In Research

There is something about physics that has been really bothering me since I was a little kid. And it’s related to a question that scientists have been asking for almost 100 years, with no answer. How do the smallest things in nature, the particles of the quantum world, match up with the largest things in nature – planets and stars and galaxies held together by gravity?”.

This is how the TED Conference of James Beacham opens, a brilliant physicist from the United States who was one of the lead scientists in an extraordinary experiment: he participated in the Large Hadron Collider experiment at CERN in Geneva, the most extensive scientific experiment ever organized, which led to the discovery of the Higgs boson.

At the end of Beacham’s talk we find out how he answers his big opening question. In the meantime, he talks with the mastery of a true science communicator about all the difficulties, passion, excitement and “false alarms” that accompany every new discovery.

Particle collisions are not like automobile collisions. They have different rules. When two particles collide at almost the speed of light, the quantum world takes over. And in the quantum world, these two particles can briefly create a new particle that lives for a tiny fraction of a second before splitting into other particles that hit our detector. Imagine a car collision where the two cars vanish upon impact, a bicycle appears in their place…and then that bicycle explodes into two skateboards, which hit our detector”.

Exploring the world of the invisible, the infinitesimal and the most absolute unknown is as much a fascinating journey as it is arduous. And without any guarantee of success. Beacham sees particle physicists as explorers, where a good part of their work consists of “doing cartography”, i.e. mapping out all the places where there could be new discoveries. A humble yet heroic vision at the same time.

For Beacham the value of research is closely linked to our curiosity about nature. And this shows that we do not want to give up understanding the true value of things.

What if even artificial intelligence can’t help us answer our questions? What if these open questions, for centuries, are destined to be unanswered for the foreseeable future? What if the stuff that’s bothered me since I was a little kid is destined to be unanswered in my lifetime? Then that … will be even more fascinating.

We will be forced to think in completely new ways. We’ll have to go back to our assumptions, and determine if there was a flaw somewhere. And we’ll need to encourage more people to join us in studying science since we need fresh eyes on these century-old problems. I don’t have the answers, and I’m still searching for them. But someone – maybe she’s in school right now, maybe she’s not even born yet – could eventually guide us to see physics in a completely new way, and to point out that perhaps we’re just asking the wrong questions. Which would not be the end of physics, but a novel beginning.”

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