Fermi National Laboratory

Dialogue: Communicating Particle Physics in the 21st Century

The un-common language of science - Does particle physics need to find new ways of describing itself?

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Dialogue - FermiNews readers express their views:

On May 14, Charles Abney from Grand Prairie, Texas, writes:

I have just received and read the lattest fermi news publication that you sent by mail (05/10/2002). The gentlemen in the article proposes that particle physics be grouped with astronomy,cosmology, string physics, and gravitational waves be grouped under one Science.

From my own prespective from what I have learned from this site, other related sites and what books that I have read through our library and or purchased, is that on the very core level the diffrent sciences are all interelated and interdependent on the other. In high school and what colllege based courses that I have taken I only took three basic science classes during that period. I knew very little about particle physics, cosmology, quantum mechanics, string theory, and gravitational waves.

The assumption that the average public cannot grasp or understand these sciences is a myth. I am living proof of that. Many of you are excellant teachers as well as good researches.. We appreciate all of your efforts and teaching the rest of us what you have learned even though our math background has a lot to be desired of.

Thanks again and take care: Charles Abney

Received on May 14, Atwell R. Turquette writes:

In his "The Un-Common Languaage of Science", John Womersley gives some very convinceing reasons for describing the family of physical sciences as "cosmic sciences" in much the same way that "life sciences" is now used to describe the family of biological sciences. On the other hand, in dealing with the most basic "highest level" questions, he proposes rejecting "philosophizing" and seeking to understand the cosmos through experiments. Of course, experiment is of vital importance, but talking about raw experimental data free of context is as empty as talking about NU`S and DNA free of context. Meaning is born within the context of interpretation and theory. Therein lies the source of the inescapable ghost of philosophy.

Atwell Turquette

To: Public Affairs
Subject: THE Question

I have worked at Fermilab for 12-plus years. Often in conversation I'm asked about Fermilab, and the one question that always comes up is, "What good is the information you're discovering?" So what I'm looking for is examples I can give them. I have heard that the physics we are doing and the results we find are 20 years ahead of their time. Meaning we won't realize what to do with the information for a very long time. Anyway, I'd like your help to answer this one "special" question.

Email from a Fermilab employee

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Dialogue - FermiNews readers express their views:

Submitted on May 11 by Soon Jin (Jim) KIM, PhD, Journalism Professor Emeritus, Towson University (Baltimore)

Let me present (1) SEXY-THEORETICAL points, (2) CRITICAL comments and lastly (3) COMPLIMENTS on your "THE Question" article --to leave you with good taste in your mouth(s):


My visceral-guts feeling/answer --of course-- is physics (particle physics specially) should/must be pursued for its "BEAUTY AND GRANDEUR" OF THE UNIVERSE in Einstein's words. The human urge-instinct is naturally for knowledge for its own sake. NO (repeat, NO) utilitarian results should motivate our quest!!!

====> The only PEEVE I have of ALL the "Western" modern theoretical physics (and physicists) is that they are HELP- LESSLY TINGED with Judeo-Christian-Muslim preconcept of "CREATION" --based on the Bible and Koran's "GENESIS" presupposition.

It all began with the "BIG BANG" (or whatever), they say. It is UTTERLY ILLOGICAL...!

====> Then, WHAT was there "BEFORE" the "Bang"//"start"?

====> Buddhism/Hinduism/Taoism do NOT "need" any "start"!

(2) CRITICISM (on your "NATIONAL" bias):

In science (particle physics in particular) the "NATIONAL" concern should NEVER tinge the search for the truth(s)! The "nation-state" concept is NOT older than 300-400 years, as it came with the advent of capitalism.

Even literary (Shakespeare) and/or musical arts (Puccini) went beyond the NARROW national boundaries. See and/or . They ALL transcended nation-states!

====> Judy, your otherwise WELL-WRITTEN article uses the words ("NATION" or "NATIONS") 9 (NINE) times! Each time I did CRINGE!!!

