Addressing the Asymmetry Between Questions and Answers

This is a guest post by Sara Kamboj the American School of Paris, who spent a week in July 2015 interviewing scientists at CERN for a film project at school.


There is an annoying asymmetry between questions and answers. Physics torments us with the amount of unanswered questions about the cosmos it leaves us with. Physicists devote their lives to answer questions and question answers. It was an incredible experience to visit CERN and witness this take place. Wherever one goes, there are motivated, enthused and driven people of all ages and nationalities discussing, debating, coding and explaining the mysteries in the cosmos. As part of my IB Film project, I took short interviews of physicists at CERN and asked them what got them interested in Science in the first place.

The LHC magnet outside CERN's main on-site restaurant

During my stay, I met several theorists such as John Ellis, Wolfgang Lerche and Michelangelo Mangano who were - if I had to summarise in a single word - brilliant. Entering the theory department means entering a very sacred place, with paper everywhere. Whether it’s the corpse of the unfortunate soul who criticised SUSY or the multitude of Feynman diagrams covering their boards or the disturbing amounts of paper, the theory department never fails to be an adventure to walk through. To me, theorists are honestly difficult to describe as they live in a world where they try to explain everything through simple, elegant equations (actually, not really simple, but equations, yes).

Don't question SUSY!

One of the key discoveries in particle physics was the discovery of the famous Higgs boson - the particle that is associated with the Higgs field, which gives mass to particles such as electrons. Finding this particle of 125 GeV was a moment of amazement and awe for the entire world. The theorists I spoke with cited this to be one of the greatest moments in their scientific careers. The discovery of this particle lead to the solidification of the Standard Model. However, like all good things in physics, one realises that the more one uncovers, the less one knows. The problem of mass with the Higgs, for example, has led to the development of further theories and more questions. Dr. Ellis spoke to me about one of his career’s “Eureka” moments, when he had an idea for how one could directly demonstrate the existence of gluons. Three years later the mediator of the strong force - the gluon - was discovered. Dr. Ellis’s story made me realise that studying physics means endless possibilities and mystery.

With John Ellis in his office

Then there are the experimentalists, such as Peter Jenni, Tejinder Virdee, Archana Sharma, Dave Cockerill, Michael Doser, Albert De Roeck and Dave Barney, who, besides loving to criticise theorists, shape the future with the technology for carrying out their research, whether it’s the Gas Electron Multipliers, the Electromagnetic Calorimeter or the Tracker.

A life-size photo of CMS in one of the office buildings at CERN

Dave Barney gave me an amazing explanation of the workings of the ECAL and its lead tungstate crystals in incredible detail. But more than that, he made me design the detector and its layers, which has made me understand the workings of CMS in depth. Meeting one of the founding fathers of CMS, Dr. Virdee was an incredible experience as he showed me the silicon that makes up the Tracker and the lead-tungstate crystals of the ECAL that are 80% metallic but see-through just like a piece of glass. Dr. Jenni, one of the founding fathers of ATLAS, was one of the kindest people I met at CERN. I learnt about the intricacy of ATLAS, its use of liquid argon, its toroidal magnets and how the detector was built since it was an infant. Dr. Jenni also spoke about how his interest in cosmology sparked his interest in particle physics and how he used to marvel at the beauty of the cosmos. Dr. De Roeck described the fascinating physics problems he deals with, ranging from sterile neutrinos to dark matter. Dr. Doser works with antimatter, seeking explanations for the asymmetry between matter and antimatter, and proposing new methods and ideas to come one step closer to finding answers. From a very young age, Dr. Doser was exposed to the world of physics. He stated that it was the curiosity and interest of scientists which drove him towards physics.

With Peter Jenni

Being completely honest and clichéd, CERN has left me in awe. The passion of every single person and their desire to learn has motivated me to learn as much as I can. And this experience has made me realise that there is a lot of mystery for the future. We know nothing and understand even less and that is what makes the future so unpredictable. However, there is one thing that I can predict: I will be back at CERN very soon.

On an underground visit to see CMS

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