Gambling on Physics at the Pub

Cocktail Party Physics - Discovery Channel | 21 October 2009

Lee Smolin, Wilson da Silva, Jennifer Ouellette and Cliff Burgess at The Huether Hotel

By Jennifer Ouellette

THERE’S NOTHING quite like taking science to the people in the form of their local pub, particularly if it’s part of the ongoing Quantum to Cosmos Festival, hosted by the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada.

Last night I joined physicists Lee Smolin (a founding member of Perimeter, Jazz Whisperer, and author of The Trouble of Physics, among other books) and Cliff Burgess (McMaster University and All-Around Mensch) to chat with our fellow imbibers about the Large Hadron Collider, the Standard Model of particle physics, what one might do with an old, outdated accelerator, and after the alcohol took effect, we even delved a bit into quantum gravity (Lee’s bailiwick). Good times!

The festivities were hosted by ringmaster Wilson da Silva, Awesome Dude – also editor of Cosmos Magazine. Those Aussies know how to bring science where it counts. There are photographs of the event, oh yes, and there was supposed to be a podcast suitable for downloading. A good time was had by all, especially the panelists.

The evening’s title was “The Biggest Gamble in Physics?” because Wilson believes in bringing the controversy right out of the gate. The Large Hadron Collider is a huge machine, very powerful, very expensive – is it worth the price tag for whatever we’re likely to discover (if anything)? Cliff quickly established himself as the optimist among us, convinced we will not only find the Higgs boson when the LHC (finally) turns on, but a few other exciting things too. He’s expecting surprises, and looking forward to them.

I conceded that it might be difficult for the average Person on the Street to justify spending that kind of money on a big machine to explore the Big Bang when people are losing their jobs and homes in droves (especially in the US), but pointed out that there are economic benefits as well: the LHC generates jobs and spinoff technologies, many of which we can’t even envision yet.

And Lee brought some much-needed perspective by quoting Eric Weinstein: “For the cost of bailing out one bank, we put a man on the moon.” (And that’s not counting all the hefty bonuses announced this past week.)

We also commiserated about the difficulty in summing up the Standard Model of particle physics for a general audience. Wilson claims he once tried to write a short sidebar summary for a Cosmos feature, “and 748 words later, I was finally finished.”

I marvel he could do so in under 1000 words. I like to use the analogy of a big noisy family of particles, akin to the loud Greek relatives in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding: there are all kinds of cousins, second cousins, aunts and uncles, half of whom are named Nick, and even the occasional crazy grandparent making a rare appearance. It’s tough to keep them all straight. So with the Standard Model.

Lee says his goal is to reduce the model down to something more manageable, along the lines of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It would be easier to just have a Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear.

That complexity, of course, is why it proved so difficult to dispel the myth that the LHC will create a big black hole that will destroy the world. No major media outlet could resist the temptation to play the Doomsday card, although the Daily Show gets kudos for ridiculing the mastermind behind the hysteria. I argued that, as annoying as the media coverage became, the LHC was the third biggest news story of 2008. The LHC has fantastic name recognition, even if it’s as a Doomsday Machine.

Afterwards, we repaired to Perimeter’s famed Black Hole Bistro – it seemed fitting, if the LHC is going to make a black hole to destroy the world – where we hobnobbed with fellow panelists, and I got to hover shyly near author Neal Stephenson (Anathem, The Baroque Cycle, and my favorite, Snow Crash) as he chatted with MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld and others. Even I have my Fangrrl moments.

All in all, it was an amazing festival experience, and I’m sorry I could only take in such a small part of it.

Jennifer Ouellette is the author of “Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics” and “The Physics of the Buffyverse”, holds a black belt in jujitsu, and lives in Los Angeles with a tall cosmologist named Sean.

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