Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 - A Year That Science!

So looking back over the last year as a scientist, what stands out most in my mind? If anything, it was a remarkable number of events connected with the 1960s. More about that in a moment. Personally, the big event of the year was the restart of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. From the point of view of picking events that will have the greatest lasting effect on science, once again it was probably from the areas of astrophysics and particle astrophysics, namely new deep field images from the Hubble space telescope and several hints at the existence of dark matter (including the FERMI and ATIC results and the two CDMS events). Although it did not get much press coverage, I have followed the extremely long solar minimum, which extended into this year. (Only in recent weeks have a few sunspots from the new solar cycle began popping up.) Outside of physics, I would have to say the biggest science stories were the discovery of Ardi (Ardipithecus Ramidus), a common ancestor of hominids and apes; and the H1N1 virus outbreak, which has taxed public health systems across the globe.

A 1960s Redux

A few details are in order. The 1960s echoed in the science of 2009 in a number of ways: The Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded for work done in the sixties, to (with some controversy) Willard Boyle and George Smith for the Charge-coupled device or CCD, and to Charles Kao for the development of optical fibers for communications. The CCD was patented in 1969, based on work done by a Bell Labs semiconductor group formed in 1964. Work on optical fibers date back to 1958, when Sam DiVita of the US Army Signal Corps Lab began working on the idea of transmitting signals through silica fibers (he patented the idea - why did the Nobel committee not recognize his work?) Kao and another scientist, George Hockham, working at a British telephone company, proposed ways to reduce the attenuation in optical fibers, considered a breakthrough toward their practical use for communication.

July 2009 was the 40th of the greatest event in human history, the first human landing on another world, the Apollo 11 mission of Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon. I have posted about this earlier, but in many ways this was a defining moment of my life. I may never get into space, particularly with the stochastic way that NASA's future is being planned, but I owe my career in science to the space program and the library card my mother got for me when I was still in kindergarten.

The Moon still holds interest, both scientifically and technologically as a future base for space exploration. The most important Moon-related discovery this year was the presence of large amounts of water at the lunar south pole. The LCROSS mission, which crashed two probes into a dark crater, threw up a plume of dust and vapor which, after careful analysis, showed the presence of significant amounts of water as well as sodium and other unexpected minerals. For the millions who watched the LCROSS impacts live (including me and my son) it seemed like a bust at first - no big visible impact plume - but in the end careful planning and and the hard work of painstaking science paid off, with clear evidence from both infrared and UV spectrometers that were trained on the impact.

The LHC, the LHC, Will I Live to See the LHC?

It was starting the become a running gag in high energy physics circles: The LHC will turn on next fall. Fall 2005, fall 2006, fall 2007, fall 2008,.... After the disastrous start last year, interrupted by a magnet quench that took out a sector of the accelerator and caused a year-long shutdown while repairs were made and new safeguards put in place, people actually began hypothesisizing semi-serious scenarios in which the Higgs itself (or God or future civilization) was trying to keep the particle from being detected. CERN was at a critical juncture - Austria temporarily withdrew from CERN, until the outcry within the scientific community forced the Austrian chancellor to reconsider - and needed to get the LHC started again as smoothly and error-free as possible. The CERN management decided to forego a big press event (unlike 2008) but the press caught wind of what was happening anyway.

Fortunately, the re-start has gone extremely well, much better than most of us could have hoped for. Personal anecdote: I took a group of students to Fermilab in late November. We were touring the lab, looking around Wilson Hall, when the first single beams were being injected into the LHC. I talked Judy Jackson into letting us go into to the CMS remote control room for a little while, and the students were very excited to watched the first "splash events" being recorded. I figured they would run in this mode for a week or so, injected one beam and then another. By the time we drove back that weekend, there had already been collisions!

The LHC has already run at energies higher than the Fermilab Tevatron (up to 2.34 TeV center-of-mass, compared to the Tevatron's 1.96 TeV collision energy) although most of the data taken so far has been at 900 GeV. The LHC was stopped without incident for the winter shutdown, will start operations again in February, and if the schedule holds will be colliding beams at 10 TeV by the end of the year. That is the point where interesting things (Higgs, supersymmetric particles, micro black holes, ????) should start happening.

And if they don't? Then the LHC becomes the world's last particle collider. Simple as that.

Whispers in the Dark

What is Dark Matter? Astrophysical evidence, including the WMAP data (second only to the Hubble Space Telescope in revolutionizing our knowledge of the universe) suggests that 23 per cent of the universe is a heavy, rarely interacting particle which we have dubbed "dark matter" for lack of a better term. There are candidate particles for Dark Matter, like the lightest supersymmetric particle (which would not be able to decay into ordinary matter) or axions or heavy sterile neutrinos. Whatever it is, it is nearly five times more common in the universe than the ordinary matter of protons, neutron, and electron.

