Amir Aczel Looks At The LHC

In his new book, Present at the Creation, Amir D. Aczel tells the story of the European Organization for Nuclear Research's Large Hadron Collider. With the multibillion-euro collider, researchers hope to recreate the conditions that existed just after the Big Bang.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Come February, researchers at CERN will be firing up the Large Hadron Collider again to continue their search for that elusive God particle, the Higgs boson.

Over the last couple of years, we've been bringing you reports on the hope-filled milestones and the dramatic setbacks that the scientists working at CERN have seen.

But this week, while the collider's being readied for the next round of experiments, we thought it would be a good time to step back, take a look at the big picture of the work they're doing there. What experiments do the scientists hope to do over the next couple of years, when things get moving again?

What are the chances of finding the particles they're looking for or finding evidence for, say, string theory? What happens if they do find the Higgs boson? Does the collider retire? And what if they find no evidence for the particle? Will some scientists be delighted?

We'll be taking your questions, too. If you want to know more about the physics they're doing at CERN, now's the time to ask because I have just the right person here to answer it.

Amir Aczel is the author of the new book "Present at the Creation: The Story of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider." He's a Guggenheim fellow and a research fellow in the history of science at Boston University.

You can phone in our questions, or your questions, to him at 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Or you can send us a tweet, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Welcome back. It's always good to see you.

Mr. AMIR ACZEL (Author, "Present at the Creation"): Great to be on the show, thanks, happy New Year.

FLATOW: Happy New Year to you. Tell us about the history, about - people think that this sort of sprung up overnight, but there's a long history to the collider, isn't there?

Mr. ACZEL: Right, a half a century.

FLATOW: Half a century?

Mr. ACZEL: Right. 1954 is when the lab was established, and it was inspired by The Manhattan Project, actually, in the United States during the Second World War. And what the Europeans wanted to do is study the atoms for purely peaceful purposes, no military applications at all, and that's when they founded CERN, although Americans were involved in it from the beginning.

Isidor Rabi, a Nobel Prize-winner, was on the board right away, too, when CERN began, and they were always up there with accelerator technology, being either at the best accelerator or competing with the ones here.

FLATOW: You've written about a lot of things in your career, right. You've written about uranium, mathematics. You've written about Peking Man, Jesuits. How does the Large Hadron Collider rank or rate into that long list of real interesting stuff?

Mr. ACZEL: You know, Ira, every book has its own life, and this one, I can't give up. It's like - it's my passion.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Mr. ACZEL: Yes. The Large Hadron Collider is like nothing I've ever done.

FLATOW: Tell us why. Share with our listeners why - what's so exciting about this.

Mr. ACZEL: Well, I was always very interested in the physics. I'm trained as a mathematician, but I took a lot of physics, and for this book, I was very fortunate. It was serendipity. I got to interview 13 Nobel Prize-winners in physics, all of them involved in one way or another in the Large Hadron Collider.

And I got to meet the heads of the experiments at CERN and lots and lots of scientists there. And the excitement is just so infectious. It's unbelievable.

FLATOW: And what is the excitement centered on? Is it the Higgs boson that they're looking for?

Mr. ACZEL: Well, not only the Higgs. The Higgs is the reason the machine was built. This is, you know, the largest machine on Earth, largest machine ever built, 16 and a half miles around. And each of the detectors is the - one is the heaviest, the other one is the largest scientific instrument.

So you have all that there, but they're really excited. So it was built for the Higgs boson, but there are other purposes, as well. One is to look for, you know, dark matter candidates through super-symmetry.

So most of the scientists I talked to and physicists at CERN are hoping that one of the super-symmetric partners, these are particles believed to exist because of a theory called super-symmetry, will be found and will explain the dark matter that permeates all galaxies. This is actually more voted-for than the Higgs.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Mr. ACZEL: Yes.

FLATOW: You might find evidence of what the particle that make up all this dark matter is?

