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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A View from the Shadows: The Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. This drawing is by Markus Maurer.

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” could almost, taken at face value, be the plot of a movie in the “Saw” series [1]. Prisoners in a cave, born into chains and forced forever to face a single wall, know nothing of the reality of what lives behind them. A fire somewhere behind the prisoners cast shadows that play on the walls. Our poor prisoners try to make sense of the reality of the world behind them merely through interpreting these shadows, never able to turn as see the world as it truly is.

It’s has the potential to be a terrible image, but softened a bit it can be a useful metaphor for thinking about what it means to use scientific inquiry to understand the reality of the cosmos. When we discover something using scientific inquiry and describe it mathematically, is that mathematical statement one approximating reality or truly describing reality as it is?

That question aside, Plato himself was not big into what we would now call “science” – in fact, he held many core beliefs that suppressed scientific thinking. In this post, another personal journey into “Reality in the Shadows,” I reflect on the satisfaction of wresting this metaphor our of Plato’s hands and giving it to a new generation. It is my hope that such a generation might only ever know the tools of scientific investigation for use in understanding the natural world. The world is filled with shadows, crying for explanation; I hope a new generation can appreciate how the tools of science can be used to make sense of those shadows in a reliable and reproducible way.

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A View from the Shadows: Reading List

“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.

Reality in the Shadows” is a book that required years to write. I was the latest addition to the creative team, but it is very much a shared vision between three co-authors each with different perspectives on the subject matter. Jim Gates has a keen mathematical mind and delights in showing an audience that math is not as scary as they have been led to believe (or have wrongly convinced themselves). He sees the deeper connection between mathematics and reality. Frank Blitzer has a deep love of physics as a branch of science that seeks some of the deepest truths about the universe, and brings to bear on this a wealth of experience in computation, engineering, and modeling processes. I’m the experimental physicist and Higgs hunter, who believes that reliably gathered independent lines of evidence are the best way to support, or refute, an idea.

Despite our existing expertise, this book didn’t spring fully formed from the minds of the authors. It was a labor, and that labor benefited from learning. We, too, depended on those who had written things down before us. We drew from many sources to tell the story of the past, present, and possible futures of physics.

Below, find a reading list of material I used to support my writing contributions to the book. I hope some of these will allow you a much deeper and more technical exploration of some subjects in the book. Many are highly technical, but they provided the raw scientific material that I tried to communicate to a general audience.

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