Science Tourism: CERN


First, we ate at Restaurant 1; quality defeating PR at least for a day. “R1 definitely has the best food, but R2 has better publicity.” Dustin is an extraordinary tour guide, beginning our education immediately. “I don’t know how up you are on particle physics?” he half-inquired, scanning our eager (and no doubt blank) faces. “There are six kinds of quarks…” His service project is updating some software for analyzing the top quark. “The detector,” he continued, “gives two types of information: voltages and times.” The software takes these data, reconstructs it, then reconstructs it again. I’m vague on the reconstruction process but understand the necessity because quarks are inherently unstable.

Over ristretto, topics temporarily wander. Doris comments on a physical family resemblance, then mimics Colin as he gestures his way through a description of his current project on combinatorial optimalization. Colin asks about demographics: are the hundreds of people around us all scientists who work here? Mostly yes, and visitors too. Both physicists and engineers work at the facility, which has its own hostel for visiting researchers. Currently there are more experimental physicists around than theoretical physicists, since “the detector” (formally, ATLAS) is undergoing maintenance. The theoretical guys will show up once ATLAS resumes generating data. Repairs, by the way, are complete, but the supercooling process requires significant time. If you take the temperature down too fast then elements will break.

I am intrigued by the protocols for generating knowledge. There are several layers of internal scrutiny before information (usually, it seems, in the form of a model) is made public. The raw data from ATLAS is not being widely-shared. The main reason is a combination of quantity and complexity. There’s the instability problem (my term): since quarks only exist for periods of time much shorter than an instant, and because it is impossible to isolate individual quarks, the original data is itself already a step or two removed from physical reality, being an aggregation of patterns captured from the impacts of quarks in space and time over 27 kilometers of the detector. The so-called raw data is basically a stable representation of the inherent instability of quarks. To make sense of the original data, then, requires not only reconstruction but also intimate knowledge of the precise conditions of the detector at every moment and each location where data was gathered.

If you recall high school science when you had to measure height, weight, temperature and duration (for instance) for some kind of reaction in order to identify a particular chemical result, then you’ve got the general idea. But let me share an illustration from the predecessor project, OPAL, in order to impress the scope of detail here. Before ATLAS, which is colliding protons against protons, there was a project colliding electrons and positrons (anti-electrons). Using the same twenty-seven kilometer ring, buried 100 meters underground, the LEP energy measurements detected changes in the overall length of the entire detector of one millimeter. Think on this: the detector (more-or-less a hollow tube) is 27 kilometers long (more than 16 miles), the fluctuation in energy generated from the collisions was fine-tuned to the point of being able to monitor the tube getting shorter, then longer, then shorter, then longer again by one millimeter, twice every day. Literally, the rocks move, rhythmically, this infinitesimal amount daily. Why, you might ask? Because of the orbit of the moon! Alex, a colleague of Dustin’s who escorted us to the Microcosm, CERN’s onsite museum, described this effect as “the tidal flow of rock.”

Moon effect, therefore, is only one of the conditions that must be known in order to read the raw data and come up with reliable observations. Hence, the usefulness of simply pouring the data into the public sphere (as was so successful with the Human Genome Project) is not transparent. Rather, if an individual working on their own analysis comes up with an observation or finding with meaning potential, they must first present it to their Working Group, which – if satisfied with the rigor of the analysis, recommends it to be published in an internal publication for review by the specific scientific community associated with CERN. If the model passes this review, then it will be presented for publication to the general public. I wondered if this procedure is an inhibitory mode of control on the generation of knowledge, but Dustin’s explanation presents it as a basic system of checks-and-balances.

Later, on the bus ride back into Geneva, I make a parallel with Kevin’s idea about economics and capitalism that markets cannot all be completely open, but neither does each type need to be regulated in the same way. Just as we need to distinguish which kinds of markets require varying extents of relative regulation, perhaps there is legitimacy in determining which types of scientific knowledge deserve more or less safeguarding in order to avoid – or at least minimize – counterproductive tangents. CERN is, after all, a nuclear research laboratory. I was surprised to learn that CERN was conceived in 1952 as a post-World War II initiative to generate peaceful cooperation among countries in Europe, particularly in relation to nuclear research. This is nearly the same time as the European Union was getting underway.

