How I learned to love supercolliders more than space travel and telescopes


UT Physics professor Dr. Steven Weinberg at the 2013 South by Southwest Interactive Conference

“We need to fund supercolliders – and that is why I am here (at SXSWi),” said Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dr. Steven Weinberg. And the South by Southwest Interactive audience applauded with enthusiasm. As much as SxSWi participants love the pursuit of space travel and rocket ships, they love their big data more.

What physicists need in order to get to the next step is more data. Isaac Newton was able to make a transformative discovery about the laws of motion and gravitation— but his theories were based upon hundreds of years of star and sky data. Evolutionist Charles Darwin’s theories drew upon a large collection of naturist data from an aggregate of fossil collections.

Manned space flight might need perhaps a hundred billion in funding to get off the ground. That kind of money is ten times what it would cost to build a device such as the Hadron collider. But, when you are talking about an investment of that magnitude, you need to consider which scientific and engineering initiative would produce the largest amount of data that is of scientific interest and worth?  The answer, according to Weinberg, is the supercollider.

Time travel back to the year 1993 in Texas: what if the U.S. had funded and constructed the superconducting supercollider in Ellis county. It would have pursued many important scientific goals. But there was a funding competition between the supercollider and the International Space Station in Houston. Congress passed the space station, but not the supercollider. (For more information on the history of the superconducting supercollider, see WIKI: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superconducting_Super_Collider )

Dr. Weinberg was there through it all. And he is optimistic about a little project called the International Linear Collider or ILC. (For more information visit here: http://www.linearcollider.org/ ) The ILC is the next step that could lead to an avalanche of new data that might reap massive scientific rewards, taking scientists into future discoveries about the nature of the universe as they peek into the building blocks of the world itself.

According to Dr. Weinberg, it should have been built decades ago.

“2,000 years ago, the Greek philosophers theorized about the existence of atoms. It took until the 1900s for chemists to prove that atoms existed. We do not have another 2,000 years to wait to move scientific knowledge forward. Funding is needed,” said Weinberg.

Dr. Weinberg’s areas of research include particle physics, unification of fundamental interactions, and cosmology. (For a summary of his work, see his WIKI: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Weinberg ) Dr. Weinberg is perhaps one of the most brilliant minds working in theoretical physics at this time and that leads to him throwing out remarks of this kind…saying that scientists currently have “strong hints that a unification [unified field theory] may be possible, but the simplicity will be seen in the phenomena when it is a much higher rate of energy —10, 000 trillions times more energy than we can create in a lab.”

He pauses. Then he explains that when he says 10,000 trillion, he is not implying a “big number.” This is the exact number he is talking about. Now that’s a theoretical mathematical physicist.

Dr. Weinberg explained that, historically, 20th century physicists reasoned that there were four main forces of nature. By the 1940s, electromagnetic forces were understood pretty well and there were interim theories about weak nuclear forces, but there was no theory to explain strong forces. The fourth force – gravity – was not well understood.

Could there be simplicity in the equations? By the 1950s, physicists theorized that there might be a particle that carried the weak force – a w particle. (Weinberg jokes “w” for weak, not for Weinberg…but it would not be improbable if a particle was to be named for him, as he is at the forefront of this science.)

Dr. Weinberg treated the audience to a physics lecture that summarized the development of the search for various particles that led to the discovery and proof of the various particles, including the crucial Higgs Boson, a very unstable particle that is pivotal to basic theories of particle physics.  (For detailed information on the discover or the Higgs Boson and it’s importance to theoretical physics, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higgs_boson .)

The particle was discovered at the Large Hadron Collider (LAC) at CERN in Switzerland. (See: http://home.web.cern.ch/topics/large-hadron-collider ) Dr. Weinberg was asked to list some experiments he believed should be funded and he listed these:

  • Produce neutrinos which would travel in a mine and that we could detect: electron neutrinos.
  • Look into the decay of the proton. Granted, the average proton’s age is longer than the age of the universe! However, if you have enough protons, you can observe one decaying.
  • Various experiments at the 100 million level range of funding, for example….
  • After the LAC is finished, scientists will need a collider that collides electrons and positrons. This will take an international collaboration to get this funded, which is difficult because few nations want to fund something this is not located in their country.

Listen to the presentation on Soundcloud https://soundcloud.com/officialsxsw/toward-the-unification-of?in=officialsxsw/sets/sxsw-interactive-2013

Recent news from the CERN laboratory in Geneva has revealed the existence of a heavy unstable particle that had been predicted by the theory that unifies two of the forces of nature. This is the last missing piece of our current theory of known elementary particles, the Standard Model. But there is much left to be done before we have a thoroughly unified theory of all matter and force, and some of this will involve observations from space.– quote from the Youtube video summary of his talk, found here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSEXA5JueRU http://www.ph.utexas.edu/~weintech/swbio.html

Steven Weinberg holds the Josey Regental Chair in Science at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a member of the Physics and Astronomy Departments. His research on elementary particles and cosmology has been honored with numerous prizes and awards. He is the author of over 200 scientific articles, one of which is the most frequently cited paper on particle physics of the past fifty years. 

Among his books are the prize-winning The First Three Minutes and Dreams of a Final Theory, and the treatises Gravitation and Cosmology and, in three volumes, The Quantum Theory of Fields.   Educated at Cornell, Copenhagen, and Princeton, Dr. Weinberg also holds honorary doctoral degrees from sixteen other universities, including Chicago, Columbia, McGill, Padua, Salamanca, and Yale. He taught at Columbia, Berkeley, M.I.T., and Harvard, where he was Higgins Professor of Physics, before coming to Texas in 1982.

Links: Dr. Steven Weinberg’s bio page on UT’s website

Dr. Steven Weinberg’s book, Lake Views: This World and the Universe

More images from 2013 South by Southwest Interactive

2013 SxSW Interactive Presentations on Soundcloud 

Find out more about the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin Texas

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