Letter from the Editor

The Heroic Age

On the natural philosophy of elementary particles.

  • This letter appeared in the May/June 2008 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • April 22, 2008

I am learning Latin–or, rather, relearning it, since I was taught the language in a haphazard way at school in England.

Jason Pontin, Editor in Chief and Publisher.

I set myself this whimsical task because I recalled that our masters told us that Latin made the mind supple, retentive, and acute; I am hoping that memorizing the language’s endless conjugations and declensions, and submitting myself to its exacting syntax, will keep my brain plastic as I cruise into my 40s.

Yet given my daily occupations at Technology Review, what has struck me about Latin literature is how little the Romans thought about philosophia naturalis, or natural philosophy–the precursor to the modern natural sciences. They cared a little more for technology, but mainly as a branch of civil engineering, and only insofar as it was a tool of governance. Upper-class Romans exercised their intellects upon administration, law, conquest, and rhetoric. To science and technology they were indifferent.

What technologies they did possess were refinements and expansions of Greek inventions. Even their grand public buildings were different only in scale from models they appropriated from the Greek-speaking East. In science, the Romans were even more indebted to Greek civilization. The atomism articulated by the Epicurean poet Lucretius in De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”) derives from the Greek pre-Socratic philosophers, who had speculated that the universe was composed of very small, elementary things.

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Thus, in the narrow sense that they intuited the existence of elementary particles, the Greeks can be said to have invented particle physics. In “A Who’s Who of the Unseen” we reprint part of an article by the MIT physics professor Philip M. Morse, published in November 1939. He wrote, “It seems to have begun with Democritus, this idea of matter’s being composed of fundamental, indivisible atoms.”

But what Democritus guessed, and the Romans repeated, was unverified until recently. Morse looked forward to confirmation, through experiment, of the existence of elementary particles smaller than the parts of the atom then known to chemists: the protons and neutrons, which are part of the nuclei of atoms, and the electrons, which form a kind of penumbra around nuclei.

Thirty years later, Jerome Friedman, now Institute Professor at MIT (and a member of Technology Review’s board), proved that the proton and neutron were not elementary particles but were, in fact, composed of hitherto theoretical thingums, which the physicist Murray Gell-Mann had named “quarks” (after the cry of seagulls in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake). From 1967 to 1975, Friedman, Henry Kendall, and Richard Taylor studied the proton and neutron at Stanford University’s two-mile-long Linear Accelerator by hurling electrons at tremendous speeds against a deuterium or hydrogen target. They discovered that under these extreme conditions, the proton and the neutron, rather than keeping their fundamental identity, revealed smaller particles (a phenomenon physicists call “deep inelastic scattering”). For this work, the three were awarded a Nobel Prize in 1990.

In the article “The New Collider”, Jerry Friedman describes a new and much more powerful particle accelerator. He explains how the Large ­Hadron Collider (LHC), lying hundreds of feet below the Swiss-French border, will smash seven-trillion-electron-volt beams of protons against one another in a 27-kilometer ring of superconducting magnets. Friedman calls this huge machine the world’s “most ambitious scientific instrument.”

A photo essay shows how the LHC works. One of the $6 billion particle accelerator’s most important detectors is called Atlas: it is seven stories high and weighs more than 100 747 jets. Another, the CMS, weighs one and a half times as much as the Eiffel Tower. Scientists hope to use these detectors, and others like them, to study phenomena at a ten-billionth the scale of the atom and so complete the standard model of particle physics. In particular, they want to verify the existence of a theoretical particle called the Higgs boson, which is believed to generate mass in the universe.

Particle accelerators like the LHC and the earlier Stanford Linear Accelerator are the most beautiful machines humans have ever made, because they are incredibly complex and have no function other than to discover the fundamental nature of the universe. Scientists who use these technologies, like Jerry Friedman, are among our species’ most adventurous minds.

The Roman writer and statesman Seneca wrote, “Rationale enim animal est homo”: “Man is surely an animal possessing reason.” True, but some humans think more deeply than others. The Romans created an oratory and poetry of unparalleled expressive power. Of their governance, the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon wrote that “the human race was most happy and prosperous” during the interval that “elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” But to the Romans the physical world was obscurely magical. Because we care to understand the world and they did not, and because of the progressive ­character of science, we see more clearly the nature of things. With the LHC we shall, perhaps, see the foundations of reality. The heroic age is not the classical era but our own.

Write and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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