====> You also used the word "interNATIONAL" [my caps] 3 (THREE) times. It should/must be sublimated-upgraded to "GLOBAL" or "WORLD" --the words you DID use along with your "interNATIONAL"!!

====> The very "NATIONAL" and "UTILITARIAN" ideologies motivated Boeotian Ronald Reagan and his ilk (elder Brush, etc) to cancel the already-begun ACCELERATOR in Texas some years back. I do NOT lament the $$$-waste, but I so, so profoundly RESENTED that cancellation...! (Fermi people did also??) Now, we must await European CERN to come on line...!

That Texas-accelerator cancellation was ordered by the RR-Bush and his Cold Warriors who squander $30-40 MILLION on a copy of F-18 fighters WITHOUT even batting eyes...!

MY AVERSION TO NATIONALISM originates far back --to my Junior College years in militarist Japan during the 1940s --when I aspired to be a nuclear physicist. WWII and the Korean War frustrated my youthful ambitions and turned me eventually to journalism.

But I still STAR-GAZE --NOT telescope-toting type, but a COSMOLOGY BUFF, endlessly fascinated by Lederman, Hawking, Greene, et al.


You do NOT need me to tell you that you are a consummate writer. But I want to emphasize that from the Missouri- Journalism perspectives. I pretend to be very, very picky grammarian and "Science Writing" teacher-practitioner.

Let me give you specific accolades on your writing style:

====> Your abbreviations (NOT acronyms, commonly called) are so well-placed --I mean you used them RIGHT AFTER the whole phrases, so that readers do not need to be confused. An example?

HEPAP follows at once "High Energy Physics Advisor Panel"!

====> I, however, saw NO full phrase for DESY (p 5) ??

====> Also, your section on "THE WORLD NEEDS ACCELERATOR TECHNOLOGY" (p 5) DOES need some transition; it just got stuck there. (POOR science-feature technique...!)

Hope you have come through thus far in your busy schedules.

Thanks again for this chance to let this off my chest.

Regards, jim

Submitted on May 6th by Ernesto Gasulla, a structural engineer from Chicago:

Instead of providing another not-very-relevant personal view, I'd like to point out that the answer of the general public -the average tax payer, who after all shapes most of America's public spending trends- is "nothing good". With all due respect, the fact that you guys still have to make yourselves these kind of questions is a sad reminder of how you lost the PR battle to convince people that what you do is of any good. The much hyped geneticists did not fare so well just because what they did was "useful", but because they succeeding in selling their investigation to the common Americans (by the way, Mr. Ken Lane's envious comparison of DNA and physics investigation is just too stupid to be published, and assuming he will not apologize, you should).

Now get a mirror and look at yourselves: for many years particle physicists kept a lid over their investigations, be it due to the cold war or whatever other reason, and the most visible results were the A-bomb and the contamination resulting from nuclear energy. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that these were the only results, I'm just pointing out the fact that these are the things that first come to our minds when we talk of particle physics. With this reference frame, how could you expect Joe American to give you high marks for your work, financed by his tax dollars? Your next question could be: "Can we revert the tide so that people would see us as helping them to shape a better future, rather than wasting their money in dangerous lab games?" I'd bet on a "no". It seems to be a little late. But you should keep on trying.

And now for my personal opinion, I do believe your investigations are valuable. Not that anyone else cares much.

On May 6, Jerry Zimmerman wrote:

The article in Ferminews called the question was very interesting to me. Since I do the cryoshows at schools I to am often asked that question. But the example I use was not even mentioned in your article and to me is even more important then any of the wonderful discoveries mentioned.

J.J. Thompson was investigating a phenomenon called cathode rays and not only discovered electrons but also the basics for particle accelerators, television and computer monitors. In fact I think one of the greatest discoveries of all time is the Cathode Ray Tube which is almost the fundamental building block for the technology of today. The Gutenberg Press was the first discovery that allowed information to given to the masses but the second one that has allowed our information age is the CRT. Between Television and Computer displays it is the one development that has allowed for information age to get the information to us the masses. When he was investigating Cathode Rays, did he in vision television or computers, no he was just investigating a high energy physics question. I believe that his contributions and there connection with Fermilab are overlooked as an example of using abstract high energy physics for everyday life changing developments.

