Heavens within grasp ( LHC)

Power Politics, New Delhi, October 2008
Heavens within grasp:
Recreating the moments after the Creation


“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”

 Many astronomers believe that when Robert Browning wrote these lines he had them in mind. But now the physicists are hell- bent on bringing the  heavens within  their grasp. How did the universe look millionths of seconds after the Big Bang? There has been enough speculation on that. Now it is time the laboratory came forward to provide some answers. Lord Rutherford, the pioneering nuclear scientist and 1908 Nobel laureate, summed up the spirit of his age by declaring: “We have not got the money, so we have got to think”. Times have changed since. Basic science has increasingly become a child of high technology. The physicists’ mantra today is: “We have got the money, so we have got to think big.”

Thinking could not possibly have got any bigger. The new initiative brings physics centre stage after more than a generation and restores particle physics leadership to Europe after a long time. European Organization for Nuclear Research (known as CERN after the French acronym of an earlier name) has recently commissioned the world’s largest and the most ambitious particle physics laboratory,  built 50m to 175m underneath the France-Swiss border near Geneva. It consists of a circular tunnel, 3.8m in diameter, in the shape of a ring, 27 km in circumference.  Two beams each containing  trillions of protons and accelerated to speeds just short of that of light will be circling in opposite directions. For most of the ring these beams would be travelling in separate vacuum pipes, but at four selected points they will collide. The collision of extremely energetic particles should produce new particles normally not seen. Their study is expected to be rewarding.

Although the machine is simply called Large Hadron Collider (hadron denoting protons and neutrons), the project has two more essential parts.  Detectors installed at the four points will identify the components of the results of  the collisions while the  Computing Grid, a  four-tiered global network of computers and software, will  store and analyse the data recorded by the detectors. The beams were test fired on 10 September while  the collisions are slated for October end.

What do the scientists hope to find?

A physicist who died towards the close of the 19th century would have died a contented man. He knew his universe. It was a predictable, obedient clockwork fashioned by Newtonian forces. All matter was made of  entities dubbed atoms. The etymology is instructive. The word comes from Greek meaning un-cuttable. But the matter did not end there.

A recurrent statement in the 18th century discourse was that science was nothing but common sense. Innocence ended with the century. Nineteenth century decoupled  science from every day experience . Physics today is in a very messy state. Many extant theories are very complex, lack elegance and are infested with loose ends. They cannot possibly be the last word. They must evolve towards a state of simplicity. But if they are to improve they must receive some new inputs and new constraints from experiments. That is where  the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) comes in.

An atom is made of protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons  are in turn made of quarks and gluons. Quarks , gluons  and electrons  are , at current levels of knowledge, fundamental in the sense that they are indivisible . There are at present 57 fundamental particles actually observed, with 16 distinct names. (There are for example eight types of gluons.) How come that some particles have mass while others don’t? The answer may lie with a  theoretical particle which has not been detected so far. It has been dubbed the God particle  not by a journalist looking for a clever phrase but by a science Nobel laureate ( Leon Ledernan).The term may be an abbreviation for goddamn particle voicing the scientist’ frustration at its elusiveness. The popularity of the term,  not withstanding the scientists’ disapproval of it , does convey how important it is  perceived to be for the standard theory of particle physics. The formal name  is  the Higgs  boson or  the Higgs particle, after the Scottish physicist Peter Higgs who propounded the theory in 1964. ( Interestingly , boson is named after the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose who first worked out the statistics of these particles in 1924. A theoretical physicist at CERN, John Ellis, has an interesting analogy on how  particles acquire mass through  interaction with the hypothetical Hiiggs field. Different elementary particles are like a crowd of people running through mud. Some particles, like quarks, have big boots that get covered with lot of mud. Others, like electrons, have little shoes that barely gather any mud. Photons do not wear shoes; they just glide over the top of the mud .Higgs field , with which the Higgs particle is associated,  is the mud. If LHC can find the Higgs boson it would be splendid. If it can prove that the particle does not exist that would be even more significant.