Mr. ACZEL: Right. Now, the thing is the Higgs is almost a cliche. So that's why - they're looking for something more interesting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, what does the Higgs do for us? Why is it so important to find it?

Mr. ACZEL: Well, it's not so important. It's just the God particle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Just the God particle.

Mr. ACZEL: It gives everything its mass. So of course it's, you know, it's a very dramatic particle. It's the one particle right after the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is this huge explosion of sheer energy, and a trillionth of a second after this energy burst out, you have a particle that causes itself and all other particles to get mass. So mass is created through the Higgs mechanism.

And because in quantum mechanics, in quantum field theory, when you have a field, it's a Higgs field that causes it, but when you shake the field, so to speak, like holding a blanket, you have a wave, and as we all know, a wave is also a particle because of quantum mechanics. And that's how the Higgs particle idea came about because there's a need for a field there that creates the mass in the universe. And when a field is excited, you get a wave, and a wave is a particle. So that's why they believe that it exists.

But most of those physicists I talked to think that the Higgs will certainly be found, but super-symmetry is more interesting to them.

FLATOW: Could they have found it already and they're not telling us?

Mr. ACZEL: That's a really good question. When you arrive at CERN, and I have to tell you about CERN stuff...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACZEL: ...it's like a trip of a lifetime - or trips of a lifetime, I've been there several times. It's like going to...

FLATOW: It's in the mountains, right?

Mr. ACZEL: Well, yeah...

FLATOW: Between France and Switzerland?

Mr. ACZEL: Right. It's between France and Switzerland, the border region, and it's between two mountain chains, between the Alps and the Jura Mountains in France. So it's in a sort of hilly area, but it's all underground, 300 feet underground. And, you know, it's a very special place.

But when you go to CERN, in the cafeteria, there's pictures of various things that were discovered, and one of them is a picture of the Higgs. The Higgs looks like...

FLATOW: Wait, wait, wait. When did you see this?

Mr. ACZEL: Where or when?

FLATOW: When - you said there's a picture of a Higgs.

Mr. ACZEL: Yeah, there's a picture of a Higgs.

FLATOW: And it shouldn't be there if it wasn't discovered there? Is that what you're saying?

Mr. ACZEL: Exactly.

FLATOW: Whoa.

Mr. ACZEL: It was discovered, but they don't have enough evidence for it. It's a Higgs candidate, and that's what they call something when they don't have enough evidence, statistical evidence.

Now, physicists are interesting people. They want five sigma for those...

FLATOW: Five sigma.

Mr. ACZEL: Five sigma. That means probability is overwhelming.

FLATOW: So it's got to be like 99 percent sure.

Mr. ACZEL: 99.99999, yeah, something like that, several nines there.

FLATOW: So until they're that sure, it's still just a candidate to get...

Mr. ACZEL: Right.

FLATOW: How do you know that you've discovered the Higgs?

Mr. ACZEL: Well, the Higgs - you can't see a Higgs. You see, it's decaying into other particles. And the golden channel, meaning the one that's easiest to detect and the one that's favored by most physicists is four muons. Muons are like heavy electrons. They're 209 times heavier than the usual electrons, but otherwise they're the same.

And the muons have this capacity of going through a lot of things. They can go into our whole atmosphere and then go 100 meters underground. They have amazing penetration power.

Now, they penetrate the entire detector. The detectors have these various levels in them, and they go through all the levels. So they're very easy to see because they're the only particle that goes out. So you have four muons, one is the anti-particle of the other, two pairs, particle-anti-particle pairs, it looks like a cross, God particle.

FLATOW: Oh, that's where the name God particle comes from.

Mr. ACZEL: Well, maybe. So they...

FLATOW: We'll have to ask Leon Lederman, who wrote the book.

Mr. ACZEL: Right, why he named it the God particle, exactly. He's the one who called it the God particle.

