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Heloise At The Hadron… Collider That Is

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Welcome to the world of the peripatetic physicist: “have laws will travel.” She is alive and inquiring into how to bring particle physics (HEP) to multiple-level learners.  It is not physics for dummies, but for teachers who seek to teach physics to students. And to make it interesting, even I daresay, entertaining, the “fiddle factor” is a must.

Just as the U.S. ranks low on the “free” or “universal” healthcare-provider scale, it also ranks low in math and science testing against other countries.  But wait, mentors, physics teachers, and physicists at Fermi National Labs are really trying to change that image abroad.  

At this writing, the Hadron collider in Batavia, Illinois is offline. It is outdated, for lack of a better word. The Large Hadron collider at CERN (Geneva, Switzerland) "where the Web was born," is now the focus of physics for international collaboration. But Fermi is anything but empty. Indeed it is a veritable hornet’s nest of activity. Loyal Quarknet members are attempting to produce simulated, virtual and modular “box” physics resources for other teachers. For physics teachers, our week's work will be made available.

The Birthplace of “Spin” 

My small pod of physics teachers brainstormed the first meeting. There was a lot of healthy “spin” talk going on. You see, physicists invented spin, particle spin that is.  “Spin” may be a word you think you know. What you don’t know is that when particles, atomic worlds, collide you get spin. The greater the energy put into the system, the bigger the circle or spin. Here it is not a bad word. In fact it is a good word, one that we virtually cannot avoid using or couching into our conversations about various particle events.

Physicists and scientists don’t see the world the way that others do. They observe a simple item such as a cup and think how they can mold it into a tool for fusion reactions. Or use the polymers found inside to build giant particle accelerators. Just as matter is conserved, so too thoughts nor things are wasted around Fermi lab.

Our small, but talented, group began our trek into the unknown (inquiry) with a “forced march” to the waters of data understanding.  Inquiry is an experience to be sure. Can one divine data without loosing touch with reality? Hmmm. What does collected data mean? How do scientists do science? What does good data look like? Those are just some of the questions. If done correctly it should lead the teachers and the students to the source of cognitive resonance. The holy grail of understanding cosmic (atomic) geometry completed with the power of critical thinking. This is not always the product for students in less advantaged schools. Or who come from the wrong side of the zip code.

Computers and the Internet very much inform the world of science and the student jealous after science. But these resources vary greatly from state to state, and from (rich) school to (less rich) school. Teachers are taught that all students can learn if shown the way, and taken by the hand to the land of math and hard work. Only the digital divide, lack of keen resources, can keep the students' playing field from being level, in the “two” (really) school systems here in America. 

Size Matters in High-Energy Physics (HEP). 

Democritus coined “atom” and said it was indivisible. He was wrong. Quantum physics, in the last century, gave us a family of “atoms” made up of subatomic particles. This is the standard model. Each particle is believed to bring along or carry infinite relatives. Such subatomic particles could be subdivided into infinity. Try counting that! The size of these particles, matched pairs, has offered no major obstacles to the physicists at major colliders.

Why? They figured out that all they had to do was to annihilate the particles by shooting them directly at each other, at light speed, in opposite directions. The result: a non-mass mess of more particles! So damn small, the atom is large by comparison, that the only hint of their existence was found in the form of tracks and jets left behind on paper. The most dramatic result to come out of this work has been the discovery of symmetry in the universe.

I call it the yin-yang factor. The Chinese got it right. Their symbol says it takes two to tango. And the giants of quantum physics have codified it: every particle has an antiparticle or exact, equal and opposite twin. Here everything must add up to zero. To borrow from Newton: for every particle, there is an equal and opposite particle. "In particle and nuclear physics positive and negative charges can annihilate each other but the total net charge is always the same." (glossary)

No, these little guys are short-lived, hard to find and destroyed in an instant, on a regular basis. And to “top quark” it all off: there are some particles that do not obey symmetry. They are asymmetrical, they deter (or violate) CP symmetry. The renegade particle (neutrinos) goes its own way. Physicists were aghast because it was believed that all particles obeyed their latest discovery—symmetry. They don’t.  

Big Bang's Bang

It is believed, therefore, that if every particle had an antiparticle, then we would not have a universe in which to abide. It would have been a zero-sum game at the end of the Big Bang’s bang. Everything would have been annihilated, no building blocks of matter left behind. In other words, something, some matter must have escaped. Physicists are not certain what escaped, but they are certain it was heavy or reactive enough to jump start a star. This blessed particle-event did not create an anti-particle; why is a mystery. "Equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have formed," because if it had it would have been the same as creating its own destruction.

From thoughts come things.  

Einstein imagined himself the observer on a train, and voilà, he saw the light literally, and the theory of special relativity was born. Through the understanding of the transformation of mass, or energy = mass times light squared. He came up with another thought and conveyed it in a letter to President Roosevelt, asking him to build a hydrogen bomb – a big thing. And the bomb was born. Mass coupled with light could be converted to energy and back again. Here came a radical concept from a man nobody wanted to hire! He had the quiet of a patent office to work his metaphysical musings. Collecting the data in his mind and on small scraps of paper later assembled into his great papers, inside his “magical year.”

What is the probability? 

If you think that particle physics has no real world application, consider this: solar neutrinos have been weakly suspected of being the culprit adding to or creating global warming. The only problem with that hypothesis is the nature of the neutrino itself. It is highly non-reactive, much like the noble gases in the Periodic Table are non-reactive. The neutrinos, a mere million billion, pass right through our bodies every day unnoticed. If they were more powerful, we would feel it!

But the debate continues. Can global warming be explained by the activity of particles unknown a hundred years ago? Will the search for origin of mass (Higgs particle) yield the string at the end of the rainbow and explain absolutely everything (GUT)? Could an unlimited source of clean energy be produced that would be so plentiful, clean and equitably distributed that the end of world poverty possible in the near future? What is the probability?

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