Nightmare on Meyrin Street

’tis gone.
What seemed to hold the promise of a revolution in physics has fizzled out. Disappeared into oblivion. Is there really nothing more than the Higgs for the LHC to discover? Will the experiment just wander in an energy desert for the rest of its life? It is the most feared scenario physicists could have thought of before switching on the machine at CERN: a true nightmare. What now? Someone is probably hoping this nightmare will let us save money on curiosities that only experts care about and are of no public good for the majority. So wrong!

I have friends who work in theoretical particle physics: they are passionate, capable scientists and I’ve always wished the results found at LHC would help them land the permanent position they deserve to keep doing what they’re best at. Now that everyone in the field is back to square one, my friends are among the best positioned to start a new conversation with Nature through the screen of a blackboard: they are still professionally young enough to be as audaciously bold as the situation requires. So far, in fact, the community of theoreticians has mostly played by decade-old rules: no wonder we’re stuck. It is then a great opportunity to make tabula rasa and be daring. I’m confident the revolutionary men and women that’ll get us out of this morass are already born: hopefully they’re already at work and they are collaborating with each other to enjoy the benefits of complementarity.

However, things could turn out bad: the work toward a new description of Nature might take more time than my friends have to secure a job. As numerous as they can be, and even if they may come from your own country, I don’t think the destiny looming on them will move you. However, in such a case, a catastrophe will be pending above us all.

While it may look like CERN hunts for Pokemon-like entities in reality it does much more: it creates the basis for our future wellbeing. The past week, together with the sad announcement of the aborted physics revolution, CERN celebrated the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web. It was invented there and you use it to read this piece or the news, to book the flight to go on holidays, to buy shoes and do many more things that are now given for granted in our everyday life.

CERN also has a medical research unit, where particle physics know-how from theory and experiments is put to service for health applications such as treating cancers. Moreover, for its computing needs CERN has been instrumental in the development of Grid computing, which

“… offers a way to solve Grand Challenge problems such as protein folding, financial modeling, earthquake simulation, and climate/weather modeling. Grids offer a way of using the information technology resources optimally inside an organization. They also provide a means for offering information technology as a utility for commercial and noncommercial clients, with those clients paying only for what they use, as with electricity or water.”

There is much more that CERN does for us all but I’m confident the overview I’ve given you can already let you share my concern that if we stop doing research in particle physics we stop creating needs that only this type of research can create, while their satisfaction provides the most fertile conditions for our future wellbeing and prosperity.

Before concluding, it is worth mentioning that the non-discovery of a new particle does not mean CERN should close shop just yet. In fact, knowing that the particle is not there is already a precious piece of information: we could not know beforehand, so disposing of a new piece of (non-)evidence is very useful, though painful.

At the same conference where the sad non-discovery announcement has been made a flood of other new results has been shared with the public by CERN. They still have some twenty years of activity in front of them to let the LHC machine continue its tremendously accurate and reliable work. This persistence is needed to allow new rare phenomena to show up in a significant way. Therefore, we can be “disappointed but not discouraged” as a physicist says at the end of a BBC Horizon documentary that just aired.

Last but not least, a note is in order about the title: Meyrin Street is CERN’s address for the public.

New physics, is that you?

Mysterious hints of long-awaited physics beyond the Standard Model seem to have emerged at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider

The collaborations behind ATLAS and CMS, the two general-purpose experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, have just published their latest reports. Their new data show a suspicious bump, similar to the one that gave away the existence of the Higgs boson: a detour in an otherwise smooth trajectory across the energy region explored by means of particle collisions. The reason why the new results could either hold great potential or have physicists endure a longer nerve-wracking wait has to do with how searching for the unknown works.

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN offers one the most favorable views of the Universe. Its behemoth experiments collide particles like bumper cars: in the particle dodgem debris are carefully scrutinized to reveal secrets about the interiors of the clashing entities and new types of particles can materialize into existence by converting the energy made available by the collision. Millions of particles are smashed into each other millions of times per second in order for the little sparse hints of every strike to accumulate into relevant information about the microscopic world.

Artist's rendition of a high-energy collision inside a particle detector (Image: CERN)

Artist’s rendition of a high-energy collision inside a particle detector (Image: CERN)

An everyday life equivalent of this would be tossing millions of coins millions of times and counting how many heads or tails you get. Both heads and tails being equally probable you should find that each occurs roughly 50% of the times. That’s in theory. In practice, if you throw a coin 10 times you can get heads 7 times in a row: how’s that possible?

It could be that your coin is rigged: knowing for sure this is not the case is what scientists call characterizing the experimental setup. Maybe your coin is responding to its surroundings in some unexpected way; before you can claim to have a magic coin you have to make sure you understand your environment and how this might interfere with your experiment. It could also be that, while you think you’re just throwing a standard coin, the one you got is no ordinary coin: it’s a completely new one that behaves in an unconventional way with respect to the others you have thrown in the past. More prosaically, it is possible that you did not conduct your experiment enough times to make any statistically significant claim, as scientists would say. When you toss a standard coin your outcomes will approach the 50-50% separation as you increase the number of tosses.

Counting occurrences and comparing results with expectations also characterized the hunt for the Higgs boson, when ATLAS and CMS were like Columbus’ caravels on their course to the Indies: they had to navigate an energy stretch delimited, though loosely, by previously available maps of the microscopic world; their promised land was the particle associated with the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism. We all know how the story went: Columbus found America instead, while the Higgs boson was indeed discovered and the duo Higgs-Englert was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, absent the late Brout.