FLATOW: So that's what they're looking for, that track. So that was sort of like to be the fingerprint of finding it.

Mr. ACZEL: Exactly. That's the fingerprint of the God particle. Now, one goes up, one down, one to the right and one to the left, something like that, four part because of conservation laws in physics. And they saw that.

Now, I should add that they didn't see it in the LHC. They saw it in the LEP, the Large Electron Positron Collider, which was the accelerator the same size as the Large Hadron Collider, which was dismantled in the year 2000 to make way for the Large Hadron Collider because they use the same tunnel.

It was in the same tunnel that the LHC occupies right now, and the scientists discovered those hints of the Higgs already in the year 2000, and they begged the administration to allow them a few more months to get more data.

The administration was really excited about this new collider, the Large Hadron Collider, and they said no.

FLATOW: No, we need to get the ground broken and moving on it. Wow. So that's where the evidence, you think, is from?

Mr. ACZEL: Right. There's also evidence from Fermi Lab in the United States for Higgs in a conference...

FLATOW: They don't want to be overtaken, do they, at Fermi?

Mr. ACZEL: No, no, they are competing to the last minute.

FLATOW: They are really - exactly. It's like a football game in the fourth quarter.

Mr. ACZEL: Right, exactly.

FLATOW: They're going to wring as much information as they can before you turn the switch on the...

Mr. ACZEL: Except the one team is much smaller, playing with a disadvantage because their accelerator has less power, less energy.

But we should say that the Higgs should, in theory, you know, given what people, what scientists believe about it, should be detectable by Fermi Lab, as well, (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: Are they claiming they may have some evidence for it?

Mr. ACZEL: They have seen evidence for it in a physics conference, but it's right under the noise. So they really wanted to go above the noise. That gives you statistical evidence, strong statistical evidence.

So I think the Higgs is probably there already. It's just data analysis. But that's my own personal opinion.

FLATOW: Well, you know, because I have interviewed physicists who say: I would be just as happy or happier if we found nothing because the fun is in the hunt.

Mr. ACZEL: Right, they all say that, and the new theory is waiting - several theories. One of them is super-symmetry that we mentioned and also, you know, string theory, which you mentioned, although string theory is harder to confirm with the LHC. It probably needs a lot more energy.

And they've already - they discovered that there are no black holes at the energy levels they're using right now. The CMS just announced it a few days ago.

FLATOW: Oh, is that right? Because people were concerned they may be creating they may be creating those black holes.

Mr. ACZEL: Right, yeah.

FLATOW: So they can't make one at that energy level.

Mr. ACZEL: Exactly, and they can't make - also, there are cosmic rays that were detected recently, about - in September, 16 cosmic ray events with a million times the energy of the Large Hadron Collider, and they didn't create a black hole. So I think we're safe for at least a while.

FLATOW: We're safe. And so when do they turn on? You know, what was this incident with the baguette being dropped in? Somebody was eating lunch? What happened there?

Mr. ACZEL: Yeah, right, yeah, they always have stories like that in the Large Hadron Collider. But it's interesting to note that they stopped the machine for the winter because of the electricity. They get electricity for free from a French company called EDF. It's all nuclear energy. So it kind of recycles into nuclear studies, nuclear science.

So the company, EDF, gives them the energy for free, but they asked them not to use it in the wintertime because in the Geneva area, where the collider is, where CERN is headquartered, they use a lot of electricity for heat. So they need the winter months for - you know, to have - without the collider running.

FLATOW: So they'll be cranking it up in February.

Mr. ACZEL: Oh, yeah, and they're going to keep it for two years is what they're saying right now.

FLATOW: Even through the next winter?

Mr. ACZEL: Yes, yes. They're going to keep it running for - they may break for the winter, but they're not going to stop it for an overhaul, as they had originally planned, after a year of operations. They're going to go for two years because of the Higgs. They want to find the Higgs.

