Thursday, September 25, 2008

The God Particle

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), in addition to giving this blog its name, promises to find the elusive Higgs boson. The Higgs is the holdout of the Standard Model of particle physics, well accepted though never actually observed. It is variously known as the "God particle" and "goddamn particle" because it 1) theoretically accounts for particle mass and 2) has proven frustratingly aloof.

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote this great article for The New Yorker in 2007. I recommend the entire article, it's a nice overview of particle physics, the LHC and the Higgs boson. Here is an enjoyable excerpt detailing physicist Robert Wilson's 1969 congressional appearance.
In 1969, the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy held a hearing at which the physicist Robert Wilson was called to testify. Wilson, who had served as the chief of experimental nuclear physics for the Manhattan Project, was at that point the head of CERN’s main rival, Fermilab, and in charge of $250 million that Congress had recently allocated for the lab to build a new collider. Senator John Pastore, of Rhode Island, wanted to know the rationale behind a government expenditure of that size. Did the collider have anything to do with promoting “the security of the country”?

WILSON: No sir, I don’t believe so.
PASTORE: Nothing at all?
WILSON: Nothing at all.
PASTORE: It has no value in that respect?
WILSON: It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. . . . It has to do with are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. . . . It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.