Tag Archives: particle physics

What if the Large Hadron Collider Finds Nothing Else?

In my last post, I expressed the view that a particle accelerator with proton-proton collisions of (roughly) 100 TeV of energy, significantly more powerful than the currently operational Large Hadron Collider [LHC] that helped scientists discover the Higgs particle, is an obvious and important next steps in our process of learning about the elementary workings of nature. And I described how we don’t yet know whether it will be an exploratory machine or a machine with a clear scientific target; it will depend on what the LHC does or does not discover over the coming few years.

What will it mean, for the 100 TeV collider project and more generally, if the LHC, having made possible the discovery of the Higgs particle, provides us with no more clues?  Specifically, over the next few years, hundreds of tests of the Standard Model (the equations that govern the known particles and forces) will be carried out in measurements made by the ATLAS, CMS and LHCb experiments at the LHC. Suppose that, as it has so far, the Standard Model passes every test that the experiments carry out? In particular, suppose the Higgs particle discovered in 2012 appears, after a few more years of intensive study, to be, as far the LHC can reveal, a Standard Model Higgs — the simplest possible type of Higgs particle?

Before we go any further, let’s keep in mind that we already know that the Standard Model isn’t all there is to nature. The Standard Model does not provide a consistent theory of gravity, nor does it explain neutrino masses, dark matter or “dark energy” (also known as the cosmological constant). Moreover, many of its features are just things we have to accept without explanation, such as the strengths of the forces, the existence of “three generations” (i.e., that there are two heavier cousins of the electron, two for the up quark and two for the down quark), the values of the masses of the various particles, etc. However, even though the Standard Model has its limitations, it is possible that everything that can actually be measured at the LHC — which cannot measure neutrino masses or directly observe dark matter or dark energy — will be well-described by the Standard Model. What if this is the case?

Michelson and Morley, and What They Discovered

In science, giving strong evidence that something isn’t there can be as important as discovering something that is there — and it’s often harder to do, because you have to thoroughly exclude all possibilities. [It's very hard to show that your lost keys are nowhere in the house --- you have to convince yourself that you looked everywhere.] A famous example is the case of Albert Michelson, in his two experiments (one in 1881, a second with Edward Morley in 1887) trying to detect the “ether wind”.

Light had been shown to be a wave in the 1800s; and like all waves known at the time, it was assumed to be a wave in something material, just as sound waves are waves in air, and ocean waves are waves in water. This material was termed the “luminiferous ether”. As we can detect our motion through air or through water in various ways, it seemed that it should be possible to detect our motion through the ether, specifically by looking for the possibility that light traveling in different directions travels at slightly different speeds.  This is what Michelson and Morley were trying to do: detect the movement of the Earth through the luminiferous ether.

Both of Michelson’s measurements failed to detect any ether wind, and did so expertly and convincingly. And for the convincing method that he invented — an experimental device called an interferometer, which had many other uses too — Michelson won the Nobel Prize in 1907. Meanwhile the failure to detect the ether drove both FitzGerald and Lorentz to consider radical new ideas about how matter might be deformed as it moves through the ether. Although these ideas weren’t right, they were important steps that Einstein was able to re-purpose, even more radically, in his 1905 equations of special relativity.

In Michelson’s case, the failure to discover the ether was itself a discovery, recognized only in retrospect: a discovery that the ether did not exist. (Or, if you’d like to say that it does exist, which some people do, then what was discovered is that the ether is utterly unlike any normal material substance in which waves are observed; no matter how fast or in what direction you are moving relative to me, both of us are at rest relative to the ether.) So one must not be too quick to assume that a lack of discovery is actually a step backwards; it may actually be a huge step forward.

Epicycles or a Revolution?

There were various attempts to make sense of Michelson and Morley’s experiment.   Some interpretations involved  tweaks of the notion of the ether.  Tweaks of this type, in which some original idea (here, the ether) is retained, but adjusted somehow to explain the data, are often referred to as “epicycles” by scientists.   (This is analogous to the way an epicycle was used by Ptolemy to explain the complex motions of the planets in the sky, in order to retain an earth-centered universe; the sun-centered solar system requires no such epicycles.) A tweak of this sort could have been the right direction to explain Michelson and Morley’s data, but as it turned out, it was not. Instead, the non-detection of the ether wind required something more dramatic — for it turned out that waves of light, though at first glance very similar to other types of waves, were in fact extraordinarily different. There simply was no ether wind for Michelson and Morley to detect.

