Stony Brook’s Simons Center for Geometry and Physics hosted lectures by two world-renowned physicists on Tuesday night.
Drs. Michelangelo Mangano and Young-Kee Kim gave a two-part public lecture to students and science enthusiasts titled “Mysteries of the Universe and Everyday Life.” Mangano is the head of the Large Hadron Collider Physics Center at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research and the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. Kim is the chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Physics and former deputy director of Fermilab, a particle physics laboratory outside of Chicago, from 2006 to 2013.
“Back when we were approached about hosting this lecture in the Simons Center, we thought it was a good idea,” Simons Center Director Luis Álvarez-Gaumé said at the onset. “Because at the end of the day, physics is supposed to be an experimental science. It is nice to see what type of progress and what type of visions we have coming out of particle physics.”
Both Mangano and Kim focused their discussions on the unseen role that subatomic particles play in everyday phenomena, particularly relevant at a school with one of the top-ranked nuclear physics programs in the nation.
“The concept of being invisible doesn’t mean that there’s nothing there,” Mangano said. “Proving that there is something there, providing the evidence and turning the invisible into the visible is one of the main drivers of scientific progress. This a very basic progress, that moves us from the role of magic and superstition to science.”
Although the lecture focused on topics as complex as quantum mechanics and general relativity, Mangano and Kim made their discussions understandable for the audience at large.
According to Mangano, when discussing the standard model of particle physics, generally considered the best explanation of quantum mechanics that scientists have, Mangano compared the interactions between fundamental particles like quarks and electrons to building with LEGO blocks.
“These building blocks, fundamental particles and interactions, are like a LEGO game,” Mangano said. “You take these small building blocks and you put them together. You can make anything you want following very precise rules. You cannot put the LEGO sets in any arbitrary ways, there are a small number of fixed ways we can organize them, and here, it is exactly the same.”
While modern physics is dependent on the standard model, there are several phenomena at play in the universe the standard model cannot yet account for, like gravity’s relative weakness compared to other fundamental forces like electromagnetism.
At one point, Mangano used an experiment to elaborate on the weakness of gravity compared to electromagnetism. The experiment, which Mangano had filmed before the lecture, consisted of the physicist rubbing a pen against his coat sleeve and using the pen to lift a piece of paper off a table.
“Now, this looks like something you would show your kids,” Mangano said following the video. “But there is incredibly deep information in this experiment. What keeps this piece of paper on the table is the whole Earth, it’s the gravitational force from the Earth. The Earth is huge, but this pen has got just a few charges, a few protons and electrons, and those few electrons exercise an electric force strong enough to compensate for the gravitational force of the whole Earth.”
Gravity’s weakness was touched upon several times throughout the lecture, with Mangano mentioning that some scientists believe gravity’s “missing” strength may simply be tucked away in extra dimensions, outside normal space-time.
Mangano later ceded the podium to Kim, who discussed the technology scientists use to make the invisible visible.
“Sometimes we design or develop these kinds of tools because we know what to look for,” Kim said. “There are certain cases, like the Higgs boson discovery, where we know what might be there so we design detectors and accelerators to look for it. But in some cases things we never thought about are found very unexpectedly, and we make even bigger discoveries that advance science.”
Kim went on to explain the science behind particle accelerators, which crash bundles of high-energy matter together at incredibly high speeds to discern their innermost properties.
“In order to see something very small, we need a very small wavelength,” Kim said. “That means we need a very high energy particle beam. So, if we want to see inside atoms, we’ll have to use high energy particles, and that’s what accelerators do. We create the high energy particle beams, and by examining the patterns they produce, we will be able to see something inside.”
As scientists like Kim and Mangano continue to push the boundaries of human knowledge, they reminded all in attendance that history has always shown there are new discoveries to be made just around the corner.
“We’ve seen many times in the past where science came close to being completed, just because scientists were happy with the level of understanding they had acquired,” Mangano said. “At the end of the 19th century, for example, all of a sudden the small details that needed to be fixed turned out to be the seed of major revolutions. So it’s hard to anticipate, the question is whether we will be allowed to pursue these discoveries given the timescale.”