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Discovering the universe, one particle at a time

July 24, 2015 09:09 IST

The world's largest and most respected centre for scientific research has shown how collaborative effort in the acrimonious field of particle physics can prove of enormous benefit to mankind.

Rashme Sehgal reports from CERN, for Rediff.com

Discovering the universe, one particle at a time

CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) has emerged as the most prominent centre for scientific research in the world.

It shot into prominence in 2012 with the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, having developed the Large Hadron Collider, LHC, a particle accelerator, to help make this stupendous discovery.

Thousands of scientists were involved in a discovery which saw the 20th century belief that the world was made up of atoms and protons being replaced by 12 elementary particles including quarks, leptons and bosons; these are presently being accepted as the building blocks of matter.

While the European Union contributed more than $9 billion towards the construction of this 30-metre long LHC, Indian scientists from several leading Indian universities have helped in this discovery.

In the last 60 years of its existence, the focus of CERN has been the study of particle physics with thousands of particle physicists working to understand the fundamental structure of matter.

One of the most distinguished physicist couples, both in their eighties, who have worked here from 1960, are Torleif Ericson, from Sweden, and his French wife Magda Ericson.

Sitting in their office on an extremely warm afternoon minus a fan, with the temperature outside touching 40 degrees centigrade, the petite and white-haired Magda Ericson, presently professor of physics at the University of Lyons, points out, "I have been coming here for the last 55 years when it was a much smaller outfit."

Her husband, who has been on the faculty of CERN for over five decades and is an influential and much sought after scientist at CERN, agrees. Professor Torleif Ericson, whose significant area of study has been the intersection between particle and nuclear physics, points out with a happy smile, "When you go for a cup of coffee (at the CERN canteen), you can meet up with all kinds of people. CERN sees a lot of movement (amongst scientists). One can discuss (physics) with so many people."

In 2014 alone, CERN saw 12,000 scientists visiting this Mecca of scientific activity.

Professor Magda Ericson's contribution has been in the development of nuclear pion physics, a subfield of nuclear physics.

Describing her evolution as a scientist, she says, "We started with classical nuclear physics where we thought a molecule consisted only of atoms. Now the Standard Model (read more about it here) (external link is accepted across the globe."

Does she have any regrets at the gargantuan scale of physics as represented by CERN?

"Things have changed enormously. In my youth, a huge team comprised of 15 people working on a problem, including doing experiments. Today, 3,000 scientists are working on a problem. In my youth, the approach was much more individualistic," says Professor Magda Ericson.

Professor Torlief Ericson believes collaboration is the way forward for the future, with extensive collaborative projects taking place amongst countries and universities in the area of the Human Brain Project as also in other fields of biology and chemistry.

"Collider physics has grown to become the principal method of high-energy physics, with particle colliders providing the highest available centre-of-mass energies and permutations to probe the structure of matter at the shortest distances," he says.

But this model can describe only four per cent of the known universe.

There are many more important questions perplexing this scientific community. These include the question of why is gravity so weak.

Why is there more matter than antimatter in the universe?

How do we learn more about the invisible dark matter which comprises most of the universe but which cannot be seen and can be detected only from its gravitational effects?

John Ellis, presently a visiting professor of particle physics at King's College in London, has also had a long association with CERN going back six decades.

The long-haired and white-bearded professor, often referred to as Maharishi by his colleagues, points out particle physics, cosmology and high-energy astrophysics have merged.

Professor Ellis's area of study is dark matter and "the need to understand what is holding galaxies together. They are moving so fast, the gravitational force is not enough. We believe they are being held together by dark matter."

Explaining further, Professor Ellis says, "We know it exists because of its gravitational force. It also bends light."

"Dark matter is constantly moving with the speed of 1,000 to the velocity of light. It behaves in the same way as regular mater and its distribution in the universe is uniform."

"Galaxies are moving in a pool of dark matter. All that we can see and touch is a fraction of the universe," says Professor Ellis, who wrote his first paper on dark matter in 1983.

Ellis has also had a long association with CERN.

"I came here as a student in 1968. I came back here in 1971 for my PhD. When I first came here, the largest accelerator was one kilometre long. In the 1970s, a six kilometre long accelerator was constructed and they have grown longer ever since," he adds.

Professor Ellis believes Indian physicists have had a significant role in the last two LHC experiments.

The total number of registered physicists at CERN is 10,000, but, on any given day, a few thousand particle physicists are present here.

Another scientist who fits into the category of being called a maharishi -- what with his striking white and grey beard and long hair -- is Professor George Zoupanos from the National Technical University of Greece.

Professor Zoupanos collaborates with the European Institute of Science and Application and is visiting CERN. With an artistic flourish of his hand, he says, "We are poets involved in doing basic research on the universe. I had predicted the Higgs boson particle four-and-a-half years before its discovery."

"The research we are doing may not have a direct practical outcome," he adds. "But everything that a scientist proposes has to be tested. The Standard Model of Particle physics has been established and tested at CERN."

The CERN budget is one billion euro annually, with Greece paying two million annually though it can ill afford to do so, he adds with a wry laugh.

Professor Vikram Soni, a particle physicist from Jamia Millia Islamia University who is visiting CERN from New Delhi, admits, "Our audience may be very small but corporations follow the work we are doing here. Our role is to discuss and then to publish."

The scientists at this facility have created the World Wide Web.

Quantum physics has helped in the development of lasers, light emitting diodes for nuclear power and super conductors.

The physics programmes here range from high-energy to nuclear physics, the study of anti-matter to the possible effect of cosmic rays on clouds.

The world's largest and most respected centre for scientific research has shown how collaborative efforts in this acrimonious field can prove of enormous benefit to mankind.

The Chinese are planning to build their own Higgs boson collider by 2028 and the US also wants to come up with its own next-generation super colliders. Whether they can succeed in developing particle accelerators and detectors to test the predictions of the Standard Model as successfully as CERN has done is something the scientific community will wait to discover.

Photograph: Kind Courtesy Creative Commons/ESO/H Dahle

Rashme Sehgal in Geneva