If the LHC discovers nothing beyond the Standard Model, we will face what I see as a similar mystery.  As I explained here, the Standard Model, with no other particles added to it, is a consistent but extraordinarily “unnatural” (i.e. extremely non-generic) example of a quantum field theory.  This is a big deal. Just as nineteenth-century physicists deeply understood both the theory of waves and many specific examples of waves in nature  and had excellent reasons to expect a detectable ether, twenty-first century physicists understand quantum field theory and naturalness both from the theoretical point of view and from many examples in nature, and have very good reasons to expect particle physics to be described by a natural theory.  (Our examples come both from condensed matter physics [e.g. metals, magnets, fluids, etc.] and from particle physics [e.g. the physics of hadrons].) Extremely unnatural systems — that is, physical systems described by quantum field theories that are highly non-generic — simply have not previously turned up in nature… which is just as we would expect from our theoretical understanding.

[Experts: As I emphasized in my Santa Barbara talk last week, appealing to anthropic arguments about the hierarchy between gravity and the other forces does not allow you to escape from the naturalness problem.]

So what might it mean if an unnatural quantum field theory describes all of the measurements at the LHC? It may mean that our understanding of particle physics requires an epicyclic change — a tweak.  The implications of a tweak would potentially be minor. A tweak might only require us to keep doing what we’re doing, exploring in the same direction but a little further, working a little harder — i.e. to keep colliding protons together, but go up in collision energy a bit more, from the LHC to the 100 TeV collider. For instance, perhaps the Standard Model is supplemented by additional particles that, rather than having masses that put them within reach of the LHC, as would inevitably be the case in a natural extension of the Standard Model (here’s an example), are just a little bit heavier than expected. In this case the world would be somewhat unnatural, but not too much, perhaps through some relatively minor accident of nature; and a 100 TeV collider would have enough energy per collision to discover and reveal the nature of these particles.

Or perhaps a tweak is entirely the wrong idea, and instead our understanding is fundamentally amiss. Perhaps another Einstein will be needed to radically reshape the way we think about what we know.  A dramatic rethink is both more exciting and more disturbing. It was an intellectual challenge for 19th century physicists to imagine, from the result of the Michelson-Morley experiment, that key clues to its explanation would be found in seeking violations of Newton’s equations for how energy and momentum depend on velocity. (The first experiments on this issue were carried out in 1901, but definitive experiments took another 15 years.) It was an even greater challenge to envision that the already-known unexplained shift in the orbit of Mercury would also be related to the Michelson-Morley (non)-discovery, as Einstein, in trying to adjust Newton’s gravity to make it consistent with the theory of special relativity, showed in 1913.

My point is that the experiments that were needed to properly interpret Michelson-Morley’s result

  • did not involve trying to detect motion through the ether,
  • did not involve building even more powerful and accurate interferometers,
  • and were not immediately obvious to the practitioners in 1888.

This should give us pause. We might, if we continue as we are, be heading in the wrong direction.

Difficult as it is to do, we have to take seriously the possibility that if (and remember this is still a very big “if”) the LHC finds only what is predicted by the Standard Model, the reason may involve a significant reorganization of our knowledge, perhaps even as great as relativity’s re-making of our concepts of space and time. Were that the case, it is possible that higher-energy colliders would tell us nothing, and give us no clues at all. An exploratory 100 TeV collider is not guaranteed to reveal secrets of nature, any more than a better version of Michelson-Morley’s interferometer would have been guaranteed to do so. It may be that a completely different direction of exploration, including directions that currently would seem silly or pointless, will be necessary.

This is not to say that a 100 TeV collider isn’t needed!  It might be that all we need is a tweak of our current understanding, and then such a machine is exactly what we need, and will be the only way to resolve the current mysteries.  Or it might be that the 100 TeV machine is just what we need to learn something revolutionary.  But we also need to be looking for other lines of investigation, perhaps ones that today would sound unrelated to particle physics, or even unrelated to any known fundamental question about nature.

