In this ever changing world in which we live in13th March 2017
McCartney was brilliant, no doubt about it and forty-plus years after Paul (or perhaps Linda) wrote those immortal words we still find ourselves in an ever-changing world. One word comes to mind: uncertainty.
The great constants in our field (aside from ‘pi’ and all that) are the international facilities whose collaborative goals and long-term mission form the bedrock of our science. The jewel in this crown is CERN, with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) the centrepiece of our scientific endeavor. As with many collaborators working on the LHC I have to secure funding to continue this work. At least two people I’ve met, in academia, in the last few weeks have asked me, in no uncertain terms, “the LHC? Oh, is that still a thing?” when I mentioned the research I was doing. This is highly disturbing on a few levels and I must confess I sort of fumbled my way through a yes-it-is-and-it’s-still-kind-of-a-big-deal type answer.
It’s not that this shows ignorance, or some post-Higgsian malaise, musing on the cost and purpose of the LHC. They genuinely were of the opinion that we’d made our discovery and now we should move on to other experiments.
This typifies an annual challenge many of us working on the experiments benefitting from the LHC’s incredible collider environment face - having to sell our stories to funding agencies who demand that each year the narrative be different (i.e. better) than before. They further encourage, if not expect, tangible spin-offs on the timescale of the funding (a couple of years in some cases). It can sound a bit whiny to tell them, “Look, some things are just hard and take time,” or, “we really do need to collect lots of data to be absolutely sure of our findings”. But these are the facts. Facts. Ahh those things your grandma used to know and that people used to rely on to inform their decision making - happy days. Of course, it’s not just experimental particle physics that suffers at the hands of such facts. Any research with lofty goals tends to require time and patience, and often lots of money and people, to complete. It’s a quandary. A constant need to re-freshen an already inherently strong message. But it also provides an opportunity to find new ways to sell our research and to convince those who question.
A bit about me: I’m a member of the ATLAS and Belle II collaborations, Associate Professor at the University of Adelaide and researcher at CoEPP (the Australian Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale). One of the things that sparks my excitement is the pursuit of beyond Standard Model physics at the LHC, in my own work this is framed in the search for Supersymmetry (SUSY). And whilst some people may think that we are flogging a dead horse (let die), others (like myself) believe that perhaps there’s a way of seeing SUSY that we just haven’t uncovered or used yet (let live). So while theorists constrain and fine-tune their models of SUSY, we experimentalists collide particles at ever-higher energies and look for new, imaginative ways to analyze this data in the hope that we find… well something. The first discovery won’t be SUSY, or any other theory or model, it will be a disagreement with the Standard Model. That could happen any day, and then we need to do the really hard work to understand what it is that nature’s telling us.
Having big dreams and grand goals is a good thing. Being part of a broader group of people who share the same motivation is fabulous. Scientific collaboration is truly transcendent, and perhaps a panacea for the world’s current condition. So while Federer and Nadal compete in a beautiful final for these troubled times, sport playing to perfection its role as the sweetest of distractions, we can all ponder the facts. Teaching all young people, whatever their background, that mathematics and sciences are important things – more than the sum of their parts.
All those years ago the prophet McCartney left us with a choice. Do we live and let die – or live and let live?