The Beauty of Physics

Join my journey from the mid-galactic black-hole to the keratin in your hair, and discover the beauty of physics.

The Beauty of Physics

Join my journey from the mid-galactic black-hole to the keratin in your hair, and discover the beauty of physics.

The  evening before my departure to Geneva, Switzerland, I was looking up in  the sky at the moon, which was a waxing crescent that evening. Tomorrow  was a school trip to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear  Research, and that set me thinking.

I  know that we can only see one half of the moon because that’s the only  side that’s illuminated but never thought about the physics aspect of  it: we can see that part since the rays of light are reflected towards  our eyes, which isn’t happening on the dark side. That’s when I realised  how beautiful physics can be.

We  arrived at CERN in the late morning of Wednesday. The look reminded me  of an industrial park, with its chain-link fence and large,  glass-windowed buildings. A voluntary guide led us to a classroom, where  we all sat very close to each other, small wooden planks in front of us  serving as writing-tables.

The  guide showed us a video which gave more information about what they do  at CERN and how they do it, by example: at the LHCb they try to figure  out why there was a matter-surplus at the Big Bang. This surplus is the  reason our universe exists today. It was a good video but unfortunately  it crashed halfway. Not to be perturbed, guide went on to tell us about  the other things that would’ve been shown — but he got me really excited  when he started talking about antiparticles.

The  antiparticle of the proton, he explained, is the “antiproton”, and the  antiparticle of the electron is the antielectron or “positron”.  Together, they can form an antihydrogen atom, just as ordinary protons  and electrons form hydrogen. What’s more, this “antihydrogen” has  exactly the same properties, except charge which is opposite, as a  hydrogen atom.

When  particles and antiparticles touch, they annihilate each other — both  vanishing like a ball of water filling a bubble in the ocean, but  releasing photons of energy in the process.

At  CERN, one of the things they try to figure out is why our universe  consists almost entirely of matter, rather than being a mixture of  matter and antimatter.

After  our guide’s introductory speech, we went to Compact Muon Solenoid,  which is the other end of the more well-known Large Hadron Collider.

The  Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, is a particle collider with a  27-kilometre-long circuit. Protons, lead ions, and other such “hadrons”  are sent round this circuit at incredibly high speeds — sometimes  spinning round at 11,000 loops per second. Lead ions are used during a  “heavy ion” run where lead ions are collided.

Giant  superconducting magnets guide these particles into two beams, which  cross over at 4 points. These points, LHCb, ATLAS, CMS and ALICE, are  where the particles smash head-on into each other, sometimes even  recreating conditions similar to billionths of seconds after the Big  Bang.

By  smashing these particles together and seeing what comes out, scientists  hope to answer some of the burning questions facing physics today.  These include “dark matter”, the hypothetical stuff that’s thought to  account for 25% of the matter in the universe. Scientists suspect it  exists because the gravity of the Universe behaves as if there was.

Then  there’s supersymmetry, the theory that every known particle has a  heavier counterpart. These could explain dark-matter, and the LHC is on  the lookout for them.

The  LHC also investigates the various “string theories”, the different  multidimensional models of how the Universe may be put together. What  the LHC does is to collide particles, then add up the resultant energy.  If it doesn’t add up, there’s a chance that maybe the missing energy  ended up in another dimension.

These  are some of the big questions currently being faced by physics — which  also means being faced by everyone in the world. Interestingly, the LHC  attempts to answer them, not by looking everywhere at once, but by  concentrating on even tinier and tinier areas.

In some way you can say that everything came into existence thanks to physics and is kept this way thanks to it.

The  moon, for example, turns around the earth, which turns around the sun  and the sun turns around a black hole in the middle of our galaxy. This  is all caused by gravitational pull which simply is a force that massive  objects practice on each other and causes them to get attracted.

But that’s not all. The size of the pull follows a precise mathematical pattern, given by Newton’s law of universal gravitation:

That might look complicated at first, but it’s quite simple if you think about it. If m₁ and m₂  are the masses of two objects in space, you get the force by  multiplying the masses, and dividing by the distance between them. (The  ‘G’ is just a constant to scale down the numbers: the way you multiply  centimetres by 10 to get millimetres).

The  heavier the masses, the larger the gravitational pull; the shorter the  distance, the stronger the pull will get. That’s all there is to it.

And yet, this rule somehow holds the moon, the earth, the sun, and indeed the whole Universe under its command.

The  Compact Muon Solenoid, other side of the LHC, is located in France: a  twenty-minute drive for us by commissioned CERN bus. At first it looked  like a typical business building if slightly shorter and broader than  the previous one, but then a guide took us to the back to talk about  safety measures for going underground.

Like  the LHC, the Compact Muon Solenoid is located under the ground.  Particles are sent in from one side of a kilometres-long passageway  (CERN’s main campus), to accelerate in both directions and collide where  detectors are located. One of those detectors is the Compact Muon  Solenoid, or CMS, located at the other end of the LHC.

The  guides gave us orange helmets with the CMS logo on them, just like the  ones they themselves were wearing. However they also had on yellow fluo  jackets, while we stayed in our ordinary clothes.

We  took a lift down to the highest floor underground — an eighty-metre  trip in a smooth metal box, with a wall-mounted TV playing safety  instructions all the way.

Since  we were only going one level down the journey was over in half a  minute; however my ears popped, like they do on an airplane, which is  something I hate a lot.

We  arrived in a cavern made of concrete and equipped with lots of pipes  running above us. The guide explained to us how the CMS works, then took  us to a second cavern without corridors: one that was only accessible  because the LHC is currently in shutdown.

The  LHC, I learnt, is undergoing a two-year upgrade process: to increase  the amount of particles in the beam, as well as to repair the CMS. That  was lucky for me, because it meant I had a chance to see the detector.  Along with ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) it discovered the Higgs  boson (an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics)  in 2012.

When we came into the cavern I was amazed that such a huge apparatus is used to detect very small particles.

It  looked like an enormous circular metal construction, packed with all  kinds of electronics and wires in a concentric formation. Weighing  14.000 tonnes — nearly twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower — its  smallest ring on the inside was itself the size of an aeroplane. It  consists of two parts set on red platforms equipped with wheels so they  can be rolled apart. It was an amazing experience and made me more  amazed by physics and its beauty. I hope to go back to CERN one day and  maybe even work there. The chance may be small, but never say never.

I have mostly talked about how physics are important and beautiful in a large scale but the same counts for the small.

Think  about your hair. It’s made of keratin compounds which are made up of  different subunits, amino acids. These amino acids have atoms like  carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and sometimes sulphur. Each one of  these atoms are a collection of protons, neutrons and electrons. These  are kept together thanks to their charges; assembled once long ago in  the heart of a star.

This is a part of physics too, more specifically electrostatics.

Science  is all about learning how the world works. You look at something, you  take it apart, you investigate it to figure out the laws that make it  run. And the science that takes this investigation to the deepest level,  on the smallest scale as well as the largest, is physics. It is through  physics that you learn why atoms bond they way chemistry tells us; how  light travels through the biologist’s eye is explained by physics again.

One  can find many interesting patterns at levels high and low, but physics  looks right at the fundamental laws of the Universe: the deepest level  of all.

Thanks to Lauren Yeomans, CERN physicist, for help reviewing this piece.

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