Thursday, February 12, 2009

You Were Never Born. You Will Never Die

Ok, people. I'm breaking a taboo of mine to dish on something that I got to see that most people won't get to. This morning I got to go into the inner workings of the large hadron collider at CERN, the European Organization For Nuclear Research, where they smash particles together in search of the God Particle, otherwise known as the Higgs Particle, Higgs Boson, or the Higgs Field (they are not the same, and they are -- something you hear a lot from physicists, as I just discovered over some lovely red wine).

If you have no idea what the hell I just said, read this from the BBC.

I've written about particle physics here before, much much earlier in the life of this blog, attempting to explain why I dig it so much, and why it's my bizzaro pastime. If you think you could get into it, I highly recommend Brian Greene's Elegant Universe (mostly about string theory, which is just that: highly highly theoretical -- you can also watch the NOVA special here) and Leon Lederman's The God Particle.

Anyway, here are the photos!

Green means go!

This is the detector, where the particles collide, and data is taken from the explosions. It is way, WAY hotter than our sun in there, but you know, no biggie. They built it like a ship in a bottle -- all the pieces, weighs hundreds of tons, lowered through a huge whole in the ground at an angle, and then built in the lower chambers.It's hard to tell from this, but it is seriously, seriously massive and weighs more then the Eiffle Tour. The slightly brass looking thing is the muon detector (or the Alice detector? Maybe they're the same thing? Readers who are Particle Physicists, now's your time to shine!) and looks like a massive penny. But you know, no Lincoln.

Here's a photo from the CERN website to offer some perspective -- though it's taken from the other side of the dectector:

The Atlas project hub, where the data from the collisions is amassed. I asked how long it took from the time of collisions (they have them going constantly) to data breakdown, that is, how long it takes them to understand what they've just seen. It was the first of many times I heard "Well, sometimes it takes five minutes. Then othertimes it will take us five decades. Maybe more! Ha ha!"
When I was there they had data from a lepton collision (or a collision resulting in leptons, I couldn't tell). Leptons and Quarks are the smallest known particles of matter as of yet. There are six of each (not counting anti-quarks and anti-leptons).

More from the data hub.

Ok, so this is hard to put in perspective. This is looking straight down, from the first floor of the structure, into the cavern where they build the collider from pieces. All the pieces went down this thing, which is HUGE. This, by the way, is as far as most people get to the collider.

You can get a better idea of the size here, also it's taken from the bottom looking up: (Photo from CERN website)

That blue thing is one of the accelorating magnets coming down.

Below the dectector, en route to the accelerators.

The beginning of a ring of accelerators, which are actually magnets. For the actual Big Bang Project, they conduct and steer protons (hence super-conducing super-collider). The ring of magnets measures 27km. Someone else can figure that out in Americanese, but I know it's alot. Right now the collider is measuring other types of collisions while they check and reinstall the magnets for the proton collisions (the ones people think are going to rip the fabric of spacetime and create black holes on Earth).

Update!! So when I was going through the press handouts, I realized all the magnets I was seeing were blue and equipped with liquid helium, whereas the magnets I was seeing were red. Being a totally obsessed dork, I wrote our very very kind tour guide Dr. Markus Nordberg, asking if there were multiple rings of accelerators for different projects, or if the other magnets were further down the ring. And he totally wrote back to me! Here's words from one of the masters:

As to your question: that was the main ring were were in. The red magnets are the so-called focusing magnets that squeeze the accelerated protons into dense bunches before they collide at the center of ATLAS. So indeed, the blue magnets (dipoles, as they are known) are further away in the tunnel. Remember: the particles more 99.999999% of the speed of light (300 000 km/s) so some 200m before the collision they are no longer “needed” and there still needs to be time to correct the bunches on their orbits.

Again, it was a pleasure to host you yesterday and whatever your future career plans may be, I’d encourage you to consider that science would be part of them!I would have liked to ask you whether you are actually studying physics as your questions were VERY GOOD.

I left that last part in there just to brag.

The accelerating magnets feeding into the detector. The big round Death Star looking thing (which I believe is the muon detector).

This isn't part of anything sciency, but doesn't it look cool? This is the Sphere, the welcoming center for CERN and was beautiful in the snow. They were doing a press conference here for some movie, I don't know. I was looking for young, male particle physicists.

Over dinner in a small, smokey restaurant in snowy Geneva, I had the privilege to imbibe and discuss with three fascinating, funny, and generous souls from CERN, Rolf Landua, Tara Shears and a very nice man named James, whose last name I didn't catch, and which I apologize for, especially because we talked about His Dark Materials, and the role Dark Matter plays in Pullman's masterpiece.

As the night got colder and darker, we talked about the difference between fields and particles, the difference between Higgs field /God Particle and Higgs Boson, and how good "Blade Runner" is. But my favorite thing that I heard, maybe of the whole day, was when I asked Dr. Landua what he wants everyone to know about particle physics. If he could tell the whole world one thing that he knows, what would it be?

"That you are 13.7 billion years old. Everything that you are, was created at the beginning of the universe. And when you die, it will return to the universe and go on to be something else."


We were never born, and we will never die.

*One of the first images from CMS, showing the debris of particles picked up in the detector's calorimeters and muon chambers after the beam was steered into the collimator (tungsten block) at point 5

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Hello, Goodbye

OK, so, it's been a while.

I've been trying to compute that whole "inauguration" thing. As you know, I was twittering, in a manner that was somehow both unabashed and ashamed. Obviously, one-liners can't really sum up the experience. Except for the time I ran from the Western States ball. There really was no other way to express that feeling other than "Abort! Abort!"

If someone ever offers you the opprotunity to run (run) around in DC in the middle of January in high heels and the equivalent of a nightgown, I suggest you politely turn them down. You will underestimate how hard it is to throw yourself over a stone blockade. I felt a bit like Gavroche, but less dead and less French.

Anyway, the ceremony itself was very emotional, and I won't try to describe to you what that was like, because I will fail. I will say that I cried a whole lot, and I am flabbergasted that anyone would describe President Obama's speech as dour or somehow unimpressive in comparison with previous speeches.

I will, however, attempt to show you what it was like after the ceremony. A couple of night ago, I had a dream I was in a press corps waiting to interview Valerie Jarret .

Never underestimate my dorkiness.

Anyway, in the dream, there was some sort of fire nearby, and everyone was told to evacuate. Rather than a panicked free-for-all, the whole crowd quietly made its way to safety, and along the way hugged, shook hands, and occasionally told total strangers, "I'm so glad I got to share this moment with you!"

That is exactly, EXACTLY, what it was like leaving the Mall. Minus the fire, of course. People were laughing, crying and pausing along the way to hug and shake hands. It was like that moment in a church service, the only one I really like, where strangers turn to each other and wish, "Peace be with you."

And it was beautiful.

But I have to say, in another vein of beauty, was the moment when we were all paused as a car was let through the path. A huge roar came up from the crowd, and everyone turned and craned their heads to look up: and there was Marine One, taking that man away. Forever.

If people were crying before, the immediate three hundred people around me started sobbing in full-out cathartic breakdown. Everyone waved goodbye to him, and then, getting louder and louder, the mass of people started singing.