So the management wants to find the Higgs. The scientists say: Hey, we want something more interesting.

FLATOW: Yeah, that's old stuff. We're talking with Amir Aczel, author of "Present at the Creation: The Story of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. And we'll talk more about the Large Hadron Collider, fascinating stories and the efforts to try to get this up and running finally. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Amir Aczel. His new book is called "Present at the Creation: The Story of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider."

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Lots of people want to talk about this. Let's go to Randy in St. Louis. Hi, Randy.

RANDY (Caller): Hey, how you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

RANDY: I have a question. Let's say they do find the Higgs particle. What are the chances of taking that and harnessing that energy to make weapons of mass destruction or if that's even a possible theory?

FLATOW: Okay, good question.

Mr. ACZEL: No. The Higgs itself can't be used for anything. Antimatter was made dramatic in Dan Brown's novel, which takes place at CERN, but as I mentioned at first, CERN is dedicated to using, to studying the atom and its components, the elementary particles, with absolutely no military applications.

Now, having said that, suppose that somebody broke in and took their antimatter. The Higgs can't do anything. The Higgs decays immediately, and if you find one Higgs, you're really lucky. And so you need a lot of them for statistical evidence. You can't do anything with a Higgs.

But with antimatter, which they actually create at CERN, let's suppose somebody comes and tries to steal it. And we should say right away that the amounts are so tiny that these antiparticles actually go to the chamber, to the edge of the chamber, the chamber walls, and they annihilate there with actual particles, normal particles.

A scientist can stand in a room and not be affected by it. So you're really talking about a huge amount of antimatter that should be - that, you know, if you want to create a bomb - and also, you can't contain it very easily, so...

FLATOW: Not like in a movie. That was really science fiction, putting it in a sort of magnetic bomb.

Mr. ACZEL: Yes.

FLATOW: At least for now.

Mr. ACZEL: I don't think they'll ever have - you invest too much energy in it. You can get uranium out of the ground, you make an atom bomb, and that's powerful enough. I mean, that's so destructive, who wants to play with it, you know, so...

FLATOW: Let's go to Chris(ph) in Willimantic, Connecticut. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. (Unintelligible) I'm finding about science fiction, which has a tendency to be right on more than it is wrong - aren't you afraid of, you find the God particle, get enough together, they'll start rearranging our universe?

Mr. ACZEL: The universe will start rearranging. Well, there have been stories about CERN, when they couldn't find the Higgs. Something was always going wrong with the machine, and people were saying: That's so unlikely. Everything breaks down. Maybe the God particle doesn't want to be discovered and is already rearranging the universe.

So yeah, people say things like that, but physicists don't think so. They think the Higgs may be there. If there's no Higgs, there's another kind of mechanism that does what the Higgs is supposed to do.

FLATOW: Oh, so there's an alternate theory.

Mr. ACZEL: Yes, there's an alternate. In fact, Steven Weinberg, an American Nobel Prize-winner in physics, used - the particle is named after Peter Higgs. What Peter Higgs did is to show that the mathematical theorem, going back to Weinberg and Goldstone(ph), another person, and Salam(ph), can be circumvented. And that theorem stood in the way of the existence of the Higgs.

Now, Steven Weinberg then went on and predicted the existence of two particles, the Y and the Z, which need, for their mass to be created, they need the Higgs mechanism.

Now, so it should be called the Weinberg particle, although you know, five other people made the same discovery as Higgs at the same time about the theorem being circumventable. I'm sorry for it being very complicated, but the name, the Higgs, is very complicated.

So Weinberg then went on and created another theory called technicolor, and that's a competing theory to the Higgs boson. So mass has to be created because we exist here, and we know that the Big Bang had no mass at the beginning.

FLATOW: Had no mass.

Mr. ACZEL: No mass.

FLATOW: So mass had to come out later.

Mr. ACZEL: Yes, exactly.