The year started out with observations from ATIC high-altitude balloon mission that suggested a source of dark matter may lie relatively close to our solar system. In May, the former GLAST experiment, now re-christened FERMI, showed evidence for excess electron/positron production which would also be consistent with dark matter annihilation. The year ended with a tantalizing announcement from the CDMS experiment of two events consistent with weakly interacting massive particles (or WIMPs). All hints that something is out there, but at this point not conclusive enough to claim discovery.

While on the astro side of things, this year marked the return of a refurbished deep field camera on the Hubble Space Telescope, a result of the final re-servicing misison. One of the best, if not the best, astronomical photos of the year was an image of thousands of galaxies (extremely large high-res image available here). There were more great discoveries in the Saturn system, including methane lakes on Titan and incredible images from the continuing Cassini misison. There was the first evidence of a "water world", a super-Earth exoplanet with large amounts of water. The first sunspots of the new new solar cycle began appearing, after a solar minimum that was one of the deepest in a century.

The greatest scientist who passed away during the last year was Norman Borlaug. You probably never heard of him. He won a Nobel Prize, but not in one of the science areas. Instead, he was given a the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. This unassuming botanist, born in Iowa, was probably responsible for saving more lives than any other human who has ever lived. He is credited with creating the Green Revolution, bringing hearty crop strains to poor nations and changing their agricultural systems from subsistence to single-crop. It is estimated that as many as a billion people have escaped malnutrition and death from famine due directly to his efforts.

Another towering figure in science who passed away this year, this time from the social sciences, was Claude Levi-Strauss, the father of modern antropology. The French honor their intellectuals (perhaps too much) and Levi-Strauss was considered a French national treasure. He began his career studying native tribes in Brazil.

From the physics community, notable passings include
  • Kazuhiko Nishijima (particle theorist who helped develop the quark model),
  • Vitaly Ginzburg (Gizburg-Landau theory as well as the Soviet hydrogram bomb),
  • Joseph Purcell (NASA project director for the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory satellites),
  • Aage Bohr (son of Niels Bohr and a Nobel Prize winning nuclear theorist in his own right),
  • Jack Eddy (who first imaged an individual atom),
  • Jack Good (one of the Bletchly Park code breakers),
  • Stanley Jaki (physicist and theologian),
  • Martin Klein (science historian), and
  • Frank Shoemaker (who helped design the Fermilab Main Ring).
In my younger, more religious days when I was giving serious consideration to becoming a theologian myself, I was influenced greatly by Stanley Jaki's writings. A Bendictine priest, he was an enormous intellect who was as comfortable writing about Godel's Incompleteness Theorem or Grand Unification in particle physics as he was the role of Mary on Catholic worship.

The Worst Thing to Happen in Science in 2009

The year in science started on a positive note. As part of the economic stimulus package, science funding was given a significant boost. Baseline funding for the main science agencies looks strong under the Obama administration, although the growing budget deficits threaten all discretionary spending.

But science has had it hard in recent years, and took a couple of body blows in 2009. I am not talking just about the continuing denigration of scientists in the eyes of the public (commercials for the "Geek Squad", the stereotype-laden TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and Fringe). I also mean incidents that pint out a deepening divide between professional scientists and the general public. The worst incident was clearly the release of stolen emails from the University of Essex Center for Climate Research. First of all, where was the outrage over the lawbreakers who committed this theft? Nowhere, certainly not among the anti-science types who used this as a field day for conspiracy theories and charges for fraud. In the end, there was no evidence for anything approaching falsification of data or attempts to publish misleading conclusions. What the emails showed were simply people talking privately and colloquially about subjects that they would have spoken more careful about if they new their comments would be published. That is no different from any other professions, but somehow it comes off differently when scientists are involved. Perhaps it is the Mr Spock stereotype, that scientists are not supposed to have passions or emotions.

But my conversations with non-scientists have unearthed troubling and frightening misunderstandings of how scientists do their jobs, and of their motivations. Particularly among conservatives and the religious, there is a deep-seated animosity towards scientists, even when some of the particular advancements of science (the space race, high tech weapons, medicines) are appreciated. But even among some who might be considered liberals, there are growing signs of anti-science. Anti-vaccination hype no knows political bounds, for example, and some environmentalists seem more than ready to throw any scientist under the bus who challenges conventional wisdom in their circles. The fashion of most people today is to believe that science which re-affirms your preconceptions, and to reject that which you find uncomfortable or challenging. Curiosity, inquiry, and an open-mind to new discovery are sadly becoming the hallmarks of a bygone era.


Archana said...

Excellent Overview.. took me back to the sixties and my own reasons for following physics, particle physics as a career. I think it is pretty important to highlight, as you've done, the importance of 'milestone' events .. well done.

Ramu said...

Great job, Lee. I was 9 years old in July of 1969 and sat in our backyard looking up at the moon on the day Armstrong took his first steps.