Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Beauty of the Beast

So it has finally happened. The great beast under the earth sprang to life this November and protons are hurtling around it at record breaking speeds. And in bunches too. Not just in single beams. The Large Hadron Collider is now the fastest in the world and this is only the beginning. Not only in terms of the universe and how it began, but also meaning the biggest experiment in the world. It has been a journey 25 years in the making, in which the lives and minds of some of the world's greatest scientists, engineers and technicians have been poured into this tunnel under the earth. As one CERN personnel observes, 'All our lives and energy have been subjugated to the beast. We have to feed the beast. It is unthinkable that it fails. If it does, can you imagine the impact it will have on all of us who have devoted our lives to it? It will be as if for nothing.'

It is no exaggeration to say that a whole generation of particle physicists and engineers will be lost if the world's greatest experimental apparatus fails. But that is not all there is at stake. As the LHC ramps up to yet more record-breaking power and new collisions in the New Year, and as the data-deluge breaks all records too, what really is at stake is the future of science itself. Not just particle physics. But all science and the whole quest for knowledge for its own sake. After all, what is the immediate result and application of knowing how and why matter won the battle that critical nano-second 14 million years ago? There is no direct instantaneous application other than the beauty of knowledge itself. And this knowledge won't immediately cure cancer or solve climate change. It might lead in the future to new understanding which may be applied to solve these problems which are politically centre stage and which therefore attract funding. But the relevance may not be for another generation. This is not quick fix knowledge with instant results. The UK government, with its £55 million annual contribution, is rumoured to be closely watching what happens with the LHC, keen to divert the funding elsewhere in an economy in crisis. But so far, it is bravely and resolutely supporting the ultimate Enlightenment project, as the floods of data start pouring in.

This is the beauty of the beast - the human capacity to imagine and create new knowledge to understand existence. Why did matter win over anti-matter? Why do we have star dust in our bones? Why is matter 80 per cent empty? In the end it is also what particle physics is about and why particle physicists seem to be the most alive and curious people about living you will ever encounter. After all, they are perhaps the ultimate definition of what it is to be human - to imagine, to create and to know.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Cloud 9

Yesterday clouds came down to earth. Morning started with great white curls of clouds stretching along the Jura mountains, following every curve, bump and cliff, like an uncanny etcha-sketch echogram. The heartbeat of a November morning at CERN written in the sky. By afternoon, the purest clouds on earth were being created, when the CLOUD experiment went live for the first time. Pure elements of air were pumped into CLOUD's chamber, driven by delicate motors and filters. And there was CLOUD itself...the container which 3 weeks ago looked like a shiney bathyscope lying on its side, now shrouded in a metallic crunchy coating and transformed into something you would encounter on a moon-landing. So much has happened so quickly, with intricate rigging lines and a portakabin turned into a control room, full of the requisite monitors to control the experiment and with a dozen scientists in attendance.

There is alot of brilliance about CLOUD. It is an experiment in which Jasper Kirkby, a leading particle physicist, is working with atmospheric chemists - a unique collaboration. There is also the fact that cloud formation - that most ethereal of creations - is being recreated down here on earth, and that the effects of cosmic rays on the cloud droplets and even ice particles will be studied too. But most of all, there is the sheer enlightenment of the CLOUD enquiry. It is an experiment which may proove that the cosmos has a role to play in climate change. For some, who have battled so hard to get climate change accepted as a human-generated catastrophe, which now politicians accept, this is unpalatable and a knowledge which they dont wish to be publicised. Last year a Scandinavian journalist had her story on CLOUD spiked because it mentioned this fact. Censorship is an emerging phenomenon in the climate change era.

What CLOUD shows is a pure drive for truth and knowledge. Even in this fractured century, in which climate change is now threatening to become a new orthodoxy which no-one should dare effect in any way, CLOUD is going for the pure ideal. It is the real deal. The truth of the matter - knowledge contained in the secrets of a droplet.

