Star the twenty-ninth

I’m creating a virtual star chart, to record my progress in Dry July. The star for making it through Thursday 29 July without touching the demon drink is the STAR detector.

Dark centre, the strands of light going out from the centre, most straight, some in arching curves, in blues and greens and a few yellows, looking like a cross section of a 12-segmented orange.

Click on the picture to see a full size image at WikiCommons.

(Description: Dark centre with thin rings of yellow and blue, then strands of light going out from the centre, most straight, some in arching curves, in blues and greens and a few yellows and reds, looking like a cross section of a 12-segmented orange.)

The Solenoidal Tracker at RHIC is being used to study a state of matter that was thought to exist in the early moments after the big bang. Here’s how Wikipedia explains it:

The primary physics task of STAR is to study the formation and characteristics of the quark gluon plasma (QGP), a state of matter believed to exist at sufficiently high energy densities. Detecting and understanding the QGP allows us to understand better the universe in the moments after the Big Bang, where the symmetries (and lack of symmetries) of our surroundings were put into motion.

Well, good. That explains that then, doesn’t it?

For me, that’s one of those passages of physics writing that dances on the edges of my comprehension. I think I can almost understand what it might be about, but then, my understanding slips away. I feel like Lata in A Suitable Boy:

Whenever she opened a scientific book and saw whole paragraphs of incomprehensible word and symbols, she felt a sense of wonder at the great territories of learning that lay beyond here – the sum of so many noble and purposive attempts to make objective sense of the world. She enjoyed the feeling; it suited her serious moods; and this afternoon she was feeling serious. She picked up a random book and read a random paragraph: …What exactly it was that pleased her in these sentences she did not know, but they conveyed weight, comfort, inevitability.

I can understand the ideas of the beginnings of the universe, of the joys of general relativity, of the incredible structures of atoms, at a most broad brush level – about the level that Bill Bryson’s excellent book A Short History of Nearly Everything is written at, or on a good day, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, ‘though I have to admit that Hawking lost me on quantum physics until Bryson explained that I ought to find it incredibly weird and almost beyond conception. But that’s about it. I so admire the women and men who have mastered the arcana of physics, who wrestle with extraordinary ideas, who design the most enormous experiments so that we can increase our understanding of the universe in which we live. I’m thrilled that the Large Hadron Collider is running: I hope that one day, soon, someone will be able to explain to me what they are finding out. I love the sense that we are trying to find out more and more, to grapple with the farthest and smallest and largest aspects of reality. We live in an age of exploration. Isn’t it wonderful?

Also, the pictures are very pretty.

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3 responses to “Star the twenty-ninth

  1. You have seen the Large Hadron Collider Rap, right? It talks a bit about what they’re doing and what they’re trying to learn. Lots of fun!

  2. It’s fantastic. Many thanks for letting me know about it. /races back to play it again

  3. I’m about the same spot as you re: physicists and their ability to understand the first femtosecond of creation. We had Laurnce Krauss come and speak in Dunedin recently, and one of his talks was about the very few imbalances that the early universe had to have be there then for a universe like this one to be here now (things like infinitesimally more matter than anti-matter, slightly “lumpy” distribution of mass…) . He was a really captivating speaker (and I think the only person who walks about and waves his arms more than I do when he presents) but I still haven’t gone and chased down the book his talk was based on.

    Oh, and Feynman once very nearly said “Anyone who claims to understand quantum mechanics doesn’t”. And if he thought it was weird the rest of us get a pass.