Let me provide one example from recent history — one which did not lead to a discovery, but still illustrates that this is not all about 19th century history.

An Example

One of the great contributions to science of Nima Arkani-Hamed, Savas Dimopoulos and Gia Dvali was to observe (in a 1998 paper I’ll refer to as ADD, after the authors’ initials) that no one had ever excluded the possibility that we, and all the particles from which we’re made, can move around freely in three spatial dimensions, but are stuck (as it were) as though to the corner edge of a thin rod — a rod as much as one millimeter wide, into which only gravitational fields (but not, for example, electric fields or magnetic fields) may penetrate.  Moreover, they emphasized that the presence of these extra dimensions might explain why gravity is so much weaker than the other known forces.

Fig. 1: ADD's paper pointed out that no experiment as of 1998 could yet rule out the possibility that our familiar three dimensional world is a corner of a five-dimensional world, where the two extra dimensions are finite but perhaps as large as a millimeter.

Fig. 1: ADD’s paper pointed out that no experiment as of 1998 could yet rule out the possibility that our familiar three-dimensional world is a corner of a five-dimensional world, where the two extra dimensions are finite but perhaps as large as a millimeter.

Given the incredible number of experiments over the past two centuries that have probed distances vastly smaller than a millimeter, the claim that there could exist millimeter-sized unknown dimensions was amazing, and came as a tremendous shock — certainly to me. At first, I simply didn’t believe that the ADD paper could be right.  But it was.

One of the most important immediate effects of the ADD paper was to generate a strong motivation for a new class of experiments that could be done, rather inexpensively, on the top of a table. If the world were as they imagined it might be, then Newton’s (and Einstein’s) law for gravity, which states that the force between two stationary objects depends on the distance r between them as 1/r², would increase faster than this at distances shorter than the width of the rod in Figure 1.  This is illustrated in Figure 2.

Fig. 2: If the world were as sketched in Figure 1, then Newton/Einstein's law of gravity would be violated at distances shorter than the width of the rod in Figure 1.  The blue line shows Newton/Einstein's prediction; the red line shows what a universe like that in Figure 1 would predict instead.  Experiments done in the last few years agree with the blue curve down to a small fraction of a millimeter.

Fig. 2: If the world were as sketched in Figure 1, then Newton/Einstein’s law of gravity would be violated at distances shorter than the width of the rod in Figure 1. The blue line shows Newton/Einstein’s prediction; the red line shows what a universe like that in Figure 1 would predict instead. Experiments done in the last few years agree with the blue curve down to a small fraction of a millimeter.

These experiments are not easy — gravity is very, very weak compared to electrical forces, and lots of electrical effects can show up at very short distances and have to be cleverly avoided. But some of the best experimentalists in the world figured out how to do it (see here and here). After the experiments were done, Newton/Einstein’s law was verified down to a few hundredths of a millimeter.  If we live on the corner of a rod, as in Figure 1, it’s much, much smaller than a millimeter in width.

But it could have been true. And if it had, it might not have been discovered by a huge particle accelerator. It might have been discovered in these small inexpensive experiments that could have been performed years earlier. The experiments weren’t carried out earlier mainly because no one had pointed out quite how important they could be.

Ok Fine; What Other Experiments Should We Do?

So what are the non-obvious experiments we should be doing now or in the near future?  Well, if I had a really good suggestion for a new class of experiments, I would tell you — or rather, I would write about it in a scientific paper. (Actually, I do know of an important class of measurements, and I have written a scientific paper about them; but these are measurements to be done at the LHC, and don’t involve a entirely new experiment.)  Although I’m thinking about these things, I do not yet have any good ideas.  Until I do, or someone else does, this is all just talk — and talk does not impress physicists.

Indeed, you might object that my remarks in this post have been almost without content, and possibly without merit.  I agree with that objection.