Monday, 2 November 2009

The Art of Physics

The punchline in this Sunday`s Observer newspaper said it all: " If it works, we will have built the most complex machine in history. If not, we will have assembled the world`s most expensive piece of modern art"

This unattributed quote by a physicist at CERN, talking about the switch of the LHC later this month, shows a division in perception about art and science. A redundant machine becomes art. Art is useless - dysfunctional and prohibitively expensive: literally costing the earth. Whilst science is functional and complex, and earth shattering too: it makes history. Breaks the mould of time.

There is alot at stake here. And it`s not just the elegant universe. There seems to be a vast ocean between the worlds of art and science. Yet look at the great detectors at the LHC from an artistic point of view, and you are blown away. Recently Vanity Fair came to CERN, taking the lifts down to the underground at ATLAS and CMS, emerging half an hour later, blinking into the light. The Vanity Fair photographer said he had never seen anything so beautiful. He was incredulous that something so precisely engineered could have such unintentional beauty. Look at the slices which make up the detectors, and they are giant eyeballs, lying on their sides: unblinking, with a steadfast stare. They are looking beyond - across and through time. Or look at them another moment later, and they are great peacock tails, which the German sculptress Rebecca Horn might have created. There is utter beauty in the micromatic precision of the sensors melded with the metal as well as the kaleidoscope of colours too which they display in their components and wiring.

`I cant believe it that these guys dont see the beauty of what they created,' opined the photographer. But the truth is, he couldnt believe either that such beauty could be created without intention. Or that the beauty the scientists judged their machines on was not about form, but totally about functionality. Beauty as utility.

Yet the irony is particle physics and the LHC in particular is predicated on the visual. On the beauty of seeing. The invisible and infinitely tiny particles are detected by these great monolithic machines aglow in their red, yellow, orange, green and silver colours and the shining metal which is calibrated so precisely that it makes these extraordinary structures the as yet unacknowledged 8th wonders of the world.

To think these detectors in the LHC are discovering how the universe started - with such a technologically advanced way of seeing that a particle collision appears on a monitor like a flash, the infinitely invisible made visible. There is such beauty in it. And artfulness too. The art of physics. It takes some beating. Art and science are not that far apart. They both seek meaning. Truth is beauty. Beauty is Truth. They are a blip on a monitor. A twin heartbeat. A pulse. A moment. At any given point. Now

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Talking Particles

Imagine particles could talk. That a gluon pokes its head out of table to chat about the hard work it takes to get others to stick together. Sounds implausible? Anything is possible - even in the real, let alone the quantum world.

That is especially if you watched an obscure French children`s programme called Télé Chat in the 1980s. Which is precisely what Henri Bachachou did. And look at him now. Muon-mad, this Parisian works at ATLAS, the biggest of the experiments at CERN, with over 2000 people worldwide exploring the mystery of matter.

Fed on a diet of Télé Chat, with its lead characters, an ostrich and a cat, and its talking and walking particle zoo, Henri is a particle physicist, with an equally playful mind. But when you get him on the subject - or should it be the matter - of the muon, he becomes messenaic and no longer mild mannered and polite. For him, they are THE particle. In character, they are like an electron, but are 200 x heavier, and in fact their weight is in between an electron and a proton. Every second a 100 million muons are falling from the sky in cosmic rays. And because they are heavy, they can be easily detected, leaving very clear tracks, which are also known as spark lines, because they give off an electric charge.

Which also means that they are invaluable when they are artificially recreated in the LHC. Easily identifiable, they are also one of the clues for finding the Higgs, which is thought to give off muons. And they can pass through matter too and that includes your own body. In fact, a muon hole may be opening at your feet this very nano second - it's just that you cant see it - as muons cascade from the sky and fall from between floor to floor to floor. The world is opening up before you. You just don't know it.

That's how it feels when you are talking about particles. Suddenly you see such endless possibilities in the material world that nothing seems material ever again.

