A View from the Shadows: Confessions of a practicing physicist

“Reality in the Shadows (or) What the Heck’s the Higgs?” is meant to help a new audience come to discover a love of science and especially physics, or to welcome to the frontier those who already discovered that love a long time ago.

When I joined the existing co-authors of “Reality in the Shadows” to contribute to the book, I hesitated. It had nothing to do with them. Jim Gates is renowned in my field for his intellectual prowess, considered a founder of key ideas in the theory of supersymmetry. Frank Blitzer is a talented polymath, with expertise in engineering (he’s literally a rocket scientist), a man who helped put humans on the moon, and a man passionate about communicating modern science to a non-expert audience. In fact, both of them are passionate on the latter.

It wasn’t a fear of writing. A lot of physicists are afraid of writing. They seem to dread the exercise. I embrace it. I know I am too wordy, but I also accept the need for review and editing… so that usually works out for me. I can write fast and revise slow.

No, it was something else that made me hesitate: my colleagues. Writing a book on physics for a popular audience carries potential social and, as a knock-on effect, professional risk for a practicing physicist mid-career. I hesitated because I feared a backlash from my peers, those who frown on writing books for a popular audience. They view it as an exercise in bad analogies, misinformation about the details of physics, and especially revisionist history. In this essay, I explore my fears ahead of taking the dive into joining Frank and Jim in co-authoring “Reality in the Shadows.”

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A View from the Shadows: Tune That Dial to Black Hole

A simulation image, tweeted out by the NRAO, showing what astronomers can expect to see (right) when they crunch the radio data from the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

In our book, “Reality in the Shadows,” we devote an entire chapter to the phenomenon of the black hole (“A Shadows Where No Light Shines“). We dealt in things that are known – for instance, that black holes exist and that they can be detected using their effects on the surrounding space and matter – and things that are not known for certain – the mathematics needed to fully describe a black hole, for instance. Black holes are a deep dive. They represent the mass of at least one stellar core compressed into a volume smaller than the nucleus of an atom. Whereas neutron stars are like nature’s largest atomic nucleus, black holes are nature’s heaviest, but smallest, atomic nucleus. This makes them a challenge to modern physics. In a black hole, gravity is extremely strong… but so are the other forces of natures, those described by quantum physics. Yet no evidence-verified union of gravity and quantum physics exists. That makes black holes an excellent candidate to learn what we have not yet learned about places in the universe where gravity and quantum forces are both strong.

One of the exciting things that we didn’t get to include in the book, because it was not yet concluded as of publication, is an ongoing attempt to “photograph” the event horizon of the super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, our home galaxy. In this essay, I’ll take a look at this effort and give you some ideas about just how big that black hole is, and why it might be possible to photograph it by tuning into it using radio waves.

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A View from the Shadows: The New Astronomy

Image credit: LIGO/Virgo/Caltech/MIT/Leo Singer (Milky Way image: Axel Mellinger)

Sometimes, scientific fields move fast. They move so fast, even three authors working with a really responsive and excellent publisher who has fully embraced “print-on-demand” as a business model cannot keep up. Such is the reality of the new astronomy, gravitational wave astronomy. The LIGO, and then the VIRGO, instruments have worked so spectacularly well in the last two years (and are operated by such an effective team of scientists and engineers) that results from these instruments out-paced our ability to incorporate their discoveries fully into our writing. In a later edition of “Reality in the Shadows,” we’ll of course try to capture the full picture of the early period of this new astronomy. But for this post, it’s sufficient to have a look at something that just didn’t make it into our book: colliding neutron stars.

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A View from the Shadows: The Truth and Beauty of the Higgs Boson

A visualization of what we knew well-enough about the Higgs (solid black lines), and not at all (dashed lines), circa June 2017. Understanding the Higgs will, in part, come from understanding how it interacts with the other known building blocks of reality.

In our book, “Reality in the Shadows,” Jim Gates, Frank Blitzer, and I take a look at the history of the Higgs particle, see the day the discovery was announced through the eyes of one of the co-authors (me), and explore what the Higgs might be besides being just another important subatomic particle.

In some future edition of the book, we can perhaps speak more definitively about the Higgs boson and the ultimate place it will take in the pantheon of human knowledge. For now, a 20-year (or longer) program of study is underway, initiated in 2012 and 2013, to map out all the properties of this fascinating particle. Discovering something is the first step. Now we must explore what we have found.

The Higgs is still veiled in shadow. We don’t know all its properties as precisely as we would like, and many we do not know at all. Could something new lurk in those unexplored crevasses of its nature? In this post, I’ll take you inside one of the shadows where light is beginning to shine, and we’ll see something of the truth and beauty of the Higgs boson.

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