Particle physics is at once the most elegant and brutish of sciences. Elegant because of its sweeping symmetries and exquisite mathematical structures. Brutish because the principal means of acquiring information about the subatomic realm is revving up tiny bits of matter to extraordinary energies and then smashing them together. Imagine trying to discern the hidden inner workings of a pocketwatch – carefully gauged springs and gears, all arranged just so – by hurling it at a wall and watching the detritus as it flies apart. In the case of particle physics, there’s an added twist: some of the detritus was never contained within the original matter, so it’s as if in addition to springs and gears, the bits from the smashed watch also included pulleys, ropes, the odd pound coin and a yo-yo or two. When smashing subatomic particles, the new objects that come flying out are coagulations of raw energy: some of the energy carried by the two colliding particles becomes transmuted, in accordance with Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, into little chunks of matter. These interactions occur billions of times per second in hulking machines like the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva and the Tevatron, soon to be decommissioned, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago.
LRB 25 August 2011 | PDF Download