Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Babies and physics

I just spent 28 hours with my grandchildren, Rody and Sophia, now 3 months old. They smile now, but not on demand, i.e., when Grandma points her digital camera at them. I feel privileged to be a part of their young lives.

While I was at their house, I read an interesting article by Elizabeth Kolbert in the May 14 New Yorker, Crash Course, subtitled “Can a seventeen-mile-long collider unlock the universe?”

Even if you’re not all that interested in physics, I recommend this lengthy article.

Excerpts: “Sometime in the next few months, physicists at CERN [The European Organization for Nuclear Research, located in Geneva, Switzerland] will finish preparations for the most ambitious particle-physics experiment ever, which will be conducted in an apparatus modestly referred to as the Large Hadron Collider, or L.H.C. The L.H.C. fills a circular tunnel seventeen miles in circumference.”

“In 1969, the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy held a hearing at which the physicist Robert Wilson was called to testify. Wilson, who had served as the chief of experimental nuclear physics for the Manhattan Project, was at that point the head of CERN’s main rival, Fermilab, and in charge of $250 million that Congress had recently allocated for the lab to build a new collider. Senator John Pastore, of Rhode Island, wanted to know the rationale behind a government expenditure of that size. Did the collider have anything to do with promoting ;the security of the country’?

WILSON: No sir, I don’t believe so.
PASTORE: Nothing at all?
WILSON: Nothing at all.
PASTORE: It has no value in that respect?
WILSON: It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. . . . It has to do with are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. . . . It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

“The cost of the L.H.C. is expected to run to more than $8 billion, and this doesn’t include the price of the tunnel, which was originally dug for LEP. Most of the funding is being provided by European taxpayers; Germany has contributed the most—around twenty per cent of the total—and Britain and France have each contributed slightly less than that. The United States is contributing a little more than $500 million.” [Roughly 6%]

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