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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Nothing from nothing leaves nothing...

"...but you gotta have something..."

The Nobel Committee announced the winners of the 2013 Physics award today.  The award went to François Englert and Peter W. Higgs, "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider" [Source:].

I think Billy Preston should've at least received an honorable mention.

If you attended school with me, you know that math and science are not my strong suits. So it will likely come as no surprise that my first thought about this was, "If a something is, doesn't that, by definition, mean it has mass?"

I mean think about it. A dust particle has mass. A snowflake has mass. I would assume that any thing, no matter how small, has mass. Otherwise, it would be no-thing, right?

Saharan dust particle (

So what's the big deal? Isn't this akin to saying, "The sun is on fire so it gives off light and heat,"?

I'm going to say much smarter things now, thanks to the whiz kids over at Georgia State University (

The mass of an object is a fundamental property of the object; a numerical measure of its inertia; a fundamental measure of the amount of matter in the object. Definitions of mass often seem circular because it is such a fundamental quantity that it is hard to define in terms of something else. All mechanical quantities can be defined in terms of mass, length, and time. The usual symbol for mass is m and its SI unit is the kilogram. While the mass is normally considered to be an unchanging property of an object, at speeds approaching the speed of light one must consider the increase in the relativistic mass.

On the other hand, the weight of an object is the force of gravity on the object and may be defined as the mass times the acceleration of gravity, w = mg. Since the weight is a force, its SI unit is the newton. Density is mass/volume.

As any University of Alabama student can tell you, those GSU folks aren't very good at football, but apparently they know their physics.

Okay, think of the football as an ovoid, accelerating particle...

Now that we know (I say know, not understand) the difference between mass and weight, let's move on.

Apparently all the hullabaloo dates back to 1964, when Mr. Higgs and five other very smart guys first broached the theory of an elementary particle. The possibility of this particle existing was so exciting, scientists have spent the past forty years working to prove its existence. The search was considered so important that a multi-national team built the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) facility in Switzerland in an effort to find that little sucker.

When they say large...they mean it.

The LHC, as all the hip scientists refer to it, is massive. Since there's no way I could explain what the LHC does without help, I'll borrow some text from CERN's website:

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It first started up on 10 September 2008, and remains the latest addition to CERN’s accelerator complex. The LHC consists of a 27-kilometre ring of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way.

Inside the accelerator, two high-energy particle beams travel at close to the speed of light before they are made to collide. The beams travel in opposite directions in separate beam pipes – two tubes kept at ultrahigh vacuum. They are guided around the accelerator ring by a strong magnetic field maintained by superconducting electromagnets. The electromagnets are built from coils of special electric cable that operates in a superconducting state, efficiently conducting electricity without resistance or loss of energy. This requires chilling the magnets to ‑271.3°C – a temperature colder than outer space. For this reason, much of the accelerator is connected to a distribution system of liquid helium, which cools the magnets, as well as to other supply services.

I'm all for discovering interesting and useful facts about the world - and universe - around us. Really, I am. But I'm wondering where the benefit for humanity comes into play here. I don't want to pour cold water on the achievements of Mr. Higgs and his colleagues, but I am struggling in my own simple way to determine how super-cooled magnets being used to guide high-energy beams around a 27-kilometer ring, only to crash them together, will solve world hunger, or even contribute toward our efforts to slip the surly bonds of Earth.

Maybe it's just because I don't play in the physics sandbox. I'm not a scientist and most people who are would simply say I don't understand - or possibly - that I can't understand. Perhaps. But while I will acknowledge the award's prestige and, if nothing else, the sheer magnitude of intellect it took to win it, I will quickly return to my own little corner of Earth and my never-ceasing efforts to put enough particles on the table for my family.

What do you think?


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