The Higgs and Beyond: Brave New Physics

On Dec. 7 Quirks and Quarks' Bob McDonald hosts Pierre Savard and William Trischuk, two University of Toronto professors involved in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, author of The Particle At The End of The Universe, at U of T’s Isabel Bader Theatre.

Open to the public, Higgs and Beyond: Brave New Physics, is the latest in a series of events organized by Professor Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics and the U of T President’s Senior Advisor on Science Engagement.

“I feel strongly about the value of scientists reaching out and engaging with the wider community, not only to report on our discoveries but also to share the excitement and challenges of the scientific process, to inspire kids and to encourage innovation,” Jayawardhana says.

High-energy physicists Savard and Trischuk are part of the U of T team involved in the LHC project. The group of 30 U of T researchers, including 16 graduate students, used the SciNet super-computing resources at U of T to identify collisions containing Higgs boson candidates. Their group is now trying to understand the properties of the new particle and preparing to upgrade their experiment to search for other physics processes beyond the Higgs. Watch a video here.

Blogger and author Carroll is a theoretical physicist who studies the structure and evolution of the universe. He is the author of From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, a popular book on cosmology and the arrow of time, and Spacetime and Geometry, a graduate-level textbook on general relativity. He has produced a set of introductory lectures for The Teaching Company entitled Dark Matter and Dark Energy: The Dark Side of the Universe; and blogs regularly at Cosmic Variance.

U of T News spoke with Carroll about the importance of sharing scientific discovery with the public.

From your popular and critically acclaimed books to your blog and appearances on shows such as the Colbert Report, you seem to live and breathe science engagement – why is it so important?

Ultimately, when it comes to the kinds of science I do (particle physics and cosmology), it's the public that pays for it. They certainly deserve to get a return on their investment, in the form of some understanding of what it is we've discovered.

Perhaps more importantly, everyone who is involved in science professionally is doing it because they are passionate about discovering new things about the universe. It just makes sense that we would like to share that passion more broadly.
What drew you to this field?

I became interested at a very young age, about 10 years old. I would hang out in our local public library, reading all the physics books I could get my hands on. Not sure what started it, but I became devoted to the idea of being a theoretical physicist, and here I am.

Tell us a bit about your new book, The Particle at the End of the Universe.

This is a book about the Higgs boson and the Large Hadron Collider, the giant particle accelerator in Geneva that has been searching for the particle. It can seem like an esoteric subject, and I try both to explain the physics ideas and to capture some of the excitement and dedication that the scientists themselves feel. I tell some stories of the different people involved, to try to bring out the human side of the endeavor.

What do you think are the biggest questions facing theoretical physicists today?

There are several. What is the nature of the dark matter and dark energy that make up most of the universe? What happened at the Big Bang and immediately thereafter? How can we reconcile quantum mechanics with gravity, and unify the forces of nature? How should we best understand the measurement problem in quantum mechanics?

Of course these are only the big questions in my sub-field of field theory and cosmology. There are many other important questions in areas like condensed matter physics, biophysics, atomic physics, and so on.

You do some science consulting for television. How sound is the science on a show such as Doctor Who?

Science on TV and in movies is generally pretty bad, at least in terms of matching the science of the real world. In a science-fiction show, that's perfectly okay; it's part of the world-building. But the way that science gets done, and the process behind it, can be accurately portrayed in almost any context. It still happens rarely, but I think things are improving.