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Thursday, September 29, 2011

More on Fermilab

Posted By on 09.29.11 at 01:48 PM

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I noticed, over the course of working on this week’s cover story The Last Big Bang, that the physicists I talked with had a fine facility for metaphor—which makes sense, given that the subject of their work, particle physics, isn't famous for being overly comprehensible to the lay scientist (or, um, journalist). Bruce Chrisman, Fermilab’s chief operating officer, offered one image that I really liked when he compared the proton to a Swiss watch, and Fermi's particle accelerator to a hammer—if you smash the watch often enough, he said, "if you're clever enough, eventually you figure out how to put the Swiss watch back together again and figure out how it works." I was able to include that in the story but not this, which I think is a rather poetic take on the broader goals of particle physics. Here Chrisman is paraphrasing Leon Lederman, the former director of Fermilab, in answer to one of my questions about the standard model—the reigning set of propositions that governs atomic interactions:

“You look at a library—it’s a building. You look inside the building—there are books. You look inside the books—there are sentences. Inside the sentences, there are words. Inside the words, there’s the alphabet—that’s what we’re after. The alphabet that can describe all English language in 26 letters. So we want the same for the physical world, but we’re not there. And we’ve discovered recently we’re not there by a long way.”

Another compelling bit of the Fermi story is the famous testimony that founding director Robert Wilson gave before Congress in April 1969, when he was trying to get money for the lab’s first accelerator.

The Cold War is afoot; Wilson’s being questioned by senator John Pastore:

Robert Wilson
SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?

DR. WILSON. No, sir; I do not believe so.

SENATOR PASTORE. Nothing at all?

DR. WILSON. Nothing at all.

SENATOR PASTORE. It has no value in that respect?

DR. WILSON. It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things. It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry.

SENATOR PASTORE. Don't be sorry for it.

DR. WILSON. I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

DR. WILSON. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.

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