Still, I have some reasons for making these points. In part, I want to highlight, for a wide audience, the possible historic importance of what might now be happening in particle physics. And I especially want to draw the attention of young people. There have been experts in my field who have written that non-discoveries at the LHC constitute a “nightmare scenario” for particle physics… that there might be nothing for particle physicists to do for a long time. But I want to point out that on the contrary, not only may it not be a nightmare, it might actually represent an extraordinary opportunity. Not discovering the ether opened people’s minds, and eventually opened the door for Einstein to walk through. And if the LHC shows us that particle physics is not described by a natural quantum field theory, it may, similarly, open the door for a young person to show us that our understanding of quantum field theory and naturalness, while as intelligent and sensible and precise as the 19th century understanding of waves, does not apply unaltered to particle physics, and must be significantly revised.

Of course the LHC is still a young machine, and it may still permit additional major discoveries, rendering everything I’ve said here moot. But young people entering the field, or soon to enter it, should not assume that the experts necessarily understand where the field’s future lies. Like FitzGerald and Lorentz, even the most brilliant and creative among us might be suffering from our own hard-won and well-established assumptions, and we might soon need the vision of a brilliant young genius — perhaps a theorist with a clever set of equations, or perhaps an experimentalist with a clever new question and a clever measurement to answer it — to set us straight, and put us onto the right path.

A 100 TeV Proton-Proton Collider?

During the gap between the first run of the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], which ended in 2012 and included the discovery of the Higgs particle (and the exclusion of quite a few other things), and its second run, which starts a year from now, there’s been a lot of talk about the future direction for particle physics. By far the most prominent option, both in China and in Europe, involves the long-term possibility of a (roughly) 100 TeV proton-proton collider — that is, a particle accelerator like the LHC, but with 5 to 15 times more energy per collision.

Do we need such a machine? Continue reading

Could the Higgs Decay to New Z-like Particles?

Today I’m continuing with my series, begun last Tuesday (click here for more details on the project), on the possibility that the Higgs particle discovered 18 months ago might decay in unexpected ways.

I’ve finished an article describing how we can, with current and with future Large Hadron Collider [LHC] data, look for a Higgs particle decaying to two new spin one particles, somewhat similar to the Z particle, but with smaller mass and much weaker interactions with ordinary matter.  [For decays to spin zero particles, click here.] Just using existing published plots on LHC events with two lepton/anti-lepton pairs, my colleagues and I, in our recent paper, were able to put strong limits on this scenario: for certain masses, decays to the new particles can occur in at most one in a few thousand Higgs particles.  The ATLAS and CMS experiments could certainly do better, perhaps even to the point of making a discovery with existing data, if this process is occurring in nature.

The Higgs could decay to two new spin-one particles, here labelled ZD, which in turn could each produce a lepton/anti-lepton pair.  The resulting signature would be spectacular, but neither ATLAS nor CMS has done a optimizal search for this signal covering the full allowed ZD mass range.

The Higgs could decay to two new spin-one particles, here labelled ZD, which in turn could each produce a lepton/anti-lepton pair (e = electron, μ = muon). The resulting signature would be spectacular, but neither ATLAS nor CMS has yet published an optimal search for this signal across the full allowed ZD mass range.

You might wonder how particle physicists could have missed a particle with a mass lower than that of the Z particle; wouldn’t we already have observed it? A clue as to how this can occur: it took much longer to discover the muon neutrino than the muon, even though the neutrino has a much lower mass. Similarly, it took much longer to discover the Higgs particle than the top quark, even though the Higgs has a lower mass. Why did this happen?

It happened because muon neutrinos interact much more weakly with ordinary matter than do muons, and are therefore much harder to produce, measure and study than are muons. Something similar is true of the Higgs particle compared to the top quark; although the top quark is nearly 50% heavier than the Higgs, the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] produces 20 times as many top quarks and anti-quarks as Higgs particles, and the signature of a top quark is usually more distinctive. So new low-mass particles to which the Higgs particle can perhaps decay could easily have been missed, if they interact much more weakly with ordinary matter than do the Z particle, top quark, bottom quark, muon, etc.

The muon neutrino was discovered not because these neutrinos were directly produced in collisions of ordinary matter but rather because muons were first produced, and these then decayed to muon neutrinos (plus an electron and an electron anti-neutrino).  Similarly, new particles may be discovered not because we produce them directly in ordinary matter collisions, but because, as in the above figure, we first produce a Higgs particle in proton-proton collisions at the LHC, and the Higgs may then in turn decay to them.

