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Saturday, 12 April 2014

Potted guide to particle physics

CERN terrasse
Just as my son and I are headed our separate ways from the Òran Mór, I get a phone call from the University to say the profs I'm meeting are half an hour behind, so we head back inside and order a couple of orange and sodas. 

"You've been to CERN," he says. "Give me the potted guide to particle physics. But none of your jargon. Keep it simple."

"Well let's see," I say. "There are twelve elementary particles. First you got quarks, squarks, protons and squotons. Then there's electrons, neutrons, matrons, cisterns, grains of sand, steel girders, dark matter and belly button fluff. Everything in the universe is made out of those."

"What holds them together?" he says. "What gives them shape and structure?"

"Good question," I say. "The four fundamental forces do that - gravity, electromagnetism, rock music and sex."

"I'm wondering how they know all this," he says. "Experiments I guess. They couldn't just make it up." 
Source of protons for LHC
"Course they couldn't," I say. "At CERN they mostly use protons from a little red bottle on the wall. But they can't just shoot them straight into the Large Hadron Collider, because they'd get trampled to death by the big guys already in there. So they do it in stages.

"First they give them a wee boost in the Booster, then a physicist on a Harley Davidson picks them up and does the wall of death around two circular machines, called the Proton Synchrotron and the Super Proton Synchrotron, before tossing them at high speed into the Large Hadron Collider. 
CERN accelerator complex

"Sometimes this is too much for one of the protons, which gets over-excited and tries to exceed the speed of light. But that means it could travel back in time and stop itself coming out the bottle. Nature won't permit a paradox, so it surrounds the proton with a little bubble universe that floats away over the Jura Mountains. It's how our own universe began, 13.8 squillion years ago."

"What's a squillion?" he says.

"Part of the numbering system used in physics," I say. "You got thousands, millions, billions, squillions, gazillions and infinity."

"How am I supposed to remember that?" he says.

"There's a mnemonic," I say. "Three Mad Badgers Sail the Galaxy Inaspaceship."

"That took a lot of thought," he says. 

"It's what physicists are good at," I say.  

"Carry on," he says. "This is exactly what I wanted."

"Well some scientists think the bubble universe stays attached to ours by a piece of string. Others say there's no evidence for string, and the stuff gardeners tie up straggly plants with is a figment of imaginations clouded by too much contact with fresh air and creepy crawlies."

"I thought a figment was the smallest dried fruit in a packet," he says.

"It is," I say. "Some are so small they're imaginary."

"Right, carry on."

"Well the objections to string are strong," I say. "Calculations show you can make 10520 different universes out of string. That's a lot more than you can create out of quarks, squarks and girders. It's bigger than any known number, including infinity. So they've made a mistake somewhere."

"I bet they multiplied instead of dividing," he says. "I did that all the time at school."

"Me too," I say. "I'll check their sums and get back to you. Will that do for now?"

"That's great, thanks," he says. 

"Next time will you do the potted history of art for me?" I say.

"No worries," he says. "Do you want me to go right back to Mammoths in a Cave? Art historians often start later, with the Smug Bastard in a Mustache school. That's popular. So is the Big Naked Women Eating Fruit period."

"Whatever you think," I say. "You're the expert."

"Depends how much time we have," he says. "We need to leave plenty for Nailing Shopping Trolleys to a Wall. That's the prevailing school nowadays so it's the most important." 

"I look forward to that," I tell him. "See ya."

"See ya," he says and buggers off out of my life for another week.

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