FLATOW: So something had to give us the mass we have today, and one thing could be the Higgs. The other is this competing theory called technicolor by Steven Weinberg.

Mr. ACZEL: Right. Yeah, it requires more energy. So people believe in the Higgs, and the Higgs is not believed to be very heavy. It's believed by most physicists to be within the range of the Large Hadron Collider.

FLATOW: Now, when you say that - in other words, Einstein talked about the equivalence of mass and energy, so if you want to make something massive, you just pump a lot of energy in it and you create a massive particle. Right?

Mr. ACZEL: That's exactly the principle.

FLATOW: So you're saying that if we don't have to have something so massive, we don't have to have such a big collider to create those giant collisions on the energy, and this thing might pop out in a lower energy level.

Mr. ACZEL: Yes. It's likely to come out out of Fermi Lab as well, and Fermi Lab has much less energy than - seven times less...

FLATOW: How competitive is this world?

Mr. ACZEL: They're very competitive.

FLATOW: Is this just like football or baseball or something?

Mr. ACZEL: Yes, but on the other hand, at CERN itself what you hear is a lot about core operations. It's a very unusual place, CERN, and I've heard about it before going there.

For many physicists, they say this is the only place I've been, each one would say that, the only place I've been in my life where people are just into cooperation and friendliness, and even though technically they compete, and somebody may get a Nobel Prize and somebody else not.

They are very into cooperation and collegiality and all that, and you see it right away, as soon as you approach CERN, as soon as you come in to the complex there you see it. People are just - it's an incredible place.

FLATOW: What's in the milk over there that makes them less competitive about it?

Mr. ACZEL: You know, it's funny you should say that. I wrote one chapter in my book, I named it the cows (unintelligible) a black hole, because the cows, the cow pasture there, and maybe there's something in the milk, and the cows always stand as far away from the Large Hadron Collider as they can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACZEL: Maybe they know something about the black holes that we don't know.

FLATOW: And we once had plans here to build a super-collider, remember, back in the early '90s, right? And it just - it didn't get the funding.

Mr. ACZEL: That's really, that was really a disaster. In 1993 we would have had a much more powerful collider, and Congress stopped it right after the - the tunnel was already partly dug.

FLATOW: In Texas.

Mr. ACZEL: In Texas, yeah.

FLATOW: Steven Weinberg's territory.

Mr. ACZEL: Exactly, and he was testifying in front of Congress very strongly to continue digging to get enough money to complete the project. But he lost.

FLATOW: And so CERN then got more impetus for it.

Mr. ACZEL: Exactly, yes.

FLATOW: People turned toward it.

Mr. ACZEL: Right, and American scientists now go to CERN in much larger numbers. In fact, CMS, one of the two competing teams there, has - a third of its scientists are American.

FLATOW: How do you get to work there? What do you have to - what kind of lineup is there, and who do you have to convince?

Mr. ACZEL: Well, my daughter is studying physics, and she wants to work there, but they told her you have to be European. So the first thing, you have to be a European.

As an American, you can work there, but it's through your institution. You can't be working at CERN because it's a European organization, but you can be a member through your university, an American university or any other university.

CONAN: Well, Amir, it's a fascinating book, "Present at the Creation: The Story of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider." Amir Aczel, thanks for coming down to Boston to New York for us.

Mr. ACZEL: Good. So what's your wish for the new year? Do you wish for a Higgs or super-symmetry, or...

FLATOW: Yeah, right in my living room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACZEL: No black holes though.

FLATOW: No, no, I don't think - no, it'll be interesting to see what happens. You know, as a scientist, a detective story, it'll be interesting to see who wins.

Mr. ACZEL: I hope we get something this year.

FLATOW: Yeah?

Mr. ACZEL: I hope so.

FLATOW: It'll give us something else to talk about and bring you back.

Mr. ACZEL: Good.

FLATOW: Thanks, Amir.

Mr. ACZEL: Thank you.

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