I should emphasize that direct searches for these types of new particles are taking place, using both old and new data from a variety of particle physics machines (here’s one example.) But it is often the case that these direct searches are not powerful enough to find the new particles, at least not soon, and therefore they may first show up in unexpected exotic decays of the Higgs… especially since the LHC has already produced a million Higgs particles, most of them at the ATLAS and CMS experiments, with a smaller fraction at LHCb.

I hope that some ATLAS and CMS experimenters are looking for this signal… and that we’ll hear results at the upcoming Moriond conference.

More Examples of Possible Unexpected Higgs Decays

As I explained on Tuesday, I’m currently writing articles for this website that summarize the results of a study, on which I’m one of thirteen co-authors, of various types of decays that the newly-discovered Higgs particle might exhibit, with a focus on measurements that could be done now with 2011-2012 Large Hadron Collider [LHC] data, or very soon with 2015-2018 data.  See Tuesday’s post for an explanation of what this is all about.

On Tuesday I told you I’d created a page summarizing what we know about possible Higgs decays to two new spin-zero particles, which in turn decay to quark pairs or lepton pairs according to our general expectation that heavier particles are preferred in spin-zero-particle decays. A number of theories (including models with more Higgs particles, certain non-minimal supersymmetric models, some Little Higgs models, and various dark matter models) predict this possibility.

Today I’ve added to that page (starting below figure 4) to include possible Higgs decays to two new spin-zero particles which in turn decay to gluon or photon pairs, according to our general expectation that, if the new spin-zero particles don’t interact very strongly with quarks or leptons, then they will typically decay to the force particles, with a rate roughly related to the strengths of the corresponding forces.  While fewer known theories directly predict this possibility compared to the one in the previous paragraph, the ease of looking for Higgs particles decaying to four photons motivates an attempt to do so in current data.

I have a few other classes of Higgs particle exotic decays to cover, so more articles on this subject will follow shortly!

Unexpected Decays of the Higgs Particle: What We Found

A few weeks ago, I reported on the completion of a large project, with which I’ve been personally involved, to investigate how particle physicists at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] could be searching, not only in the future but even right now, for possible “Exotic Decays” of the newly-discovered Higgs particle .

By the term “exotic decays” (also called “non-Standard-Model [non-SM] Decays”), we mean “decays of this particle that are not expected to occur unless there’s something missing from the Standard Model (the set of equations we use to describe the known elementary particles and forces and the simplest possible type of Higgs field and its particle).”  I’ve written extensively on this website about this possibility (see herehere,  hereherehereherehere and here), though mostly in general terms. In our recent paper on Exotic Decays, we have gone into nitty-gritty detail… the sort of detail only an expert could love.  This week I’m splitting the difference, providing a detailed and semi-technical overview of the results of our work.  This includes organized lists of some of the decays we’re most likely to run across, and suggestions regarding the ones most promising to look for (which aren’t always the most common ones.)

Before I begin, let me again mention the twelve young physicists who were co-authors on this work, all of whom are pre-tenure and several of whom are still not professors yet.  [ When New Scientist reported on our work, they unfortunately didn't even mention, much less list, my co-authors.] They are (in alphabetical order): David Curtin, Rouven Essig, Stefania Gori, Prerit Jaiswal, Andrey Katz, Tao Liu, Zhen Liu, David McKeen, Jessie Shelton, Ze’ev Surujon, Brock Tweedie, and Yi-Ming Zhong. Continue reading

Galileo’s Winter

While the eastern half of the United States is having a cold winter so far, the same has not been true in Italy. The days I spent teaching in Florence (Firenze), at the Galileo Galilei Institute (GGI), were somewhat warmer than is apparently the usual, with even low temperatures far above freezing almost every night. A couple of people there said to me that they “hadn’t seen any winter yet”. So I was amused to read, on U.S. news websites, yet more reports of Americans uselessly debating the climate change issue — as though either the recent cold in the eastern U.S. or the recent warmth in Europe can tell us anything relevant to that discussion. (Here’s why it can’t.) It does seem to be widely forgotten in the United States that our country occupies only about 2% percent of the area of the Earth.