On Thursday, April 25, Adolf Schaller, Director OmniCosm Studios wrote us:

To those, like David Kramer, who find particle physics so painfully irrelevant, I would like to suggest these words in addition to those of that "hackneyed" ilk he seems to despise so: The whole and preeminent reason for the existence of biomedicine in the first place is so that human beings can more fully enjoy exploring the deepest nature of their own existence: Particle physics, and the questions it alone addresses, is a big reason why biomedicine is relevant at all.

Leslie Groer, PhD, Columbia University wrote us:

Dear Judy

As I'm sure many of particle physics respondents would point out, an indirect benefit the whole world is enjoying is the creation of the World Wide Web at CERN directly as a result of the need for communication amongst the ever-growing particle physics collaborations. Clearly this is not the reason for doing the physics but does show some of the immediate and sometimes completely unpredictable spin-offs that fundamental research can lead to.

Jim Griffin wrote:

Judy Jackson Here is a comment that may be useful in some form. Last week my wife had a PET-scan of her upper body in a search for the source of a perticular form of cancer. (particular i.e., no upscreen editing from here) So what is a PET-scan? Positron-Electron-Tomagraphy. We've heard a bit about electrons, but what is a positron? Of course, a positron is the anti-particle of an electon, an anti- electron. What is an antiparticle anyway? Do such things exist? Answer, yes in some circumstances. In this case the anti-electrons can be made to appear near points of high metabolism in the body, that may exhibit tumor activity. When theanti-electrons (positrons) appear they very quickly (one million of a millionth of a second) encounter one of the millions of electron nearby. When that happens the positron and the electron annihilate each other and give off two bursts of radiation. By looking from outside the body for the source of hat radiation the location of possible tumor activity can be defined. So antimatter matters!

At Fermilab millions of millions of antiprotons are created and captured each day. They are captured in a large magnetic bottle and later allowed to met ordinary protons at high energy near huge detectors similar to, but much larger than those used in a PET-scan. Again we look for the radiation resulting from these collisions to understand the deep-structure of the stuff the universe is made of.

But, very simply, the knowledge that antimatter exists and can be used in medical diagnosis is a direct result of forefront physics research.

Interestingly enough, about 35 years ago, when I was at the Iowa State Synchrotron, I started a study of the lifetime of positrons deeply imbedded in metal crystals. We created the positrons using radiation from our small synchrotron.

  1. How would you express the highest-level goals and objectives of particle physics at the start of the 21st century?

  2. In your best hopes and dreams, what advances will particle physics achieve in the next 30 years?

  3. Work in progress: The diagram, adapted from the recently released Long-Range Plan for the Future of U.S. High-Energy Physics, attempts to illustrate the true sweep and significance of the field of particle physics. How effective is the diagram? Ideas for improvement?

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Dialogue - FermiNews readers express their views:

On April 8, Sheldon Stone from Syracuse University wrote:

1. Understanding our world at the most elementary level in terms of forces and fundamental objects.

2. Understanding the mystery of flavor, fully understanding the connections between quarks and neutrinos. Understanding the Higgs sector and anything additional such as supersymmetry.

3. I think "Hidden Dimensions" has a much too prominent a place. While an intriguing idea, it is not known if there are any or not. I would put it in a "bubble" as a question "Are there extra dimensions?" I would replace it if possible with something like "Mystery of Flavor" and have the white bands leading into it as "CP violation in Quarks," and "Neutrino & Quark Mixing," possibly also "Neutrino Mass."

On April 8, Maureen A. McAllister wrote:

Thanks for the opportunity to comment on the Long-Range Plan poster.
As a non-physicist, I have a few reactions:

1. I think the universe background is fine, but the foreground should be something more clearly identified with physics research....e.g., a picture of bubble chamber trajectories, the guts of a detector, etc.

