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July 5, 2006

<< links for 2006-07-05 | The Happy Hive Mind >>

Smack Dat Hadron

Let me just tick off the things I love about this article in Seed Magazine.

Grand claims?

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) currently under construction at CERN is the greatest basic science endeavor in history.

Check. Giant ominous-looking machinery?

Um… CHECK. Big goals?

All these superlatives exist for one reason: To understand the universe.

Check and mate. Seriously, even if you know the basics of the LHC (*cough* don’t we all *cough*) it’s worth a look — Seed has gathered short, provocative notes from a crew of smart physicists. It’s good reading.

P.S. That blue thing up above? It transforms into a robot.

Posted July 5, 2006 at 10:57 | Comments (6) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Technosnark


Damn, is that thing still under construction? Now I remember why I quit particle physics. Yeesh.

I think the link is broken to the mag.

Saheli: It's the GREATEST BASIC SCIENCE ENDEAVOR in history, c'mon! Give it time!

Taylor: You were right -- fixed now.

Totally snarky response:

Does "basic science" mean "useless science" or "just particle physics"? Because I fail to see what the big deal is. A set of equation tells us gravity should be totally awesome, when really, it's just kind of awesome. (And bear in mind, I'm a mathematician. Aka the cheapest scientist around.)

I mean, from a sociological standpoint, I can see why it's a good idea to keep a handful of really smart people with the kind of skills that particle physicists have engaged, busy, and employed. You want those people around, using their brains, trying to topple each other in refereed journals, staying sharp, just in case. You might need a gravity gun some day, or a time machine to go back in time and save Lois Lane, and one of these dweebs is going to be the one to figure out how to build it.

But just like at the end of the century before last, physics has gone totally flaccid -- I mean, sure, it's there, but it's unsexy, used-up, a shadow of the throbbing tumescent monster it was for most of the last century. I want a physics revolution, not a Nova special.

(A serious treatment of the history of 20th-century physics, compressed and exploded into a thousand jagged fragments, would make a great expressionist art film. I'd say Darren Arnofsky could direct, but that's almost a little on the nose. Plus, Pi is only one step up from Good Will Hunting in the Mathematical Accuracy & Sincerity standings.)

Greatest I think means largest, and with that caveat, particle physics wins. But I am still of the opinion that most of the great-as-in-cool basic physics---so much of which still has to be charted out--is going on on little tabletops, oftentimes with the use of duct tape and scrapiron.

It's not that you have to keep the dangerous boys busy--it's that a certain kind of brain gets busiest and happiest when it's plumbing the extremes of knowledge, and we really do all benefit from the tools they invent to solve their crazy problems. Even if this thing still hasn't seen first light--kind of mindboggling since I've been hearing about it for 10 years now--I'm sure it's already churned out new edges in technologies like light detection.

"Physics has gone flaccid" reminds me of climax-obsessed neophytes who can't appreciate a game without constant scoring. I'm not a Kuhnian, but a Galisonian, and the thing about physics is that it is, actually, an experimental science. Everyone remembers Einstein, but few people viscerally remember 200 odd years worth of peasants and aristocrats in messy, messy labs basically goofing off to give him his raw material of empirical description. Einstein made his leap because he was so damn sure that Maxwell's equations correctly desribed the nature of light. That wasn't because they are beautiful. That's because the labgeeks had provided an overewhelming pile of evidence. The labgeeks are still hard at work, investigating and tweaking every corner and at every scale, and if the theorists can't catch up to make the little descriptions loud enough, that doesn't mean plenty of lively science isn't going on.

I think that point about 'the extremes of knowledge' is what's most interesting to me. I remember my great freshman chemistry professor explaining that science was about finding the boundary of the known -- you had to toil away at these classes not so you could solve fancy problems (although that was helpful) but so you could locate the frontier of knowledge. And then help push it out.

I agree that a physics revolution would be exciting, though. Especially if it yielded some sort of humongous insight into the nature (and production) of energy. We could use that.

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