Of course the warmer Italian weather made my visit more pleasant, especially since the GGI is 20 minutes up a long hill — the Arcetri hill, of particular significance in scientific history. [I am grateful to the GGI, and the scientist- organizers of the school at which I taught, especially Stefania de Curtis, for making my visit to Arcetri and its sites possible.] The University of Florence used to be located there, and there are a number of astronomical observatories on the hill. And for particle physics, there is significance too. The building where I was teaching, and that hosts the GGI, used to be the department of Physics and Astronomy of the university. There, in 1925, Enrico Fermi, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, had his first professorial position. And while serving in that position, he figured out the statistical and thermodynamic properties of a gas made from particles that, in his honor, we now call “fermions”.  [His paper was recently translated into English by A. Zannoni.]

All particles in our world — elementary particles such as electrons and photons, and more complex objects such as atoms — are either fermions or bosons; the classic example of a fermion is an electron. The essential property of fermions is that two identical fermions cannot do precisely the same thing at the same time. For electrons in atoms, this is known as the Pauli exclusion principle (due to Wolfgang Pauli in 1925, based on 1924 research by Edmund Stoner): no two electrons can occupy the same quantum state. All of atomic physics and chemistry, and the very stability of large chunks of matter made from atoms, are dependent upon this principle. The properties of fermions also are crucial to the stability and structure of atomic nuclei, the existence of neutron stars, the electrical properties of metals and insulators, and the properties of many materials at cold temperatures.

Plaque commemorating Fermi's work on what we now call `fermions'. [Credit: M. Strassler]

Plaque commemorating Fermi’s work on what we now call `fermions’. [Credit: M. Strassler]

Inside the building is a plaque commemorating Fermi’s great achievement. But Fermi did not remain long in Florence, or even in Italy. A mere 15 years later, in the midst of the Fascist crisis and war in Europe, and having won a Nobel Prize for his work on radioactive atoms, Fermi had taken a position in the United States. There he directly oversaw the design, building and operation of humanity’s first nuclear reactor, in a secret underground laboratory at the University of Chicago, paving the way for the nuclear age.

But the main reason the Arcetri hill is famous for science is, ironically, because of a place of religion.

Both of Galileo’s daughters had taken the veil, and in 1631 the aging scientist was prompted to rent a villa on a small farm, within sight and a short walk of their nunnery.  Unfortunately, what must have seemed like an idyllic place to grow old and do science soon turned into a nightmare. After years of coexistence with and even support from within the Catholic Church, he had pushed too hard; his publication in 1632 of a comparison of the old Ptolemaic view of the universe, with the Earth at the center, with the newer Copernican view (to which he had greatly contributed, through his astronomical discoveries, in the 1610s), engendered a powerful backlash from some who viewed it as heretical. He was forced to spend 1633 defending himself in Rome and then living in exile in Sienna. When he was allowed to return to Arcetri in 1634, he was under house arrest and not allowed to have any scientific visitors. Shortly after his return, his 33-year-old daughter, with whom he was very close, died of a sudden and severe illness. His vision failed him, due to unknown diseases, and he was blind by 1638. Unable to go to Florence, his home town, scarcely three miles away, and rarely able to meet visitors, he spent the rest of his time in Arcetri isolated and increasingly ill, finally dying there in 1642.

Yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, Galileo’s science did not come to a halt. (This was also partly because of the his support from the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who interceded on his behalf to allow him some scientific assistance after he went blind.) At Arcetri, Galileo discovered the moon did not always present exactly the same face toward the Earth; it appears, to us on Earth, to wobble slightly. The explanation for this so-called “lunar libration” awaited Issac Newton’s laws of motion and of gravity, just 50 years away. And he finished formulating laws of motion (which would also later be explained by Newton), showing that (on Earth) objects tossed into the air follow a trajectory that mathematicians call a parabola, until affected by what we now call “air resistance”, and showing that uniform motion cannot be detected — the first Principle of Relativity, authored 270 years before Einstein presented his revision of Galileo’s ideas.

