Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What's Out THere?

Another great question to occupy us at TED.

Brian Cox is incredibly articulate, vivacious (can you use that adjective about a man?) and passionate (yes, I use that word again, but it's just unavoidable when you write about these TED speakers) physicist. He mentioned Rutherford’s statement that all science is either physics or stamp collecting and then went on to tell a tale of the universe as we understand it so far and what we hope to understand in the future, in a way to thrill every bone in your body[1].

  • Cox told us how everything in physics boils down to 12 particles and 4 forces.

  • He told us how one equation could explain everything in the universe, and how that one equation could fit on a t-shirt, and then acknowledged with a picture that it had to be a big t-shirt and small font. That equation of course explains everything – except gravity!

  • He told us about the new particle accelerator and Hadron collider being built in Switzerland. He demonstrated the size by referring to minute humans standing by it with the pride of a grandparent showing off a picture of a beloved (is there any other kind) grandchild.

  • He told us how it would be able to accelerate particles to almost the speed of light – 99.999999% (actually I lost track of the number of nines – in any case, we would say it would be really really fast.)

  • He told us how this would take us back in time to when the universe was hotter, denser and simpler, to less than 1 billionth of a second after the Big Bang. He told us of physicists’ hope to find the Higgs particle (previously mentioned in the talk by Garret Lisi, the surfer-physicist) which has been postulated but not found.

  • He told us how the four forces converge as you go back in time, coming together at the Big Bang, when everything was simpler. The Big Bang took place 13.73B years ago, and at that time the universe was smaller than a single atom and there was only one force. Gravity was the first force to separate from the other forces, and then at one billionth of a second, the Higgs field kicked in – they think. Recreating this moment is what the hadron accelerator is intended to verify.

  • He told us that within a few minutes of the Big Bang, the universe was 75% hydrogen and the rest was helium, that at 300M years light emerged and at 400M years stars emerged. But these first generation stars cooked up carbon, oxygen and iron, exploded and collided to create new stars. As he puts it, that’s what hydrogen can do in 13B years!

  • He told us that 50 years ago, scientists couldn’t have told this story so far and that the accelerator was going to allow physicists to write the next chapter.

Cox is a frequent voice on the media, explaining physics to the masses. His pixie smile, rock-star hairdo, his incredible verve and enthusiasm make him ideal. The audience at TED gave him a 2/3 standing ovation – my own guess is that the rest of the audience was simply stuck to their seats in wonder.

[1] I apologize up front to any physicists who read this and notice the inevitable inaccuracies. I was writing as fast as I could, but it’s hard to keep up with the agile mind and speech of a guy like Cox. I’m reasonably sure I got the general gist of it right.

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