SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Sean Carroll knows a thing or two about how reality works, and he does a good job explaining it to average folk like me.
Carroll is a world-class theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology. He described the significance of finding a Higgs boson and more to a group of electronics executives at a dinner sponsored by Mentor Graphics here.
I learned, for example, thanks to finding a Higgs boson, physicists now have a formula they believe can be used to explain pretty much any physical behavior in the world. It's the mathematical expression of the so-called standard model of physics in the slide below.
Carroll was at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN on July 4, 2012, when scientists reported finding a Higgs boson, a critical missing piece of the standard model.
"It had the vibe of a rock concert, kids were camping out overnight waiting to get in like it was a Lady Gaga concert, but it was actually a Powerpoint presentation," Carroll said. Its effect was "80-year-olds [such as Peter Higgs, one of about seven who pioneered research in the area] were literally moved to tears," he said.
The LHC that found the particle and the energy field it implies is the largest system humans have built to date. The 27-kilometer circular tunnel is home to 6,000 tons of superconducting magnets cooled to 1.8 degrees Kelvin, colder and lower in atmospheric pressure than anywhere in deep space.
The crowning victory of the effort came from analysis of millions of proton collisions that found the footprint of a Higgs boson, validating theories about the forces that hold atoms together. Ironically, the editors of Carroll's book on the subject (The Particle at the End of the Universe) thought the two key plots that proved the particle were "too techie looking" to be used in the book.
"I told them we paid $9 billion for these plots, so they are going in the book," he quipped.
The plots are shown below. The bumps are statistical footprints of the Higgs boson.
Science just keeps going. One theory called super-symmetry postulates there could be as many as five different kinds of Higgs bosons. Scientists only found one so far.
The standard model, as cool as it is, still does not describe dark matter, Carroll said. In pursuit of that mystery, scientists aim to spend $20 billion on the International Linear Collider (ILC) that could start construction in 2016 and turn on in 2026 or so.
The ILC doesn't have a home yet -- or a secured source of funds – but Carroll said both major parties in Japan have written support for it into their political platforms. Meanwhile Fermilab in the U.S. Midwest is now installing gear shipped from Brookhaven National Labs to study muons in an effort to peer at va much lower cost and in a different direction beyond what is known today.
Like most of the people in the audience I sat through the talk with jaw slack and eyes wide, drinking in what I could. Even old discoveries are news to me.
Quantum Field Theory, for instance, teaches that "particles are what we see when we observe closely, but energy fields are what reality is really made of," Carroll said. Or as he put it in one slide, "Reality is a combination of all observable possibilities combined into a single wave function."