The other night the Royal Institution had one of the best speakers I have seen there for a long time – Sean Carroll on the LHC and his new book, The Particle at the End of the Universe: the hunt for the Higgs and the discovery of a New World. We had a potted history of particle physics from Democritus through Newton to Laplace and then up to the present day, where we were told that the universe is fields; this is why the Higgs boson is so important. Reality is made of fields, particles are what we see; the quantum mechanics of fields gives us particles.
After a short flirt with quantum field theory we got a short history of our understanding of the nature of the atom, and an explanation of why the weak and strong nuclear forces act over such short distances (and the different reasons in each case).
We learned that the Higgs Field is nonzero, even in empty space; that most of the mass of ordinary matter doesn’t have anything to do with the Higgs Field, but instead comes from the protons and neutrons, and therefore from strong interactions; and that there is still measurable sexual discrimination in physics.
Next came an overview of the Large Hadron Collider and the people involved in the project, including the first mention I’ve heard of the archaeology involved (one of the experiments is on the site of a Roman town). The search for the Higgs was like looking for a piece of hay in a haystack, in a timescale involving the word zeptosecond, but they have found something very like it, a particle with a mass of ~126GeV.
Now the LHC is closing down for two years, but when it comes back it will be looking for evidence of supersymmetry. That’s exciting.
This is the stuff the Royal Institution is so good at. I was at one of their Christmas Lectures, this year on chemistry, probably the last one I will go to as my youngest daughter will be too old next year. Peter Wothers had an experiment using a Tesla coil which they had to film out of sequence, at the end, as in rehearsals it knocked out a lot of their equipment. In June 2010 we were repeatedly evacuated from the lecture theatre as a rather (chemically) violent demonstration was setting off the fire alarm – initially with amused, latterly rather more irritated firemen.
Over the years at the Ri I have seen (among many others) Roger Penrose, Jeff Forshaw, Brian Greene, John Barrow, Martin Rees, Michio Kaku, Simon Schaffer, Frank Close, Alice Roberts, Brian Cox, Eric Laithwaite, Jim Al-Khalili, Manjit Kumar, Ben Miller, Terry Pratchett, Jon Butterworth and Steven Pinker, and in the coming months I’m looking forward to (among others) Jeff Forshaw again, Mark Miodownik, Neil Shubin, Jim Al-Khalili again, and Marcus Brigstocke. There are posts about some of them on this blog. Talks have ranged from asthma treatments to quantum mechanics, the science of music to the geopolitics of food, free will to the Antikythera mechanism, grimoires to infinity; I have extracted my own DNA at the Ri (in a non-sexual way); I have watched a play about Darwin, and one about lady researchers in genetics. They do rather a lot of work with schools. Although I wasn’t too sure about their having talks sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. I have been to quite a few talks which I haven’t written about, as for various reasons, including pococurantism and lassitude, this blog has been in desuetude.
The Ri has been in Albemarle Street since 1799, and the lectures were so popular that the road became London’s first one-way street due to the large number of carriages arriving. They have been having severe financial difficulties over the last few years, after some apparently rather ill-advised redevelopments were completed just before the economic downturn. There has, apparently, been some improvement, but it would be a great shame if they have to move out of the building in which Faraday demonstrated the electric motor and Curie radiation. I hope they can stay.
[18/1/13] But see this Guardian article. It would appear that the Ri have put their building up for sale.