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Dr David Whitehouse

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Science on Fire

Posted: 08/12/2011 23:00

There is a feeling, inevitably mostly among the young, that for physics, the times they are a-changing.

It seems as if revolution has come along so suddenly, but in retrospect there have been signs.

When change comes to science the old ideas are seen in a new way. Things that were taken for granted, seen as settled, become alive with significance. Old problems become new, different problems, living in a new landscape.

Take dark matter. We know from studying the motions of stars and galaxies that most of the universe is unseen. The stars that shine are but a fraction of what's out there, but what dark matter is, is a mystery.

Many could live with that. But then we made the most perplexing discovery. We already knew the universe is expanding, but we also found it is accelerating - the expansion is speeding up. Few expected that. With it comes the idea that there is an even larger part of the universe that we still don't see. We call it dark energy. But some now think it's a compromise too far, too much of an adjustment, one unknown piling on another. Perhaps something more fundamental is being misunderstood. T-shirts have been appearing at conferences displaying, "I don't believe in dark matter/energy."

Then there is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that smashes two beams of sub-atomic particles, called protons, together and looks at what happens when both are annihilated in a flash of energy. There are new particles, new laws and concepts in this tiny fireball telling us about the fundamental structure of matter. The LHC was, a sense, built to find an important particle called the Higgs Boson. It's fundamental to our current understanding of matter. The search has been narrowed down, and as the space available to find it gets less the feeling grows that perhaps, just perhaps, it might not exist. It may yet emerge from the statistics of the collisions, or it may not. Even if it does the LHC has found plenty of other evidence for 'new physics.'

And what of the flight of ghostly sub-atomic particles called neutrinos passing hundreds of kilometres through the earth between the LHC's CERN laboratory and a detector in a cave beneath a mountain in Italy. The neutrinos do not notice the rock, and they also seem to break the speed of light, something thought impossible.

If true, and not explained by some technicality or calibration issue, then its significance cannot be overestimated. It will shake the world of physics and destroy many basic assumptions about the universe we thought were sacrosanct. The speed of light may not be the ultimate limit, and even time itself may fall. Our understanding of the Universe may change forever.

In their hearts, there are many scientists who crave such a revolution, and the wonders it will lead us to.

We have also begun exploring planets that circle other stars, and have just found something remarkable. It is a rocky world, bigger than the Earth. There would be mountain ranges and canyons, and ridges from tectonic activity would streak across its surface. It probably has an atmosphere with winds that swirl around its equator, and spiral around its poles. Beneath the clouds it might have water, this remarkable new world we call Kepler 22b.

It's not the closest planet found circling another star, but it is the most equitable. Its parent star is like our sun, only slightly cooler and with a faint orange tinge to its yellow disc. The temperature on Kepler 22b is that of a warm Spring day on Earth, and there is talk of life basking under the light of this alien star.

Life on Earth couldn't wait to get started. When our world was young and bombarded with asteroids, no life could emerge on its molten surface. But as soon as the battering ceased, and it started to cool, life leapt in. Primitive at first, but the claim was made, and a journey began that led to humans, our telescopes, the Large Hadron Collider, and our discovery of Kepler 22b.

If the same rules apply to this new world, and surely they must, perhaps there is life there adapted to a stronger gravity that we are.

The physics of the future is being forged now. Out of the wreckage of old theories, which we knew were incomplete, will come something new. What a wonderful time to be going into science. A new universe can be seen in the flight of neutrinos, the darkness of deep space, and in the morning skies of distant worlds.


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