Speaking of tangents (!), let’s get back to CERN, and the Microcosm.
The body, one of the first exhibits explains, starting with cells, moving down to atoms, and finally to quarks, is 99.9% empty space. This is a more shocking statistic than the fact that our bodies are mostly water: we are less ourselves than we think we are! Three basic elements make us up: the electron, the top quark, and the down quark. In addition to the cognitive challenge of wrapping one’s mind around this fact, is the additional fact that the combined mass of all the electrons, top quarks, and down quarks in your body do not add up to your total weight. The remaining mass – subtracting the total mass of actual particles in your body from what you weigh on the scale – is “binding energy.” I did not see a percentage breakdown of energy/mass for the human body, but I think it’s pretty cool that once those quarks and atoms are built up into molecules (water, fat, protein, bone), the rest of you (e.g., gluons, hadrons) is . . .

. . . the binding of these masses interacting with the strong force? (I’m not clear, here.) :-/

The terminology is complicated because the words don’t make sense by themselves, it is only by learning the conceptual relationships between the words that the meanings begin to come clear. A “proton” (positive charge) and an “electron” (negatively-charged) for instance, make sense because they are in opposition to each other. Just like “empty” (as a concept) is only sensible as the opposite of “full.” When we “know” something (anything!) we never know “it” by itself, we know “it” by what it isn’t, by how it compares and contrasts with other related (and un-related) things. (Philosophers, however, speak of bracketing out and reduction as processes of exclusion to get down to the essence of a thing-by-itself, and the scientific method obviously still relies on this logic.) Anyway, to become familiar with a new subject, one has to learn its categories. The categories of particle physics involve the different types of particles that compose atoms. The standard model (which refers to the interactions of the four fundamental forces) begins with the parts of an atom: protons, nucleus, and electrons.

For most of my life, this kind of information failed to materialize into coherent consciousness for me. The three-dimensional world floated vaguely on a two-dimensional grid. I (more-or-less) grasped the flat plane of an x and y grid but the z axis was elusive. These three dimensions are described in CERN’s Microcosm as “latitude, longitude, and altitude.” Concepts I thought I understood discretely but not well in terms of being able to transfer their relationships to other realms. Now I understand better, for instance, that electrons orbiting a nucleus are not all on a flat plane, but crisscross each other in spherically diagonal manners. But why should anyone care, going down so much smaller, to the tiniest of the small, to the ways that quarks compose protons?

Because figuring out what’s happening at that lowest, smallest level of reality might explain how time happens. The standard model, you see, which has had amazing (virtually perfect) accuracy of prediction for nearly thirty years, cannot explain where mass comes from. In other words, even though scientists continue to rely on it, they know that it isn’t quite right! (In addition to being unable to explain mass, the standard model also doesn’t adequately explain gravity.)

I’m going to skip a lot of details here, because I’m not capable, yet, of explaining the relationships all that well. Basically, the six types of quarks combine in a variety of ways to make the familiar atoms. Something quite fascinating happens with these combinations, because the basic rule seems to be that “things can only exist in neutral,” meaning: the types of charges have to add up to zero. Each quark has a charge, or, as the physicists call it, a color. Enter the bosons, which carry the charges – these charges, by the way, are of weak force (which is not the same as “strong force” – the energy that holds the physical body together). There are different types of bosons, meaning different ways of carrying charge: the z boson, the w+ and the w-. In theory, the Higgs boson might explain where mass actually comes from: the theory suggests that Higgs causes things to move through time rather than at the speed of light. If you’re moving at the speed of light, the reference frame of time stops.

Once we find Higgs (if it does exist as predicted), I imagine some interesting shifts in the possibilities for human consciousness.
Why not?!

(Patience, please as I keep trying to wrap my mind around the categorical scaffolding.)

The heart of the standard model is not the cell, even though that is where my education began. Physicists now recognize electrons as a subset of a category of particles known as leptons. Both leptons and quarks are fermions, one of the three types of elementary particles: they are not made of anything smaller. Hadrons are quarks bound together. Protons are a type of baryon, which is one of the two categories of hadrons. I do find it hard to re-set my mind to imagine smaller building blocks than the ones I was taught in junior high!

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