The flock of particle physicists that had descended on Amsterdam finally dispersed last Wednesday after a weeklong conference, the 900 scientists flying back home with their souvenir conference bags: bright orange backpacks suitable for a deer-hunting expedition. I had had a pretty good week. It was nice to hear about all the good research going on out there in the world and to see that we are making progress in unraveling the basic structure of the universe. A big conference like that (the largest one in the world this year) is a big pat on the back; you can be proud of the work that you have done and feel good about the health of the field, even if you are wearing a backpack that marks you as a silly tourist.
But the questions that drive our research remain unresolved. Oy, those questions! What are the most elementary, fundamental constituents of all matter in the universe? What are their properties, and why? How do these infinitesimally small particles interact with each other to form larger structures, like people? What does all of this tell us about the origins of the universe and its fate? What is mass? What is space? What is time? Hard questions—crazy questions to ask, almost. But I’m a particle physicist, and it’s my job to ask these questions and to try to find the answers.
This line of work doesn’t pay tremendously well (but more than enough for me to live on), and you are not guaranteed exciting experiences every day. Research science is a long process with very gradual progress; the payoff can be big, but it takes a while. To stay inspired, one must maintain a sense of amazement about the work. When I find myself getting frustrated, I try to remember three amazing things about my work. The first is, plain and simple, a triumph of civilization—we have managed to put together a theory that successfully predicts the behavior of the universe from the incredibly small to the cosmically large-scale. Some people like to say that it’s a beautiful theory, but I don’t always agree; a lot of it seems to be arbitrary, and the math you have to work through to make a prediction seems quite a contraption, with grinding gears and puffs of diesel smoke. But all the same, it works; we make predictions, and they are confirmed in the laboratory, and if the predictions are wrong by a few parts in a million we get very worried.
The second is that we have the technology to test these predictions. Testing our theories requires us to track the paths of elementary particles moving at nearly the speed of light to the precision of the width of a human hair, and to do it in a millionth of a second. We have to be able to sort through many thousands of gigabytes of data to get the information we’re after. And we have to keep complicated systems involving hundreds of computers and a hand-crafted precision scientific instrument the size of a house working around the clock. We can do all of this, and we have learned to do it better and better over the years; even in my short career (I’m 31, and have been working in the field for 13 years), I’ve been amazed by the advances in electronics and computing technology that will allow us to test our theories ever more stringently.
But keeping these instruments in working order requires a huge number of scientists, and thus the third thing that amazes me is that large groups of physicists can work together to build this technology and extract the data that tests the theories. Most people (but not sophisticated readers of Slate, of course) have a stereotypical image of the scientist—white male, white coat, works alone in the lab, spends a lot of time thinking until some marvelous idea pops into his head, and he publishes a paper. This stereotype is not me (except for the white male part) and not most of my colleagues. We don’t keep to ourselves in little rooms. I work with 500 other physicists, from 50 institutions and 10 countries. We’re spread all over the world, so we have had to figure out how to communicate. (This is why particle physicists invented the World Wide Web. No kidding!) We all tend to be independent-minded, so we have had to learn how to work together toward common goals and to make sure that our complex projects stay on track. And we are all very interested in seeing that we learn something about nature and that we communicate correct results to the rest of the world, which means that publishing those results is a process (sometimes a political process) involving much discussion and review within our collaboration to achieve consensus. The fact that we can actually make the sociology work without killing each other sometimes amazes me even more than the first two things.
This is what goes on in my life, and I’ll try to share it—and my orange backpack—with you over the next few days. I’m writing this on Sunday, which is typically a down day for me, and this gives me a chance to write five philosophical paragraphs about particle physics. This is the first Sunday that I’ve been home in Ann Arbor for a month; through most of the weekends in July I was either with my girlfriend, who lives in Chicago, or at the conference in Amsterdam. I’ve spent the day pursuing my hobbies—reading the paper (there was a paragraph on particle physics in the “Week in Review”), working the crossword, playing my clarinet, listening to the radio, and trying to rest up before what looks like another busy week ahead.