Studying Things That Are Small - Poem by gershon hepner
Choose to study problems that are small
rather than the ones that are more grand;
grandstanding won’t help you discover all
the small things you need most to understand.
If it’s a God whom you’re looking for,
don’t look for Him with giant telescopes,
since distant vision won’t help you explore
a universe made blurry by myopes.
Dennis Overbye writes about a meeting in Los Angeles in which scientists recently gathered to discuss the problems with which they were dealing (“Physicists’ Dreams and Worries in Era of the Big Collider, ” NYT, January 26,2010) :
A few dozen scientists got together in Los Angeles for the weekend recently to talk about their craziest hopes and dreams for the universe. At least that was the idea. “I want to set out the questions for the next nine decades, ” Maria Spiropulu said on the eve of the conference, called the Physics of the Universe Summit. She was hoping that the meeting, organized with the help of Joseph D. Lykken of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Gordon Kane of the University of Michigan, would replicate the success of a speech by the mathematician David Hilbert, who in 1900 laid out an agenda of 23 math questions to be solved in the 20th century. Dr. Spiropulu is a professor at the California Institute of Technology and a senior scientist at CERN, outside Geneva. Next month, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful particle accelerator ever built, will begin colliding protons and generating sparks of primordial fire in an effort to recreate conditions that ruled the universe in the first trillionth of a second of time. Physicists have been speculating for 30 years what they will see. Now it is almost Christmas morning. Organized into “duels” of world views, round tables and “diatribes and polemics, ” the conference was billed as a place where the physicists could let down their hair about what might come, avoid “groupthink” and “be daring (even at the expense of being wrong) , ” according to Dr. Spiropulu’s e-mailed instructions. “Tell us what is bugging you and what is inspiring you, ” she added.
The first speaker of the day was Lisa Randall, a Harvard theorist who began her talk by quoting Galileo to the effect that physics progressed more by working on small problems than by talking about grand ones — an issue that she is taking on in a new book about science and the collider. And so Dr. Randall emphasized the challenges ahead. Physicists have high expectations and elegant theories about what they will find, she said, but once they start looking in detail at these theories, “they’re not that pretty.” For example, a major hope is some explanation for why gravity is so weak compared with the other forces of nature. How is it that a refrigerator magnet can hold itself up against the pull of the entire Earth? One popular solution is a hypothesized feature of nature known as supersymmetry, which would cause certain mathematical discrepancies in the calculations to cancel out, as well as produce a plethora of previously undiscovered particles — known collectively as wimps, for weakly interacting massive particles — and presumably a passel of Nobel prizes.In what physicists call the “wimp miracle, ” supersymmetry could also explain the mysterious dark matter that astronomers say makes up 25 percent of the universe. But no single supersymmetrical particle quite fits the bill all by itself, Dr. Randall reported, without some additional fiddling with its parameters. Moreover, she added, it is worrying that supersymmetric effects have not already shown up as small deviations from the predictions of present-day physics, known as the Standard Model. “A lot of stuff doesn’t happen, ” Dr. Randall said. “We would have expected to see clues by now, but we haven’t.” These are exciting times, she concluded, but the answers physicists seek might not come quickly or easily. They should prepare for surprises and trouble. “I can’t help it, ” Dr. Randall said. “I’m a worrier.” Dr. Randall was followed by Dr. Kane, a self-proclaimed optimist who did try to provoke by claiming that physics was on the verge of seeing “the bottom of the iceberg.” The collider would soon discover supersymmetry, he said, allowing physicists to zero in on an explanation of almost everything about the physical world, or at least particle physics…. At one point, Mark Wise, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, felt compelled to remind the audience that this was not a depressing time for physics, listing the collider and other new experiments on heaven and on earth. “You cannot call this a depressing time, ” he said. Dr. Randall immediately chimed in. “I agree it’s a good time, ” she said. “We’ll make progress by thinking about these little problems.”
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