Professor Englert and Professor Higgs speaking at the Higgs seminar announcement at CERN in July 2012 (Image: CERN)

Since then CERN has been making history, though in a peculiar sense. Its LHC works in fact as a time machine, by concentrating energy to values that characterized the Universe only immediately after the Big Bang. Now we can rewind a movie no one has ever watched before and directly witness the story unfold as if it were the first time. We have some expectations about the movie but this time around the situation is trickier than in the Higgs-Columbus days: we have left America. The map we could use until then, the so-called Standard Model, is not adequate anymore.

Every model is a description of Nature that is optimized for a specific set of its features and the Standard Model makes no exception: it is very accurate in its domain but cannot explain 95% of the Universe. These dark sectors are like very dim, unexplored rooms in a castle: to build a detailed map of these rooms we need to probe them, to understand their architecture and the variety of their furniture we need landmarks that inform our bearings.

ATLAS and CMS scientists have just finished analyzing information that seem to suggest a new landmark could exist, what exactly is still up for debate: it could be as familiar as a cousin of the Higgs boson or as novel as a manifestation of extra dimensions. This uncertainty represents science in the making and is very fruitful for researchers because it compels them to go through a checklist that resembles the one about the coin toss: are we dealing with a completely new coin? Or will new tosses wash away the seven-heads-in-a-row occurrence?

Only time and more data will tell if we have finally found new physics beyond the Standard Model: after all we have just started watching the movie about the history of the Universe.

Today we make history

Today the Large Hadron Collider at CERN restarts doing its business: colliding particles. How this works is best explained in this video from PhD Comics. As the video says, having energy is like having money: you can buy stuff. It’s like going to a restaurant and being able to buy dishes you never had the money for; the nice thing is that you do not know what those dishes are: it is as if the ingredients had not existed before you had enough money to order those dishes.

And that is also why today is so important. Until today we have never had so much energy to magnify the behavior of Nature at very small distance. Such a behavior has only been present once in the history of the Universe, some 14 billion years ago, when the cosmos was so young it only measured a teeny tiny speck, smaller than anything you have a feeling for.

So today CERN brings us back to those times, to see what was there before our atoms even existed. Today we go witness an untold chapter of the tale of our Universe. Today we travel back in time, today we make history!


An outreach Odyssey

I’m delighted to discover the translation into French of the book “A Zeptospace Odyssey“, written by eminent theoretical physicist Dr. Gian Giudice from CERN, about the LHC and the hunt for the Higgs. The translation is the result of work by students and staff of the Faculty of Translation of the University of Geneva, in Switzerland.
The reason why I’m very happy to see this translation is because it constitutes a practical and successful realization of one of the ideas for outreach I propose in my paper “Who cares about physics today? A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science and the benefit of society”. To efficiently satisfy the mandatory and diverse communications needs of scientists, in my proposal I specifically identify universities for the role they can play in outreach: being multi-disciplinary hubs by constitution, these institutions could improve use of their assets by having their many departments collaborate. This synergy is very beneficial for the students involved in the process: in fact they are provided with hands-on job experiences, which, being multi-disciplinary, are particularly professionalizing for a chameleonic job market.
The university itself benefits from this strategy in much the same way as from an investment: putting into contact its human resources, it can take fruits which are more numerous and rich than those available from summing the individual separated contributions; furthermore, it can shape its curriculum in a particularly distinctive and concrete way, thus securing students enrollments and investments from satisfied alumni.
I’ve recently presented this set of ideas at the University of Nottingham, which hosted the 2013 “Science in Public” conference and kindly granted me the opportunity of exposing in the parallel session titled “Public communication of science and technology by universities, research centres, scientists or researchers and society rights”. In this context I could stress once more what I think is a crucial attitude to be adopted for science outreach nowadays: to switch from the research mantra “publish or perish” to the communication one “be cool or perish”. In order to prosper, science has to show off its “sexy” side (read: usefulness and proximity to people): failure to do so will represent an Odyssey for both science and outreach.

Ideas are sexy too!

Ideas are sexy too!

Ode to the Higgs

The Higgs boson is my name
Which to you might sound insane
I came to put order in some mess
As I give special particles their mass
I’ve been hidin’ for billions of years
But now I’m in every mouth and ears
My skatepark looks like a Mexican hat
And on it now you know where I’m at
They made me come out in a cave
And they’re really kind of brave:
LHC is the machine at CERN
Which did so well since on was turned.

It does not end with me getting to fame
Coz we’ve only started playing the game
You won’t wait long for some more fun
Coz in reality it’s only just begun
It took 50 years for an idea to test
Now for sure we can’t just rest
So much stuff we don’t know yet
We could call Hawking and make a bet
Most of the Universe is still obscure
We need imagination of the most pure
Our ignorance amounts to a grand 95%
So we hope for some strange particle event
To shed some light on the dark sector
We rely on some smart physics doctor

If all this doesn’t ring you any bell
Then there’s one more thing I’d like to tell
A weird connection called spinoff
That we should really not break off
What we discover due to curiosity
Turns out to benefit all humanity
Get then ready for some insanity
There’s something called hadron-therapy
That can cure people’s cancers
With best precision and least dangers

This is just one meaningful example
Of a pattern that is quite more ample
We explore Nature to understand
What is the picture the most grand
In tryin’ to know of ev’ry piece its place
We get somethin’ you can’t quite replace
To discover a particle called Higgs boson
We opened wide a brand new horizon
In conclusion that’s the story
Of why I deserve so much glory
So the moral of the story is
Don’t forget what my name is

This was the first poems of mine dedicated to science; there are two more, in Italian:
– “Che ce frega der bosone?
– “Questa è la scienza, lor signori