'Have you ever wondered why physicists are so indecisive?' asks Henri. 'Take them to an ice cream counter like gelatomania and you will find they cant make up their minds because they know the whole range of tastes available - and are thinking of the new ones which aren't there too.'

It all makes sense somehow. Talk the particular about a particle, and you have entered into a self-contained fairy tale, which contains its own internal logic of actions and context, but equally could very well not exist at all. And that is on this symmetrical side of the universe. Talk asymmetry, and then we really are talking Alice in Wonderland and through the looking glass. You enter the world of squawking squarks and smuons and sneutrinos...a Finnegans wake of words and playfulness which seems to make no sense at all....

...which may be why the elusive Higgs, whether it is prooved to exist or not, comes as a bit of a relief. A particle with a human name. For the ultimate invisible particle it has a particularly grounded name. But still, let's talk particles...I will find some more physicists who can do just that...and keep you posted.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Gravitys Rainbow

Talk to a physicist, and you always step into a different dimension. Unwittingly so. Its like diving into clear water and then seeing the stars. The light at first can be blinding, because the accuracy of their vision can be so acute. But then you adjust, dive deeper with them, and discover new vistas. The deep blue has never been more meaning-full.

So I find myself in a room with the man who is writing a paper which is about to change astrophysics. Everyone is standing by for his genius. But no. His bright lazer mind is switched onto other things. We are no longer in a room. We are notes on a musical score. He tells me how 10 years ago he finally learnt the piano. Now he can play Beethoven and it just tumbles out of his mind onto his fingers. You can almost sense he is listening to it, or indeed playing it when he tells me this, his love of this musical dimension is so intense. He tells me also that the way he learns the piece is by diving into it through its harmonic structure. That with the analytical mind of a physicist, he sees the patterns, engages with the harmonies, and totally understands every single note, the why and wherefore of its individual placing. And thus it becomes part of him. So much so, that when trapped in a boring meeting, he seeks refuge by playing a complex sonata in his head and his mind is elsewhere as the patterns rotate and spin.

But switch it all around the other way, and ask him
if music has changed his approach to physics, and he says, it soothes me. He uses it for pleasure. No more, no less. The beauty is the other way round - the way physics makes him approach music with his head, and then his heart comes into play too.

Somehow, at the end of our conversation which was really about something quite other - about Collide, the International Artists Residency Programme I am devising for CERN - it seems totally fitting that Luis volunteers himself for my Radio 3 piece to be a graviton. He of all people will understand the beauty of gravity. He has a levity and gravity which is totally beyond. That of a rainbow.

* Definition of a graviton. The graviton is a hypothetical elementary particle that mediates the force of gravity in the framework of quantum field theory. If it exists, the graviton must be massless (because the gravitational force has unlimited range) and must have a spin of 2 (because the source of gravity is the stress-energy tensor, which is a second-rank tensor, compared to electromagnetism, the source of which is the four-current, which is a first-rank tensor). To prove the existence of the graviton, physicists must be able to link the particle to the curvature of the space-time continuum and calculate the gravitational force exerted.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Sounding CERN

Think of particle physics, and you think of space, time and gravity as well as the invisible. Sound somehow does not fit into the equation. But of course, at CERN - where else? - there are experiments going on to give particle physics a sonic meaning as well as a visual one.

The young Austrian PHD student Kathi Viogt is currently working at the aptly named ALICE experiment, where time like in Lewis Caroll`s famous tale, is under investigation, as scientists try to liberate quarks and gluons. In the time process chamber, Kathi is turning pure data into sound. When you start thinking about it, of course it makes the most perfect sense. Instead of seeing simultaneous occurences and the split millionth, millionth of a second as particles collide or interact, why not hear them and use your other sense? Time and ears, rather than eyes take you further and the link between music and physics makes sense too.

