Just in Case You Were Wondering…

…When a lab created black hole might next form and end life as we know it….

(Joke, folks, in case you weren’t sure.)

…Follow this countdown to the activation of the Large Hadron Collider. (h/t Peter Steinberg via Planet Musings.)

Given that by pretty much any standard I can think the LHC of is the most complex machine ever built, this seems like a milestone worth noting.

One thing that does strike me in this last month before lift-off (or perhaps better, dive-in ) is the seeming reversal of roles in the fact of how often, and how frequently breakthrough science turns on top-flight engineering.

That is: a ton of science turns on instrumentation. A leap in the power of key instruments produces not just better data, but qualitatively new information. Think of how much of modern astronomy — and really, modern cosmology – turns on the twin transformations in the size of the light buckets of modern telescopes, and the enormous increase in the resolution and throughput of spectrographs. Everything from exoplanets to the fundamental questions raised by the observation of dark energy emerges directly from the engineering advances that produced the observational astronomy renaiscance of the last two decades. (Many of which, to be sure, were led by scientist-engineers, among whom Jerry Nelson may be taken as the type specimen).

High energy physics is in the same boat, perhaps more so: when and as observation of the universe fails to supply sufficient data (see above) only large machines focused on very small spatial interactions can do the job. It’s a cliche to call accelerators as the telescopes of the microcosmos, but the analogy ain’t bad. It is precise in this way: each significant increase in the power of the two types of instruments yields new science. The making of the tool precedes the discoveries that we then, rightly, celebrate

Which is my point: engineers take their lumps for, in the phrase I remember from a now-mislaid Seth Lloyd interview, trading in science so well established that even engineers can understand it. See xkcd‘s take for the succinct version of the basic trope:*

Well, for the last ten years or so, it has been the engineers ascendancy. In a few weeks and over years to come, physicists will again dominate the life and meaning of the LHC. Consider this a tip of the hat to the extraordinary creative skill that will permit the glamorous side of high energy physics to strut the catwalk once more

*There is also J. Robert Oppenheimer’s “compliment” to the chemist George Kistiakowsky, whose leadership of the implosion group was essential to the completion of the Manhattan Project’s plutonium bomb. In an interview late in his life conducted by Carl Sagan, ultimately edited and broadcast on NOVA, Kistiakowsky said that Oppenheimer told him that as a chemist, he was a very good third rate physicist.

Explore posts in the same categories: Cosmology, Engineering, geek humor, physics

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