Vaulted ceiling in the main entry hall of Galileo's rented villa in Arcetri. (No, the light fixture is not original.) [Credit: M. Strassler]

Vaulted ceiling in the main entry hall of Galileo’s rented villa in Arcetri. (No, the light fixture is not original.) [Credit: M. Strassler]

To step into Galileo’s villa, as I did a few days ago, is therefore to step into a place of intense personal tragedy and one of great scientific achievement. One can easily imagine him writing by the window, or walking in the garden, or discussing the laws of motion with his assistants, in such a setting. It is also to be reminded that Galileo was not a poor man, thanks to his inventions and to his scientific appointments. The ceilings of the main rooms on the lower floor of the villa are high and vaulted, with attractively carved supports. There is a substantial “loggia” on the upper floor — a balcony, with pillars supporting a wooden roof, that (facing south-east, south and west) would have been ideal, while Galileo could still see, for observing the Moon and planets.

While Galileo’s luck ran badly in his later years, he had an extraordinary string of luck, as a younger scientist, at the beginning of the 1600s. First, in 1604, there was a supernova, as bright as the planet Jupiter, that appeared in the sky as a very bright new star. (Humans haven’t seen a correspondingly close and bright supernova since then, not even supernova 1987a.  There is one you can see with a small telescope right now though.) Observing that the glowing object showed no signs of parallax (see here for a description of how parallax can be used to determine the distance to an object), Galileo concluded that it must be further away than the Moon — and thus served as additional evidence that the heavens are not unchanging. Of course, what was seen was actually an exploding star, one that was nearly a trillion times further from the Earth than is the Moon — but this Galileo could not know.

Next, just a few years later, came the invention of the telescope. Hearing of this device, Galileo quickly built his own and figured out how to improve it. In the following years, armed with telescopes that could provide just 20-times magnification (typical binoculars you can buy can provide 10-times, and with much better optical quality than Galileo’s assistants could manufacture) came his great string of astronomical discoveries and co-discoveries:

  • the craters on the Moon (proving the Moon has mountains and valleys like the Earth),
  • the moons of Jupiter (proving that not everything orbits the Earth),
  • the phases of Venus and its changing apparent size as Venus moves about the sky (proving that Venus orbits the Sun),
  • the rings of Saturn (demonstrating Saturn is not merely a simple sphere),
  • sunspots (proving the sun is imperfect, changeable, and rotating),
  • and the vast number of stars in the Milky Way that aren’t visible to the naked eye.

One often hears 1905 referred to as Einstein’s miracle year, when he explained Brownian motion and calculated the size of atoms, introduced the notion of quanta of light to explain the photoelectric effect, and wrote his first two papers on special relativity. Well, one could say that Galileo had a miracle decade, most of it concentrated in 1610-1612— playing the decisive role in destroying the previously dominant Ptolemaic view of the universe, in which the Sun, Moon, planets and stars orbit in a complex system of circles-within-circles around a stationary Earth.

We live in an era where so much more is known about the basic workings of the universe, and where a simple idea or invention is rarely enough to lead to a great change in our understanding of our world and of ourselves. And so I found myself, standing in Galileo’s courtyard, feeling a moment of nostalgia for that simpler time of the 17th century, cruel and dangerous as it was… a time when a brilliant scientist could stand on the balcony of his own home, looking through a telescope he’d designed himself, and change the world-view of a civilization.

Looking across the enclosed courtyard of the villa, at the second-floor loggia, suitable for telescopic observing.  It is not hard to imagine Galileo standing there and peering into the sky.  [Credit: M. Strassler]

Looking across the enclosed courtyard of the villa, at the second-floor loggia. It is not difficult to imagine Galileo standing there and peering into his telescope. [Credit: M. Strassler]

Teaching at a “Winter School”

Professors at research universities engage in many different activities, and one which is little known to the public involves teaching at short and focused “schools” for graduate students. These schools, which generally last one to four weeks, and are usually (but not always) held outside the main academic year in winter or summer, allow these students to learn advanced topics in short courses that their universities wouldn’t be able to offer.

