'08 may prove to be a watershed year in large-scale physics

2008-02-17T00:00:00Z '08 may prove to be a watershed year in large-scale physics Arizona Daily Star
February 17, 2008 12:00 am

Eric Schwartz is a NASA Space Grant intern at the Arizona Daily Star. He is attending the American Association for the Advancement of Science general meeting this weekend as a student journalist with the National Association of Science Writers.

The annual meeting is one of the largest and most important scientific conferences in America, with more than 100 symposiums and thousands of participants. It's being held this year in Boston with the theme of "Science and Technology From a Global Perspective."

BOSTON — "This will be an exciting year for particle physics."

Considering the average person's excitement at the mention of particle physics, this statement by Robert Aymar of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear research, might raise an eyebrow.

But Aymar and the other speakers at a lecture titled "Physics on a Grand Scale" proved that the future of all types of international endeavors in physics will excite more than just subatomic particles.

The lecture was part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest general scientific society in the world. Imagine 10,000 scientists, journalists, students and interested members of the public talking science for five days and you'll get a clear picture.

The lecture dealt with international physics projects such as CERN's Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator involving thousands of scientists from around the world to re-create conditions similar to those right after the big bang; the International Linear Collider, also a particle accelerator; and the James Webb Space Telescope.

The space telescope is planned to be the successor to Hubble, said John Mather, a Nobel laureate at NASA. It will be launched in 2013 and will observe some of the earliest galaxies formed, as well as the formation of planetary systems.

All of these projects are large — "beyond the resources of any single country" — but will help work on some of the "grandest questions humans have ever asked," said Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University.

All the projects involve more than one country or organization. "Political backing makes large projects possible," Krauss said.

The speakers also made the point that popular backing leads to governmental support of these kinds of projects, especially on an international scale, making analogies to a hypothetical deadly asteroid heading for Earth, or the very real threat of climate change. To survive either would require a pooling of resources and efforts by the whole world.

Questions about dark energy, dark matter and the fundamental forces of the universe might be answered by these large projects, though the speakers acknowledged that they may not find anything they expect.

"Every experiment is a risk," Aymar said. Still, this is not a bad thing in science — more questions can be just as important, if not more so, than answers.

"The greatest pleasure is to be surprised," Krauss said.

● Contact NASA Space Grant intern Eric Schwartz at 807-8012 or at eschwartz@azstarnet.com.

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