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Cambridge Science Festival: Nobelist Reflects on New Era in Physics

Cambridge Science Festival: Nobelist Reflects on New Era in Physics

By Karen Klinger

As a teenager, Jerome Friedman was a talented painter who turned down a scholarship to an art school against the advice of his teacher to study physics at the University of Chicago.

It proved to be the right choice.

Friedman, an emeritus professor at MIT, shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in physics for research establishing the first solid evidence for the existence of quarks, building blocks for protons and neutrons--two main components of atoms.

In a talk at the MIT Museum during the Cambridge Science Festival, he reflected on his long career and his belief that with developments such as the recent completion of the world's most powerful particle accelerator, "I think we're coming into a new era of cosmology and particle physics and it's a very, very exciting time."

He was referring to the Large Hadron Collider, a colossal 16-mile ring of superconducting magnets built well below the earth's surface on the Swiss-French border near Geneva by CERN--the European Organization for Nuclear Research--which will allow researchers, including a number from MIT, to explore questions such as whether a "mirror world" of particles exists and if nature has dimensions beyond what we know.

The CERN complex includes five particle detectors, including the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector, the focal point of MIT's research program. Friedman said CMS weighs more than one and a half times as much as the Eiffel Tower and with the other detectors constitutes some of the world's most sophisticated technology.

To illustrate how far the study of particle physics has come in his lifetime, he noted that Ernest O. Lawrence's cyclotron, the first high-voltage particle accelerator, was tiny. The cyclotron Lawrence built in the summer of 1931, when Friedman was a year old, was just 11 inches in diameter.

By the time he became a doctoral student in Enrico Fermi's laboratory at the University of Chicago, though, the technology had advanced a great deal and even more so by the late 1960s, when Friedman was part of a group working at Stanford University's recently completed two-mile-long linear accelerator known as SLAC.

Friedman said that in 1966, the general scientific view about quarks (the name comes from a line in James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake") was that they were just "mathematical representations." Within a few years, however, experiments by the SLAC group including Friedman and the late MIT physicist Henry Kendall provided the first evidence that quarks were real.

Today, researchers are seeking to discover whether even smaller particles exist inside of quarks. "We don't know, but it is not ruled out by anything we do know," Friedman said. Other questions physicists are pursuing sound like something out of the realm of science fiction: What is dark matter and dark energy? What happened to the anti-particles that disappeared after the universe was created? Are there hidden dimensions in space beyond the ones we experience?

It all sounds quite esoteric, but Friedman said particle physics research also has a practical side, generating "enormous contributions to the technological development of our society." Among them are superconducting cables, medical diagnostic instruments and logic circuits in computers, plus "the world wide web was developed at CERN," he said.

Friedman, who still paints, thinks the satisfaction scientists get from their work is not unlike what artists and writers get from theirs. "It's like a poet finding exactly the right word to use," he said. And there's always much more to do.

"It would be a terrible thing if we understood everything," he said. "There'd be no more science."