Why the LHC is not really that impressive
Sun Dec 21, 2008
Yesterday the Guardian had a special pull out section dedicated to the
LHC. If you browse through the articles you find lots of comments along
the lines of
"temple to mystery and imagination", "a journey to the edge of
understanding". "a modern cathedral to our relationship with the
universe", and so on. From the superlatives that are being written one
would think that the LHC is the best thing to happen to enlightenment
since some fat chinese guy sat beneath a tree, and that it is the summit
of human imagination, achievement and art. Well, I just don't buy all
of that crap.
Reading these articles got me thinking about what the LHC is, and
fundamentally it's just a larger detector than what we already had
before. As I see it, it's an inevitable extension of what you do if you
want to measure something that we already know how to measure (particle
tracks), with better precision over a higher energy range.
The bottom line is that we have been doing this since the 1920's.
If you look at it as just being an artifact then it is neat, but there
are many other piece of artistry that required as much imagination,
effort, skill and chutzpah to bring together. The moon landings are one,
the regularity of probes landing on mars another. The engineering
required to make a large city like New York work always blows my mind,
and that emerged from a bottom up self organization of 15 million souls
trying to find a way to survive in an area of land a little too small
for them all.
As we look around the world at the things we as a species have built
there are many such artifacts that can inspire our awe and wonder. I
don't think that the LHC can lay a claim to be at the pinnacle, though
no doubt it is a good example of a big complicated object that make
people look small when they stand beside it.
There is something to wonder at in all of this, and that is the idea
behind the inevitability of something like the LHC. That idea is the
atomic and quantum electrodynamical nature of the world. In that there
is something to be proud of as a species. I don't see the LHC as being a
radical departure from this idea, but rather an object whose existence
is quintessentially rooted in that idea.
One could almost argue that the LHC represents a failure of the
imagination. We are faced with limits to our ability to test the
mathematics that we have written down against the atoms that we write
with. We cannot tease apart the Fynemann diagrams to tell us more about
the world, and so we resort to a bigger hammer rather than a more subtle
approach that might look to other ways to coax the mysteries of the
universe out of their hiding places.
There have been some papers that have come out recently looking for
connections in the physics of super fluids with the imagined state of
the early universe, the idea being that looking at the behavior of
vortices in super cooled liquids could demonstrate identical physics to
the phases of matter at the point of various decouplingings in energy
scales. It's pretty clear that these models are yet toy models, but
perhaps they point out an orthogonal direction to building massive atom
I want to be clear that I do applaud the work of the thousands of people
working at Cern, and I do think that the billions of euro that something
like this costs is more than worth the investment. I appreciate how hard
it is to deal with systematics on something of this scale, and it is a
minor miracle, but I just don't think that the artifact deserves unconstrained
adulation over the ideas that is reflects.