An Indian Civilizational Perspective

Particle Accelerators Full of Spin and Fury, Signifying Something

In the sidewalk con game known as three-card monte, you have to try to follow one of three cards (the red ace, say) as a dealer shuffles them back and forth face down. It’s easy until you actually put down money, and suddenly all your guesses are wrong.

Physics, lately, has felt a little bit like that. The world is presently blessed with two competing particle accelerators smashing together subatomic particles, and several thousand physicists sifting the debris, in search of new laws of nature. The last year has seen a plethora of rumors and hints of what would be big discoveries if they hold up: bumps in the data signifying new elementary particles or forces, among other things, and “now you see it, now you don’t” rumors of sightings of the long-sought Higgs boson, famously said to be responsible for imbuing other particles with mass.

Any of these would be a grand sunset for the Tevatron, which is scheduled to shut down this fall after two decades ruling the roost of high-energy physics at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, or a grand trumpet blast for the Large Hadron Collider, which started operating at CERN outside Geneva last year and is rapidly accumulating data.

So which bump is the next revolution? Recently physicists have been turning over cards like crazy, most notably at a meeting in Grenoble, France. So far, the ace is still missing, and some of those potential discoveries have disappeared, but some physicists now think they may know which card the Higgs is hiding under — though they disagree on when it will finally be turned over.

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