2. The poster should show the linkage to cosmology, especially understanding the Big Bang, the Big Crash of membranes or something similar. Show this as part of the Cosmic Connections.

3. We need to intertwine some practical benefits of high energy particle research....perhaps along the bottom of the poster....topics like neutron medicine, desk top fusion for the energy crisis, augmented space travel options (e.g. with solar winds) .

On April 3, John Womersley from Fermilab's D0 experiment wrote:

I recently attended a conference with a significant number of cosmologists, dark matter experimentalists and so on --- people we don't talk to very much. I gave a typical talk about the Higgs search at the Tevatron. Afterwards, one of the cosmologists came up to me during the coffee break and started asking questions. It took half an hour of the two of us standing at a whiteboard re-interpreting my talk before we both understood, in a common language, why what I had just talked about mattered to him. This brought home to me one of our problems. Often we like to focus inwards on our experiments, treating them as closed controlled systems where we can understand all the rules of a game of particles and forces. As for what this means for the universe, we just hope that cosmologists will read our papers and figure out the implications. This compartmentalization is bad for us all. Any discussion with non-specialists will make it clear that what we do has relevance only because it helps us understand the cosmos. Few people care about understanding proton-antiproton collisions at 2 TeV; many people care about understanding the universe. Moreover, our own physics experience should teach us that we can't separate the forces we observe from the symmetries of the cosmos: in a real sense, they are the same thing. We should never talk about finding the Higgs as if it's another particle to add to our list of trophies --- we should talk about it (and think about it) as a weird property of space-time that we are trying to explore experimentally. The universe is not an empty space in which the rules of particle physics apply; the universe is the rules and the rules are the universe.

My discussion at this conference didn't change the physics that I did --- we'll still look for the Higgs in the same way. But it helped to change my appreciation of why we are doing what we do. I believe it may help to change the public's appreciation too. One way to foster that is to use a different language. The term "life sciences" is used to cover biology, medicine, biochemistry, and genetics, because they seek to understand, and ultimately manipulate, the processes of life. Recent advances have blurred the boundaries between them and created new subdisciplines, but life sciences as a whole are vibrant and active. By analogy, I suggest we refer to astronomy, particle physics, cosmology, string theory, gravitational wave searches and so on as "cosmic sciences". They all seek to understand (and, yes, ultimately manipulate) the processes of the cosmos. Trying to talk about particle physics without talking about the cosmos is like talking about DNA without talking about life --- scientifically valid, but devoid of context. Our accelerator-based particle physics experiments are cosmic science because the ways in which matter behaves, and which they reveal, apply everywhere in the universe.

At the highest level, what we are trying to do is to understand the recipe we would need if we were going to create this universe from scratch. By recipe, I mean what kind of space, time, forces, symmetries and matter we would need to use and how to set them up. For millenia, philosophers have tried to answer this question, but our goal is to understand things through experiments, not through philosophizing. Cosmologists are often criticized because they cannot conduct experiments to test their hypothesis. That's not true. What we do in the Tevatron is experimental cosmology --- the experimental exploration of the structure of the cosmos.

On April 3, Christopher T. Hill from the Fermilab Theory Group wrote:

1. How would you express the highest-level goals and objectives of particle physics at the start of the 21st century?
There is no question about it: The highest aspiration of the science of particle physics at this time and place is to understand why things have mass. This is what we mean by fancier statements, like:
"understanding electroweak symmetry breaking" or:
"finding the Higgs boson." This question is the next big one on the list, and the answer is at hand, either from the Tevatron or the LHC.

Personally I do not see how any of the popular, loftier and questions of Superstring Theory, Extra Dimensions, Cosmology and Dark Matter, etc., can be approached beyond mere speculation, or even regarded as ultimately relevant to particle physics, until the question of the origin of mass is answered. We do not know what the answer is, and we do not really know what the next set of relevant questions will be until we have it.