The Time Projection Chamber contains wires which Kathi is using as if they were the strings of a harp. The wires capture and measure electrons coming from ionised gas set free when they are passed through chosen elementary particles. So when the electrons pass through, the `harp` sounds. The link between the Romantic poets and particle physics has never been clearer. Shelley`s vision of the aeolian harp, invisible except for the sound it makes as the winds of time pass through it, is now reborn in ALICE where you go backwards to come forwards in knowledge, in Kathi`s harp. It sounds just like CERN.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Of clouds and chambers

In the heart of CERN, in one of the many cavernous warehouses which dot this site, sits a stainless steel chamber. It is polished as brightly as a mirror, with portholes just like a bathyscope, ready for submarinal explorations.

Except this chamber is exploring the sky not the sea. To be more precise, the clouds above our head. It is not just the Large Hadron Collider which is switched on this November. The CLOUD experiment, first dreamt up 12 years ago, will create ice clouds and warm clouds within the steely embrace of this stainless cloud chamber, aglow with ultra violet light beams. The purpose is to understand the mechanism of how clouds form, and the clue is thought to be found in the seeds or cloud condensation nucleii, the little core of which remains the same in any of the trillions of droplets which make up a cloud.

How are they formed? At the moment the idea is theoretical - it has not been tested yet. But the thought and theory is that maybe the electrical charge from the naturally occurring cosmic rays, whose positively charged protons travel 10 million light years, interact with possibly the sulphuric acid in the air to form these cloud seeds. And if this is the case, then perhaps it may tell us more information about climate change and the way too in which clouds operate, protecting the earth. It makes blue sky thinking somehow seem far too unimaginative and the saying to have one`s head in the clouds a true compliment. Could anything be more sublime? As Jasper Kirkby, the physicist and architect of the CLOUD experiment say, looking up at the sky above the Jura mountains, flecked with mares tails or cirus in the Autumn afternoon, there is nothing more beautiful than a cloud.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Under Ice and Sea - Looking beyond and beneath

Today I learn of telescopes under the sea. In the mediterranean in fact. Which are measuring neutrinos and waiting to find the very rare unstable ones in order to find out more about how the world works. These telescopes have the names Antares, Nestor and of course somehow totally fittingly, Nemo. It is thought by placing these telescopes under the sea, with the refraction of water, these neutrinos may be more easily spotted. But if that is not bizarre enough, deep in the South Pole, there is a telescope embedded in Antartic ice. It is called IceCube. Again, the same purpose. Again a romantic setting, so extreme and a whereabouts so secret too, that it brings to mind HG Wells, Jules Verne and other worlds, and you realise even more that science fiction may be turning into science fact...that one follows the other in an endless cycle of creative discovery and interpretation. It is ineluctible in its beauty.

All this comes to light when I sit with my office mate Arnaud, learning about the 30 year old discipline - Astro particle physics. Neither pure astronomy, or pure particle physics, but a fusion of the two, this emerging science used to be regarded with deep suspicion and is a term which has only started being used since the 90s. But with the rise of technology which can probe so deeply into the subatomic world, measuring the elusive cosmic ray and capturing them however fleetingly at last, astro-particle physics is coming of age.

And if the worlds of ice and water are not enough, there are also deep underground chambers which are being used too, to look at neutrinos - the great discovery of the physicist Wolfgang Pauli. Every second from CERN, billions of neutrinos are sent through the earth across the continent, beneath the Vatican to Gran Sasso Laboratory 120km east of Rome in Italy. The idea is to try to capture the one which will interact with another atomic nucleus, because they may contain the secrets of how the Universe exists. The exception will proove the rule. And the rule is, that neutrinos tell us how the sun shines and may have been the vital ingredient which led to the disappearance of anti-matter when matter became the dominant force in our world.

If this all sounds too theoretical, just look beyond. Astro-particle physics is said to have potential application for the environment. Deep in the heart of the Argentinian pampas, 3000 km2 is covered by light detectors. This technology can be used to monitor the atmosphere. And in a world under seige, this technology more than ever is needed...

