Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature
and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for
several journals and is the author of Clifford
Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter,
Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham
New Yorker at Sea. Nick’s reviews are available
the past decades there have been astounding theories and discoveries
in particle physics and in astrophysics. Many of them have been
so far beyond human understanding that people simply turn away
and shrug their shoulders unable to grasp the mathematics theorists
use. Two of the most significant subjects have been the concept
of black holes and the occurrence of the Big Bang. In the case
of the former, even Albert Einstein, whose equations pointed
to the existence of black holes could not bring his imagination
to accept them. Indeed most physicists dismissed the idea that
an object could be dense enough to prevent light from escaping.
Yet all of the physics of the past half-century has consistently
corroborated their existence.
do we as ordinary people need to deal with all of this? In his
latest book The Grand Design (which I reviewed in another
publication), the eminent scientist Stephen Hawking shocked
his readers by declaring that physics has replaced philosophy.
The implications of that statement are enormous. Just about
all of the notions we have about existence, evolution, religion,
logic and life itself have been severely challenged by the new
physics. If this is true, we certainly need to have some understanding
of this complex science. But how to accomplish this?
most encounters with physicists through books, articles or on
TV we see them trying patiently to explain the arcane mathematical
equations they write on blackboards by providing verbal metaphors.
Thus we have expressions like ‘bending space,’ ‘antimatter,’
‘relativity of time.’ We may be able to follow the
writing for a bit or, in the case of television presentation
of graphics, sharpen our perceptions, but for most of us confusion
because of two recent developments we may be able to perceive
some of this reality first hand and speculate on the discoveries
of the new physics. In any case, we need to use simple, direct
language and examples or illustrations which we can quickly
we noted above, the concept of black holes is mind-boggling.
Essentially, they have been described as the most densely filled
objects in the universe. Because of this density, their gravitational
pull is enormous. Many people grapple with this notion. The
pull of gravity depends on the density of the celestial body.
In order to escape the gravitational pull of the earth, you
must accelerate your rocket to over 25,000 miles an hour (7
miles a second) - that's 6 times faster than a bullet. The moon
is smaller, so to escape its gravity you must accelerate at
5,300 mph. In order to escape Jupiter you need to accelerate
at 133,000 mph and to escape the gravity of our sun the figure
is 1,381,600 mph. Most of us know that the speed of light is
some 186,000 miles per second -- the so-called speed limit of
the universe. Now comes the mind blowing statistic: a black
hole is so dense that not even a light beam can escape its gravitational
pull. Therefore a black hole is invisible. This is the point
where Einstein began shaking his head unable to imagine what
his physics was telling him.
this notion is difficult to swallow consider the next capability
of gravity: it actually conquers time.
Einstein discovered, time is affected by gravity. If there were
persons on each floor of the Empire State Building with identical
watches they would all be ticking at different rates; the watches
on the lower floors, closer to the center of the earth where
gravity is stronger, would tick a little slower than the ones
on the top floors. If you were to travel to the edge of a black
hole and stand at its rim, because of it's incredibly strong
gravitational pull, for every minute you spent there a thousand
years would pass on earth. At this point, you're shaking your
head because this physics transcends the limits of your imagination.
If only we could see the black hole, we might be able to deal
with the physics, but, as we said, no light can escape from
order to strengthen your credibility you might want to acquaint
yourself with an exciting event which has recently taken place.
Our galaxy -- the Milky Way -- has a back hole at its center
which is 26,000 light-years from us and has been named Sagittarius
A*. Astronomers have observed that it has pulled a gas cloud
named G2 toward its rim (which scientists have labeled its ‘event
horizon’ at about 1800 miles a second. The movement of
G2 is being followed by BICEP2 -- radio telescope at the South
Pole which just recently recorded faint spiral patterns of microwave
radiation left over from the Big Bang. Remember, we can't see
the back hole just like we can't see a hurricane wind blowing.
But the telescope has shown us Sagittarius A*'s action just
like bent trees show us the effect of hurricane wind. Stay tuned.
focuses on the Big Bang which occurred 13.8 billion ago. If
you doubt this statistic, you might want to acquaint yourself
with ingenious devices which accurately measure it via temperature
fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background and something
called the correlation function of galaxies. The exact time
of the Big Bang is constantly being verified and ironically,
as I write this essay on 3-18-14, another proof has just been
announced. An experiment at the South Pole starring BICEP2 has
successfully captured and analyzed the faint glow left over
from the Big Bang. It has recorded the existence of what are
called primordial gravitational waves and this discovery substantiates
the long-held concept called ‘inflationary Big Bang theory.’
Today on his blog Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll
said "other than finding life on other planets or directly
detecting dark matter, I can't think of any other plausible
near-term astrophysical discovery more important than this one
for improving our understanding of the universe."
is probably the most astounding particle physics discovery in
recent history is that of the famous Higgs Boson. At the time
of the Big Bang, infinitesimal particles were released. These
particles formed atoms which later combined to form molecules
which, of course, led to the creation of matter and, on our
planet, life. To try to understand these particles which contain
the secrets of the early universe, scientists years ago constructed
particle accelerators and colliders which could replicate the
huge forces of the Big Bang. They discovered particles such
as electrons, neutrons and protons. As their machines grew more
sophisticated, they were able to make these particles collide
with greater speed which led to the discovery of more particles.
Eventually, they were able to identify all the basic particles
except one, and in 1970 came up with a theory dubbed the Standard
Model of Particle Physics. This model explained away the mysteries
of the-moment-of-creation physics. But unless they were able
to discover the missing vital particle called the Higgs Boson
they could not verify their splendid theory.
try to find the Higgs, physicists had to construct the fastest
collider ever conceived. This project came to fruition at CERN
(also called the European a Organization for Nuclear Research)
near Geneva, Switzerland and the machine was named the LHC -
Large Hadron Collider. The search for the Higgs particle would
involve the work of over 3,000 physicists and the data collected
from the collision of protons would be analyzed by some 100,000
computers all over the world.
building of the LHC at CERN took decades and cost over five
billion dollars with additional billions needed to keep it working.
But the goal for the physicists was nothing less than an understanding
of the basic laws of the universe. If this largest machine ever
built could reveal the existence of the Higgs Particle as it
collided the protons at light speed, then the Standard Model
Theory constructed by the theoretical physicists could be verified
and a new dawn would rise in human history.
years of struggle and some huge damage to the LHC in early trials,
the magical day finally came and on July 4, 2012 when the experimental
physics team and media from everywhere gathered at CERN as physicists
from all over the world watched on their streaming computers.
The experimental physics team announced that The LHC collision
had been successful revealing the Higgs Boson. Its weight of
125 GeV (giga electron volts) gave huge impetus to the Standard
gripping saga and its resolution is one of the most pivotal
moments in the history of science and we can now witness the
drama in a brilliant new film titled Particle
by David Kaplan (a Johns Hopkins physicist) and directed by
Mark Levinson. The film's stars are the amazing theoretical
and experimental physicists who have dedicated their lives pursuing
the Big Bang phenomenon and initiating the search for the Higgs
Boson or God Particle as some have labeled it. The production
is first- rate and the explanations of the astonishing nuclear
physics involved are graphic and inspiring.
is notable in Particle Fever for our purposes here
is the commentary from David Kaplan and other featured physicists.
They manage to convert the information of their unfathomable
mathematical formulas into dramatic metaphors and graphic illustrations.
Together with accompanying video simulations, this commentary
goes a long way toward getting us mere mortals not only to understand
the basic laws of nature as revealed by the LHC but also to
begin abandoning many of our primordial beliefs, fears and superstitions.