History has always shown that then current speculations are replaced by completely different views of the world when the facts are finally in. Einstein thought quantum mechanics was flawed and that you could figure out the entire Universe given only the electron, and Fermi thought the only elementary particles were the photon, proton neutron, pion, electron and neutrino. Neither could ever have guessed the existence of the top quark, or anticipated the deep questions we are asking now.

I think my generation, no less proud than our great grandfather's, has a similar notion of grand synthesis that explains the whole Universe. Yet history suggests that the questions our great grandchildren will be asking are ones we haven't even conceived of yet. Perhaps it's all best said by Hamlet to Horatio: "there are things 'twixt heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in your philosophy."

Of course, history can be a bad predictor. It is still possible that "we will find Supersymmetry at the Weak Scale, extra dimensions, the LSP as the dark matter particle, with everthing unified into SU(5)->E_8 x E_8 and CP violation and CKM mixing arising from a Calabi-Yau manifold at the GUT scale, just below the superstring scale. " However, we may also find that this theoretical worldview is the modern equivalent of "phlogiston" or "caloric."

There's only one way to proceed: Use Galileo's Scientific Method. For us this means: Answer the next question on the list, and that one is "What is the origin of mass?"

2. In your best hopes and dreams, what advances will particle physics achieve in the next 30 years?
I believe that answering the question of the origin of mass is tantamount to the discovery of DNA as the storage medium of genetic code. I believe it will similarly lead us into a new realm of complexity. I do not think it is impossible that an entire revolution in our view of short-distance physics will emerge.

We seem to forget that elementary particle physics is the ultimate material's science. We are trying to understand matter and the forces that shape and control it. We are trying to understand the material question of "what is the ground state of the world?" ie, what is the structure of the vacuum? This is where the origin of mass can be understood. This is the vacuum in my backyard, or your attic, or Joe's basement... we don't have to go to NGC-1714, 400 million light years away, to answer it. These questions are most akin to the ones that condensed matter physicists ask about high temperature superconductors, or Mott insulators. They use the same techniques and the same style of thought that we do. To me, Condensed Matter Physics is our true sister science.

As such, I think that the material science of elementary particle physics may lead to things "not dreamt of in your philosophy." I can only speculate about it, and run the risk of being labeled a crackpot by my more well-dressed and callously sophisticated colleagues. Maybe theoretical physics will one-day stumble into number theory, or get a handle on why there is only one dimension of time (is there?) , or understand gravity as a collective phenomenon and solve the riddle of the tiny cosmological constant. In the realm of experiment, suppose we could ultimately affect the way in which things acquire mass? Could we envision a new kind of physical material? Or, suppose someday that we could manufacture magnetic monopoles, or find some new strange and quasistable elementary particle (perhaps the harbinger of dark matter)? Could the material science of elementary particle physics become.....USEFUL?

The fact is, particle physics already IS USEFUL! Particle physics provided the unique, possibly the exclusive, global collaborative paradigm in which the World-Wide-Web evolved... and with it a $1 Trillion contribution to the U.S. economy. The positron, which was discovered by a theorist in 1926, is the basis of a multi-$-billion medical imaging and diagnostics technology today. The particle accelerator, likewise, provides a multi-$-billion economy (and most of the dollars we consume in particle physics go to build and operate particle accelerators). Some entreprenuers envison a similar future new economy for the anti-proton, now some 50 years after its discovery, the particle that is uniquely manufactured and used as a tool here at Fermilab. I think this view of anti-protonics may be realistic. Particle physics pays, and will continue to pay, for its meal ticket.

Wat might be most useful of all, would be an oversight body that is competent to make these points emphatically to a sympathetic populace, Senate , House, Executive and Judiciary. Instead we are told that our science (and astrophysics) has "receded so far from the world of human action that the details of their phenomena are no longer very relevant to practical affairs." This is an extraordinarily unfortunate misstatement. And, perhaps the most unfortunate misstatement we've heard recently is that this "joy (of physics) ... is shared fully by a rapidly declining fraction of the population." It is evidently our leadership that is in the state of rapid decline.

