
As everyone reading this blog knows, the standard model is technically successful, but deficient as an ultimate explanation for the fundamental forces, particles and symmetries of nature. I do want to see what comes after the standard model, some time in my lifetime. Is there really a symmetry connecting fermions and bosons? Are there really extra dimensions of space, and if so, are they small or large or warped? Will we finally get the clue we need for the riddle of the quark and neutrino flavor matrices? Is the Higgs sector mundane or exotic beyond our wildest imagination? Finally, can particle physics – the LHC – provide crucial information for the elucidation of dark matter? For me, answers to those questions would be immensely satisfying. I do not need to explain the origins of the universe in order to feel this enterprise is a success.
Why does society need the answers to these questions? Maybe there will be technological spin-offs from the LHC and other experiments that will benefit society. But for me, the questions we ask, like the questions asked by many physicists and astronomers not involved in particle physics, are justified as an expression of human’s innate philosophical nature. Civilization is not just the technological betterment of the physical state of human beings. It is also the enhancement of intrinsic, and noble, human characteristics, such as an appreciation for beauty in the arts, for triumph in sports and athletics, and for higher ethical and moral standards in the justice system. Perceiving scientific truths about nature belongs with these things, not with traffic and pollution control. Why is our research in particle physics justified and good for society? For the same reason that people dance the samba, or learn to make boeuf bourguignon, or visit the Art Institute. It appeals to the better side of our nature and ennobles our civilization.
Anyway, that’s my view, for the record. I’m not saying anything new or surprising here, and many of you would say it better. And you should.