Antimatter: Next Holy Grail for Physics

Share
Copy

Hori, Doser and Hangst know all too well that hardly any of their colleagues would bet on the answers to any of these questions. "If we really find something, it'll be as if the sun had suddenly rose in the west," says Hori. Dirac's hallowed electron equation, at any rate, doesn't actually permit the kinds of differences that the physicists in the AD building are searching for.

But they don't allow themselves to be deterred by such objections. "Sometimes you just have to hope for miracles," says Doser. His colleague Hangst adds: "I love taking risks. Those who only listen to the theoreticians quickly run into difficulties."

He is alluding to a divide within the community of physicists. In physics, much more so than in other disciplines, a distinction is drawn between two types of researchers. The theorists, acting as heirs of Paul Dirac, attempt to fathom the truth using pure mental power. For the others, the experimental physicists, all that counts is what the instruments say. Searching for the Theory of Everything

John Ellis is part of the former group. The agile Briton with a white shaman's beard is an old hand at CERN. For the last 40 years, he has monitored his colleagues' experiments in the accelerators from his desk, and he managed the theory division for years.

As a young researcher, he looked on as scientists assembled the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, a collection of formulas that summarizes all known laws of the microcosm. He later coined the term "Theory of Everything," a reference to a distant goal that stimulates many theoreticians in their work: the prospect of eventually finding a sort of global formula that unifies all the laws of nature.

But the search for such an all-encompassing theory proved to be a frustrating business, although it wasn't for a lack of ideas. On the contrary, a mountain of designs for the world has accumulated on Ellis's desk over the years, including stacks of articles addressing such topics as spacetime foam and sphalerons, dark matter and 10-dimensional superpartners.

The one thing all of these ideas had in common is that they couldn't be tested. In their scenarios, the theoreticians increased energy to breathtaking dimensions. Devices with which such phenomena could be studied didn't exist.

Reaching Retirement

But now, as Ellis and many of his colleagues agree, physics could be at a turning point. With the advent of the LHC, a particle accelerator is finally available that is capable of penetrating into interesting areas.

While the world celebrates the discovery of the Higgs boson, the last building block of the standard model, theoreticians have already started thinking about what happens next. They are now about to venture into the unknown, into realms that can no longer be described with the current laws of nature.

For theoretician Ellis, this is both exciting and disappointing. Just as the era of pure speculation is finally coming to an end, Ellis is reaching retirement age.

He only goes to his office at CERN occasionally nowadays. Dust is beginning to collect on the books on the shelf, and the mountain of paper on his desk is starting to erode.

Parting Ways

But Ellis is too active to go completely into retirement. He has just returned from a conference in Ukraine, and he spent the preceding weekend in Tunis, where he brought together young physicists from the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. In between, he made a stop in Cambridge to discuss a new project.

Page
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...