Sunday, July 8, 2012

An Extraordinary Triumph for Science

    On July 4, two teams of researchers from CERN, Europe's center for particle physics research, made an extraordinary announcement, reporting the discovery of a new particle that appeared to match the profile of the long-sought Higgs boson.  One team, using the CMS detector, announced the discovery of a particle with a mass of 125 GeV (giga-electron volts), and the other, using the ATLAS detector, reported a mass of 126 GeV.  In tandem, they had found impressive evidence for a major find.

    The Higgs boson is the relic of the field that filled all of space during the nascent moments of time.  In those fleeting instants, as the Higgs field transformed, it lent mass to most of the other elementary particles and caused them to differentiate in their properties.  This process, called the Higgs mechanism, is a key ingredient of the Standard Model of particle physics, explaining why there are significant differences among particles.  For example photons, the particles that carry the electromagnetic force, are massless and act over a long range, while W and Z particles, carriers of the weak interaction, are heavy and act over a short range.

    One might use the analogy of water freezing into ice to think of how the Higgs mechanism works.  Imagine that the Higgs field in the hot early universe was a sea of liquid water.  Other particles moved through the sea like speed boats, each travelling at the speed of light and interacting with each other in the same way.  However, as the universe cooled, the Higgs "sea" began to freeze into tracks of slush.  Moving through these slush tracks in various directions, most of the particles were forced to slow down, becoming heavier.  The amount of mass, or heaviness acquired, depended on the angle that the particle was moving.  This led to profound differences in the properties of those particles.

    Additional work needs to be done to establish that the newly found particle truly is the Higgs boson.  However, the announcement was met with much optimism that the long road to finding the Higgs has almost reached its end.

    For more about the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs boson, see my book Collider: A Search for the World's Smallest Particles

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

George Gamow's Grave

On a visit to Boulder, CO in June 2011 I visited George Gamow's grave in Green Mountain Cemetery.

Born in Odessa in 1904, then part of the Russian empire, Gamow escaped to the west and became professor at George Washington University. There, along with his student Ralph Alpher, he developed the concept of Big Bang nucleosynthesis. He later moved to Boulder where he was Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado. He wrote numerous popular books, and died in 1968.

Gamow's grave is somewhat hard to find as it is in a more isolated part of the cemetery. Nevertheless, I found it and snapped a few photos:

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Smashing re-creation of Big Bang conditions at the Large Hadron Collider

Last month, the Large Hadron Collider switched gears. It ended its proton run, involving smashing those elementary particles together, and switched to lead nuclei. The goal is creating an ultra-high temperature substance, called quark-gluon plasma. This fiery liquid is believed to resemble the content of the universe shortly after the Big Bang. Quarks and gluons, the constituents of neutrons, protons and other particles, are normally confined to either triplets or pairs. However, at high energies, their confinement breaks and they are freer to move. The lead nuclei experiments at the LHC thus offer an exciting window to the dawn of time.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Guardian Review of Collider

I'm pleased to report that Collider has been reviewed in The Guardian:

Guardian Review of Collider

The Guardian calls it a "very readable history of our quest to understand the building-blocks of matter."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Collider - in paperback, with a new preface

I'm excited to see that Collider: The Search for the World's Smallest Particles is now available in paperback, with an all new preface about the suspenseful start-up of the Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful particle-smasher in the world. If you (or a friend or relative) are curious about the quest for supersymmetry, investigations into why there is so much more matter than antimatter in the universe, the search for higher dimensions, and the effort to understand the source of mass in the particle world, the book answers many of these intriguing questions and more.

As Publishers Weekly wrote about Collider:
"Halpern makes the search for mysterious particles pertinent and exciting by explaining clearly what we don't know about the universe, and offering a hopeful outlook for future research"

Friday, July 30, 2010

B. Tripp's Book Review of Collider

There is an excellent new review of Collider on Brendan Tripp's book review site. Here is a short excerpt:

"I thoroughly enjoyed reading Collider and would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in physics, or even science in general. Not only is is a wonderful survey of what has happened in the field, it provides personalizing backgrounds on many major players that I'd never encountered previously, as well information on folks who did significant pieces of research that I'd never heard of. "
-B. Tripp

Here is a link to the full review:
B. Tripp's Book Review of Collider

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Interview with Marcus Chown on

I recently had the fantastic opportunity to interview science writer Marcus Chown on the blogging "talk show" The topic was his new book "The Matchbox that Ate a Forty-Ton Truck."

As I am a long-time fan of his writings in New Scientist, and really enjoyed his book, it was a wonderful experience getting a chance to chat with him. He seems very down-to-earth, and has a gift for explaining difficult topics in a very visual, tangible manner.

Marcus's story about physicist Richard Feynman's letter to his mother is priceless. It is toward the end of the interview.

Here is a link to the video chat:

Interview with Marcus Chown on