For instance, at most universities in the United States, a course focused on the theory of quarks and gluons (the set of equations known as “QCD”) would be attended by just a few students. And many universities don’t even have a professor who is truly expert on this subject. But when interested students from many universities are brought together at one of these specially organized schools, a world’s expert on QCD can teach a group of students as large as fifty or more. Not only is there economy of scale in this arrangement, it also helps to foster a future community among the students who attend. I myself went to one such school when I was a graduate student, and the faculty and students I met there include a number who are my professional peers today.

Usually, professors are not paid to teach at these schools, even though preparing a course is often a huge amount of work. There are two inducements, other than the satisfaction derived from the teaching itself. The first is that travel and lodging are free for the teacher; they are paid for by the organizers of the school, who in turn get the required funds from their university and/or government organizations. The latter (wisely, in my opinion) see such schools as having national value, in that they help assure a strong national research community in the future. The second is that the schools are often held in places where a person would not regret spending a week. The schools at which I have taught over the years have occurred in Boulder, Colorado (USA); Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada); Fermilab National Lab in Aurora, Illinois (USA); Cambridge, England; Kyoto, Japan; and Varna, Bulgaria. I’ve also taught in Italy, previously in the towns of Trieste and Erice, and this month in Florence (i.e. Firenze). For the next ten days or so, I’ll be at the Galileo Galilei Institute for Theoretical Physics (GGI), which is named, of course, after Florence’s most famous scientist.

(Several of my previous short courses are available in written or video form, and most are still sufficiently up-to-date to be useful to future experts. All of them assume, at least in large part, that a student has had a beginning course in quantum field theory. I can provide some links later this week if there is interest, though most of them easily show up in a web search.)

This is my first visit to the GGI, which is associated with the University of Florence, and is located on a hill a couple of miles from downtown Florence, not very far from where Galileo himself lived for some years. It was founded around 2006 to host focused research workshops, as well as brief schools. The theoretical particle physics graduate students at this school have already learned about dark matter from Tomer Volansky (a collaborator of mine on a trigger-related project), and about supersymmetry from David Shih (a former colleague at Rutgers and a recent collaborator on a supersymmetry/LHC project.) They’ll also be learning about the Higgs phenomenon and its generalizations from Raman Sundrum (who’s been mentioned many times on this blog, and whom I visited last month); about the physics of “flavor” — including the issue of how the six different types quarks transition from one to another via the weak nuclear force — from Gino Isidori; and about the physics of quarks and gluons from one of the world’s great experts, Stefano Catani. (You may not recognize these names, as none of them have written books for the public or developed a popular website or blog; but any expert in the theoretical particle physics knows them very well.) And last and perhaps least, they’ll be learning various bits of particle physics that one ought to know in the context of particle colliders, and particularly of the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], from me.

One corollary of this news is that I’ll be pretty busy for the next ten days, so I’m not sure how active the blog will really be. But I can promise you at least one post on string theory!

Wednesday: Sean Carroll & I Interviewed Again by Alan Boyle

Today, Wednesday December 4th, at 8 pm Eastern/5 pm Pacific time, Sean Carroll and I will be interviewed again by Alan Boyle on “Virtually Speaking Science”.   The link where you can listen in (in real time or at your leisure) is

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtually-speaking-science/2013/12/05/alan-boyle-matt-strassler-sean-carroll

What is “Virtually Speaking Science“?  It is an online radio program that presents, according to its website:

  • Informal conversations hosted by science writers Alan Boyle, Tom Levenson and Jennifer Ouellette, who explore the explore the often-volatile landscape of science, politics and policy, the history and economics of science, science deniers and its relationship to democracy, and the role of women in the sciences.

Sean Carroll is a Caltech physicist, astrophysicist, writer and speaker, blogger at Preposterous Universe, who recently completed an excellent and now prize-winning popular book (which I highly recommend) on the Higgs particle, entitled “The Particle at the End of the Universe“.  Our interviewer Alan Boyle is a noted science writer, author of the book “The Case for Pluto“, winner of many awards, and currently NBC News Digital’s science editor [at the blog  "Cosmic Log"].

Sean and I were interviewed in February by Alan on this program; here’s the link.  I was interviewed on Virtually Speaking Science once before, by Tom Levenson, about the Large Hadron Collider (here’s the link).  Also, my public talk “The Quest for the Higgs Particle” is posted in their website (here’s the link to the audio and to the slides).