By Robert C. Cowen, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
ALTHOUGH physicists were disappointed when the United States Congress canceled their supercollider dream machine, they now have other challenging frontiers.
Take, for example, the research typified by Piyare L. Jain's quest to explore the origin of the universe. Working at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Dr Jain recently reported major progress. "We are approaching the point where we will be able to re-create the Big Bang in the laboratory," he says.
Or consider the efforts of an international team working with Germany's DESY particle-physics laboratory, which will fire up a new experiment next month to probe deeply into the inner structure of atomic building blocks: the proton and neutron that make up an atom's nucleus. Among other matters, it should shed new light on how protons and neutrons -- the so-called nucleons -- get their spin. That's an abstract property that helps determine how the larger material world is structured.
Physicists who had planned to work with the supercollider haven't given up hope either. A new, albeit less powerful, accelerator that member nations have agreed to build at the European Center for Particle Physics (CERN) in Geneva may yet achieve the supercollider's main goal of finding out why matter has mass. American physicists are expecting Congress to decide later this year whether to put up money to allow them to join the CERN project. As physicist John Hauptman of Iowa State University at Ames puts it: "We may live in exciting times yet."
The physicists' continuing hope in the face of disappointment arises from the fact that they aren't interested in machinery for its own sake. They want to elucidate matter's structure. That means expanding their understanding of the basic particles that constitute matter and of the forces that govern them. And that means delving, by any methods available, ever deeper into the weird world of things that are very small.
In what physicists call the current standard theory, the matter particles consist of six quarks; three types of electrons; and three massless, electrically uncharged particles called neutrinos. Protons and neutrons that make up atomic nuclei are themselves composed of two types of quarks, called up and down. The other quarks only appear fleetingly in high-energy particle experiments.
All of the matter particles interact through forces carried by yet other particles. The photon, for example, carries the electromagnetic force. Protons and neutrons are bound together by a so-called strong force. This force is carried by particles that physicists whimsically call gluons.
The world of these particles is weird because, when you are dealing with entities as small as atoms or smaller, things don't happen the way they do in our familiar larger scale world. For example, they obey an uncertainty rule that says the more precisely you pin down the time interval when something happens, the less certain you can be of the amount of energy involved. And the conservation-of-energy law that says energy can't be created or destroyed doesn't hold within that brief time period. So what physicists call "virtual" versions of the basic particles can be created using energy that isn't accounted for, provided the particles disappear quickly enough to satisfy the uncertainty rule. …