A remarkable achievement of the 20th century science has been the merger of particle physics and cosmology. The Big Bang model of the universe tells us that at one time the cosmos was unimaginably small, without time, space or laws of nature. It consisted entirely of energy which then materialized. It is believed that in the Big Bang equal quantities of matter and anti-matter were produced. But when we see ourselves and countless galaxies we only see matter. What happened to the anti-matter? No point in asking a  physicist today. You would only embarrass them.

An intriguing feature of today’s universe is what is known as the problem of the dark matter. We detect matter courtesy the electromagnetic radiation it emits (visible light, radio waves, x-ray, gamma rays). But matter can feel other matter gravitationally. From the motion of visible matter we infer that there must be other matter around. It is estimated that only four percent of all matter in the universe is visible. The remaining is dark matter ( 23%) and dark energy ( 73%). Let us hope  LHC will  be able to throw some light on the matter!

Where does India fit in the scheme?

All ambitious scientific projects the world over are characterized by a common thought pattern. At one level there is the local pride : “ We are doing it”. At the same time there is the desire  to exclaim: “ We are doing it on behalf of the whole humankind”. It always makes sense to invite others on the stage as long as you remain at the centre. If small contributions can be arranged from other countries, the chances of raising substantial funding from your own sources increases. International cooperation enriches the project intellectually and cuts costs because fabrication of secondary  components can be outsourced.  In addition there is the problem of data deluge. An experiment would produce enormous amount of data. Major, headline-hitting, discoveries are made by the core groups themselves . The data are then successively passed down the line for extraction of whatever juice is left.

The LHC project includes 111 nations in designing, building and testing equipment and software, participating in experiments and analysing data.The list includes  India,  China, Pakistan , Nepal , Bangladesh and  Vietnam  among others. India is  involved at various levels.It has supplied components towards accelerating the beams.The nodal point for this is the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technologies, Indore. Indian teams  drawn from  several national institutes and universities  are also participating in two  of the  experiments , affectionately known as ALICE and CMS.  ALICE  includes more than 750 physicists and about 70 institutions in 27 countries, while the CMS collaboration consists of over 1800 scientists and engineers from 151 institutes in 31 countries. 

It may not be out of place to insert a copmment or two on the electronic and print media cverage of science in general.The press tends to go overboard while reporting on India’s place in world science.It  should be a matter of  some satisfaction that India is participating in an epochal scientific experiment.But if India had refused to join  would LHC have felt handicapped in any manner? Probably not.While the media persons can be quite ruthless  while covering political , military and economic stories, they do not mind acting as stenographers while reporting scientific matters . Once a while scientists are also entitled to their fifteen minutes of immortality, but  it is always befitting to maintain a sense of proportion. While reading statements within inverted commas, one is at times reminded of a line from an old Hindi film song : “ Begaani shaadi mein Abdulla divaana”. 

Ironically as the world enjoys more and more the fruits of technology its respect for science seems to be going down.The electronic media presents an interesting paradox.Various channels do not mind buying and installing the same technology. And  yet each one of them wants an exclusive story to break.By definition mainstream science cannot provide an exclusive lead, only pseudo-science can. No wonder then  that it is having a field day. 

It is noteworthy that throughout the world , especially thanks to internet blogging, a scare was created that the LHC experiment could create a black hole that would in turn destroy the whole world or at least part of it. In this age of digital egalitarianism, scientists can no longer dismiss such rumours as nonsense, even though that is what they are. Why do such rumours arise? The world’s faith in science and scientists is on the decline. Caught between cloning and black hole the non-scientist cannot but feel discomfited.  

There would be enough time to go into the sociology of science and technology. For the moment here  is hoping that  a “small”  terrestrial laboratory of today will recreate  the universe just after its creation.  

When big scientific experiments are proposed support has to be canvassed from  within the scientific community and from fund-givers. The proposal must therefore be integrated into the existing body of knowledge. It must be clearly spelt out what current problems are likely to be solved. In their own hearts scientists however hope that they would come across and be able to recognize something unexpected and unanticipated. Therein lies the romance of science.

The author is a former professor of  Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore  and former director of National Institute of Science, Technology and Development, New Delhi.

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