Somehow, fittingly, that afternoon I am at a lecture at the UN given by Jeffrey Sachs. At the end, many of us are in tears and he has a standing ovation for 10 minutes. It is an extraordinary moment when he exorts the world to realise the catastrophe we have released on ourselves in the shape of climate change, and what we do know about it, is only the best news. The worst is yet to come, and we cant sit, pontificate, and deal with climate change as if it is trade negotation or a political football. It aint. He proposes an ecological capitalism, in which the environment and ecology are finally aligned and the values are placed in the survival of the planet and not in the banks.

"We're in the age of this planet where human activity dominates the earth's processes," he said. "Humanity has become so large in absolute number and in economic activity that we have overtaken earth processes in vital ways to the point of changing the climate, the hydrologic cycle.

Listen to his speech at

and see if you can remain unmoved. Like the physicists at CERN, somehow Jeffrey Sachs takes immensity, in his case in world economics and the environment, and transformed it into an equation and series of solutions which could transform the way we live in our world....

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The Line of Beauty

There is a line of beauty which connects us in the world. That is what the photographer says. The man with the faraway eyes who always looks closely beyond. Beyond the walls of Avignon, beyond where he was as a fashion photographer caught in the lure of gold and glamour, beyond where he always is...the woods, the trees, the town, the streets. He sees the invisible. It is a thread he passes on to me....

Trust that invisible line, and you find yourself in the places where you should be. It is inevitable. A synchroncity with intent. A determination with chance. A predestination with no destination. It is just the way it is. Here. Right now. In this place. In no time at all. In all time. Even. More or Less.

So the line of beauty leads me to the home of the Beauty Quark, one of the world's greatest adventures. They think the impossible here and make it possible. That's the ultimate beauty of CERN, the largest particle physics laboratory in the world and one of the world's greatest examples of global collaboration. 20 countries are signed up yet 31 others join in the quest to discover the origins of the universe. Diversity yet unity of intent, the possible making the impossible real, it is an extraordinary spirit of place and purpose and something I have always believed could exist. Here at the foothills of the Jura mountains it does. With engineering feats so incredible that your eyes blink, machines as high as cathedrals built beneath the earth. The beauty of ALICE all primary colours of green and red, a great octagonal mouth of awaiting discovery, this particular detector is the one which will detect the particles after the Big Bang, the moment a few millionths of a second, when matter won over anti-matter to be the prime constituent of our universe.

Go to LHCb, and this is where the Beauty Quark will be detected. If the Beauty Quark is found here, then Quantum Physics as it stands makes sense and the Higgs Boson will have been discovered. The theory will stack up and it will be confirmed that we live in a quantum world of asymmetry. After all the theory goes, everything in our universe has its asymmetrical twin. For matter, there is anti-matter, quarks, anti-quarks, electrons, anti-electrons. We exist in this world because of asymmetry and it makes us individiually me. Think on it. Somewhere in the world for each of us walks our assymetrical twin. A me who is anti-me. There will be a kink which makes them different. Just a kink. Think on it again. This minute difference created everything around us, when matter won over anti-matter in that moment when the world exploded into being, because for every one billion anti-particles, there were one billion and one particles. A minute difference makes us whole.

And so to the Beauty Quark. Beauty quarks did not survive this epic battle of creation and do not exist in the Universe today. But right after the Big Bang they existed in great numbers, and so perhaps, they hold the key as to why and how matter won out. And the collisions at the Large Hadron Collider will bring them back to life, for the first time in 13.7 million years, producing millions of them under our feet at CERN.

So...the line of beauty. It is a trace of time, an invisible signature as it is called here, to be made visible this November. What would my photographer say, when the protons collide underground across borders of knowledge, time and space, geographical,cultural and intellectual boundaries? Just one proton colliding with another in the 27 km Large Hadron Collider circular tunnel which runs beneath the French and Swiss border, with the four giant detectors, ATLAS, CMS, LHCb and ALICE standing guard to trace the miracle moments before and after the creation of the universe. A crossing. A circuit. A line. A collision. An interaction. So do you think you can ask me why I am here...? The answer is here.