Yet, where is the White Paper that informs a congressional aide what the payback ratio of a dollar spent on particle physics is in the general economy? Any economics Ph.D. is competent to estimate it. Why hasn't the Office of Science at DOE commissioned it? I suspect it is a payback ratio of order 10. If so, our $750 million HEP budget generates about $7.5 Billion in general economic activity, or, about 75,000 jobs for non-scientist American citizens. It's a rough guess, but I'd be surprised if it isn't close. So, how does our science function, today, in the world economy in detail? What would we tangibly lose without it? With these facts in hand it is a likely no-brainer to start construction on the linear collider, the muon collider and the VLHC tomorrow!

It is one of my personal greatest hopes and dreams that someday we get a competent and proactive oversight body, and the quality leadership that the most fundamental of all sciences, particle physics, deserves.

3. Does this diagram work? How could it be improved?
No, it doesn't work at all . The diagram projects various popular speculations, and agendas, rather than communicating what we really do, to entice support. It is more of the imagery and rhetoric that has failed us thus far. It fails to connect our science to the physical world around us, and to human activity. It substitues a surreal, other-worldly view of a virtual reality for the beauty of the active science that lives and breathes today.

What does the does the lunar-landscape-like backdrop have to do with particle physics? A spiral galaxy? -- maybe but not mainly. Where are particle accelerators even hinted at in the picture? Or a particle detector? Or advanced computing? This looks like an ad for a summer Sci-Fi flick, not a reason to spend $0.75 Billion per year to understand nature.

And, why is the MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION, the origin of mass, or "Higgs" placed under the rubric "ultimate unification"? How do WE know if there even is an ultimate unification? How do WE know what the relationship of unification to a Higgs is? We don't even know if there exists a HIGGS.

Let me share an experience I've had in communicating our science to the public. I have discovered that telling an audience that the answers to the most profound questions of particle physics lie in cosmology, ie., through telescopes, confuses them. I think it is also false. Try this little experiment: Give a popular talk on particle physics, where the raison d'etre is presented as understanding the moment of creation, the Big Bang. I have done it many times. The questions you get from the audience at the end of the talk go like this: "What was there before the Big Bang?", "Do you see evidence of God in the Universe? ", "Are any of those cosmologists at Fermilab single?" and, unfortunately, "What good is all of this?"

On the other hand, try telling it like it is: The answers lie through the world's most powerful microscopes, our accelerators, and detectors, and that we are trying to understand the structure and composition of everything around us. The questions from the audience then go like this: "How big is a proton?" "How big is a quark?" "How can you see a quark?" What will be the magnifying power of the LHC compared to the Tevatron, or a linear collider?" These are scientific questions. They are interesting to our neighbors and our friends who don't do this for a living. Tell the truth, and our neighbors understand it and us in our terms.

Most remarkably, when presented as a material science, as the ultimate microscopy, the audience rarely asks "What good is this?" They instinctively know it is good, essential, and important.

I suggest you go back to the drawing board on the poster. You might try something like this: Show an old woman in a southwestern native american village making a clay pot with her hands as a faint backdrop. On the pot could be scrawlings that are the equations of motion of a Yang-Mills gauge theory, the modern equivalent of Maxwell's Equations. This conveys the hands-on quality of our subject as a material science. Our work is "of this world," as much a part of a clay pot, as it is in another galaxy a long time ago. Overlay on this backdrop a foreground picture of the Tevatron, also of CDF or D0, and a CDF or D0 top quark event. This communicates the human and the traditional qualities of our subject. The subject is about here and now. It hasn't just begun, and it is not about to end.

A question rather than a slogan:

What is Matter?

Enough of this. I have some grungy calculations to do.

last modified 5/24/2002   email Fermilab