The importance of physics

It is sometimes hard as a scientist to maintain a broad focus. It is very easy to get obsessed with your pet project and forget the equally important stuff being done by scientists and others elsewhere. Just because you find your research extremely interesting and you can see lots of uses for it, it doesn’t necessarily follow that others will see it that way.

While trying to take my mind off that nauseating feeling building in my stomach halfway across the Cook Strait last Sunday, I was reading a bit in Physicsworld about measuring an electron’s electric dipole moment. (By way of quick explanation – an electron has a negative charge on it, but is this charge uniformly distributed over the electron, or does one end of it hold more charge than the other? If the latter, it has an electric dipole moment.) Conventional physics (e.g. ‘The Standard Model’ of particle physics) says it won’t have an electric dipole moment, but there are reasons for thinking it might.

Anyway, I won’t go into the details, other than to say the article was written by Chad Orzel (author of ‘How to Teach Physics to your Dog’) who is clearly extremely enthusiastic about this subject. He talks a bit about the relative merits of the mulit-billion dollar Large Hadron Collider (LHC) against the dirt-cheap-by-comparison electron-dipole-moment (EDM) experiments for establishing the existence of new physics beyond the Standard Model. But the thing that made me laugh (and momentarily forget that I was trapped in a floating metal container 10 km from land) was the lovely comment  "…we will probably need a combination of both measurements [LHC and EDM] to fully explain the universe we live in."

Is it just me, or is this a rather ambitious statement to make? Will the LHC and EDM together will tell us everything we could possibly want to know about the universe?  I think, perhaps, we’d need a bit more besides these two. Well, actually, a whole lot more. But I applaude his enthusiasm.

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