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Vol. 13, No. 2, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
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particle fever

reviewed by


Nick 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, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. Nick’s reviews are available at


During 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.

Why 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?

In 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 soon reigns.

However, 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 grasp.

As 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.

If this notion is difficult to swallow consider the next capability of gravity: it actually conquers time.

As 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 it.

In 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.

Astrophysics 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."

What 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.

To 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.

The 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.

Through 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 Model Theory.,

This 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 Fever produced 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.

What 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.



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