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Uncommon Descent Contest Question 13: The Large Hadron Collider is back up and running, but why? Winners announced.


Here’s the contest (excerpt follows)”

This one is for physics buffs. The Large Hadron Collider (called by some the God Machine) has suffered considerable woe recently – most recently when a passing bird dropped a piece of bread on it, though it appears to be back up and running.

Go here for the rest. Basically, two physicists suggested that time travel on the part of the Higgs boson might explain that:

A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.

So the question was,

For a free copy of the Privileged Planet DVD, about the unique position of Earth, provide the clearest answer the following question: Nine billion dollars and 15 years later, what is the Large Hadron Collider likely to tell us that is worth the cost and trouble?

Before I announce the winner, I would like to thank Access Research Network for kindly offering a shelf of books by mathematician David Berlinski – a self-confessed Darwin skeptic and widely enjoyed wit – as prizes for future contests. You can view their catalogue here.

The winners (both of whom must provide me with a valid postal address at oleary@sympatico.ca, in order to receive their prizes) are

vjtorley for this comment at 4:

The Large Hadron Collider could help answer questions that we would all like to see answered, for instance:

(1) Is the Standard Model of physics actually true? The model predicts the existence of a mysterious particle called the Higgs boson, which gives other particles their mass. If the LHC experiments rule out the existence of the Higgs boson, that will ignite a revolution in physics.

(2) What is dark matter? It seems that only invisible dark matter can account for the movement of clusters of glaxies, including the Bullet Cluster. But what is it? If dark matter consists of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, a.k.a. WIMPs, then the LHC might be able to detect them indirectly.

(3) What is dark energy, if it indeed exists? Recent measurements showing that the universe’s expansion is accelerating suggest that some kind of mysterious energy permeates the cosmos, but according to quantum physics, the vacuum of space should contain a LOT more dark energy – in fact, 10^120 times more – than we actually observe. The LHC might tell us why.

(4) Are the forces of nature all manifestations of a single force? Scientists would like to think so, for aesthetic reasons, but hard evidence is still lacking.

(5) Why is gravity so much weaker than the other three forces? It’s about 10^32 times weaker than the next weakest force. Why?

(6) Why is there more matter than anti-matter?

(7) Are there extra dimensions of space?

(8) Is God a master geometer? For me, this is perhaps the most interesting question of all.

Surfer Dude and physicist Garrett Lisi once said, “I think the universe is pure geometry – basically, a beautiful shape twisting and dancing over space-time. Since E8 is perhaps the most beautiful structure in mathematics, it is very satisfying that nature appears to have chosen this geometry.”

Of course, I would say God. Nature doesn’t choose anything, but from an aesthetic standpoint, I would expect God to make the most geometrically beautiful possible universe. According to Lisi’s Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything there should be 248 particles, corresponding to the symmetries of E8. 226 are known Standard Model particles, but some of the remaining 22 particles might be detected by the LHC. If the relations between the particles making up our universe turn out to reflect the structure of E8, then the Surfer Dude’s hunch will have been vindicated.


waterbear for this comment at 6:

Nine billion dollars and 15 years later, what is the Large Hadron Collider likely to tell us that is worth the cost and trouble?”

Exactly what the LHC will tell us cannot yet be known but will fall into one of two broad categories. Either that our current understanding of space, time and matter is generally correct in which case the LHC will reveal detail never seen before. Or that our current understanding is wrong, in which case we’d better work to fix that and understand what’s really going on.

And either of those two outcomes is valuable because every other time we have peered deeper into the structure and behaviour of matter and the universe’s fundamental forces we have learned things of direct practical use. Learning that matter was composed of different sorts of “atoms” spurred chemistry and metallurgy, further assisted when experimenters learnt that those atoms were in turn made of negatively charged “electrons” and a heavier positively charged part. Figuring out that the atom’s positive charge was concentrated in tiny “nuclei” vastly smaller than the atom and subsequent discoveries that the nucleus was made of both protons and neutrons spawned all nuclear technology from power generation to cancer radiotherapy, while discovering the relationship between magnetism and electricity and developing a tested theory of “electro magnetic fields” gave birth to all the electrical infrastructure we take for granted. Discovery that the smallest particles of matter behaved in different ways than matter at everyday scales led to the quantum mechanics which underpins much of modern electronics and permits the design of more communications and computing technology. Antimatter, for a long time only a speculative possibility and a staple of bad science fiction books, is now a confirmed reality being put to work every day in medical imaging and could even lead to better cancer therapies. All thanks to painstaking and often slightly slow and expensive work in the arcane world of particle physics and field theory. Go, physics!

A couple of centuries ago the bystander could have read about the work of those early experimenters and asked “what is studying these hypothetical ‘atoms’ likely to tell us that is worth the cost and trouble?” and nobody would have been able to give a satisfactory answer. Today we know better, that we can afford it and it’ll pay off.

And quite apart from the likely future technologies built on whatever the LHC uncovers we will also gain a deeper insight into how the universe really works, what stuff is made of and how it behaves. This is valuable in its own intangible way because nobody likes to be ignorant.

(Note: I don’t propose to generally announce two winners, but these two together provide a neat summary of what Hadron hopes to do (provided it is not shorted out by more bread from heaven), and its historical rationale.

Some other comments: Nakashima noted at 2 that Hadron doesn’t cost so much – a dollar a year? – when you average it out among all European taxpayers. Point taken, but the fact is that there are zillions of projects out there that cost only a dollar per taxpayer per year – and they all add up to zillions of dollars in the end.

My local public hospital could add 100 beds and fill them immediately, but the problem is that 1800 less critical dollar-a-year projects leach away the needed money. I have nothing against Hadron; I just want to know what the payload is, to decide if I think it worthwhile enough.

Nilglew at 5 suggests applying the “horselaugh of common sense” to many physics theories, and I agree. I am not the only journalist in Canada who thinks that large numbers of theoretical physicists are mere poseurs. Remember, you can be a poseur about theoretical physics without getting found out in a way that you can’t be about plumbing or wiring or building a deck.

I am glad that Kontinental at 9 is a proud European taxpayer. I just hope he’s getting something more for his money than mere absence of war. We don’t have much war here in Canada either (no local war since 1812-1814, actually), but generally we would never put up with all that Eurocracy. The people who have tried it on us are getting their butts kicked all across the country. They are not smart enough to tell us how to live.

Readers, if you would like to enter future contests, periodically announced, here are the contest rules, not many. Winners receive a certificate verifying their win as well as the prize. Winners must provide me with a valid postal address, though it need not be theirs. Names are never added to a mailing list. Have fun!