Hi, this is my first post here, so here’s a bit about me … I’m Barry Bruner, and if I can tear myself away from watching the Olympics and go back to writing my thesis then I will be Dr. Barry Bruner someday. I’m nearing the end of my Ph.D. in physics at the University of Toronto, and the title of my thesis will be something like “Diffractive Optics-Based 2D-IR spectroscopy of Liquid Water”. Honestly, I’m not trying to be a prick by throwing out complicated scientific sentences — this stuff is my life. Except for music. Sometimes.

There were several interesting articles in the August 19 issue of Nature — a U.K.-based publication that is arguably the most prestigious general science journal in the world. There was an update on the latest inquiries/research into Gulf War Syndrome (they still don’t know exactly what it is or what causes it), an obituary for Francis Crick (co-modeler of DNA — Crick did not “discover” DNA) informatively written by two of his friends and colleagues, and an editorial about the US Food and Drug Administrations’ concern over the possibility of importing bioterrorist-contaminated pharmaceutical drugs from Canada. This brief editorial displays a sense of humour that is far too rare in scientific writing (sample line : As that acclaimed documentary the South Park movie demonstrated, the United States’ paranoia about its threatening northern neighbour is richly justified“).

And following up on James’ recent comments about the 50th anniversary of CERN, there was a short article about the history of CERN and what lies ahead (sorry if any of this has been covered on Proven By Science previously, but I searched and couldn’t find anything). Even if CERN were never used again, its place in scientific history is more than secure. In 1983, the W and Z particles were discovered there, leading to a Nobel Prize the very next year for Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer. Theorists had proposed the existence of these particles in the previous decade, they said “build an particle accelerator capable of reaching such-and-such energy levels and you will find them — this will make our understanding of subatomic particles (and by extension, the building blocks of all matter) nearly complete”. So hundreds of people gambled billions of dollars, and it paid off. Had it failed, it may have meant the end of Big Science as we know it. It might have meant no more large-scale collaborations, and therefore no need for physics groups scattered all over the world to share their large data sets, and therefore, no World Wide Web invented for them to do so (the WWW was invented at CERN to serve this purpose).

As I wrote above, the W and Z discoveries nearly completed the subatomic picture. The most significant particle that has yet to be discovered is the Higgs particle, proposed by British theorist Peter Higgs in 1966. The theories all claim that a Higgs mechanism is necessary for certain particles to acquire mass (through absorption of a Higgs particle). So if the Higgs particle isn’t found (or worse yet, if it doesn’t exist), then the rationale behind particles having the masses that they do will not be understood. But unlike the theories behind the W and Z, these Higgs theories don’t accurately predict the mass of the Higgs particle, which means nobody knows the exact energy of particle accelerator that is needed to look for it. People are hoping that the facility opening at CERN in 2007 will be powerful enough to see it, but nobody knows for sure.

So the outlook for CERN over the next couple of decades is basically Higgs Or Bust. If it isn’t found, will it be because they haven’t looked hard enough? Or because there isn’t enough energy at CERN to find it? Or the worst case scenario — there is no Higgs particle, meaning forty years of theoretical particle physics may have to go back to the drawing board. Risky stuff — and considering the financial costs, the manpower required (five thousand people), and the decades of research that is at stake — it’s perhaps the riskiest physics experiment ever.

I won’t normally write this much (call it a first-time only “bonus”) so cheers if you actually read all of this. Also, sorry that I can’t link to these articles, you need a subscription to view most of the content in Nature (most universities should have a site subscription, so if you work at one, try visiting www.nature.com if interested).

On other occasions, I hope to comment on some of the actual scientific submissions.