This month I’d like to mention a couple of the most exciting things that are happening in nuclear physics and astrophysics. You might ask why I would discuss both of those fields in the same paragraph. The answer is that research in both of those fields is merging into the study of nuclear astrophysics. You have most likely read about the recent discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, and the first measurement of gravity waves originating when two black holes collided in the distant universe.
Both of those discoveries give us, humanity, a better understanding of how our world, the universe, is built and functions. The Higgs particle discovery tells us that our theories are right about how matter, the atom, are built. It tells us about sub-nuclear particles and forces. Theory from years ago told us they should be there, if we understand the structure of matter. The measurement tells us, yes, our theories are right. The same holds for the gravity wave measurement, general relativity theory told us what to look for. We have finally been able to measure them (from theory to measurement took about 100 years).
A question that one might reasonably ask is, so what?
To answer that question I need to look at things from a long-range perspective. Science results usually take a long time to progress from discovery to something useful. An example would be Madame Maria Curie’s discovery of radioactivity around 1900. It took 40 years for that discovery to lead to nuclear energy and the atomic bomb. The usefulness of research in nuclear astrophysics cannot currently be predicted. However, it is almost always useful for humanity to better understand how our world/universe is built and functions.
Another important aspect of this type of research is how discovery drives technology and technology drives discovery. The recent measurement of gravity waves was a result of two things: 1) Einstein predicted them in the early 20th century; and 2) we finally developed the technology to measure them in 2016, almost 100 years later. I am sure we will find other important uses for this technology.
An example of how we benefit from science and vis a vis are the tiny chips in your cell phone that allows it to take pictures. In the early 1980s we had such chips, but they were about 2” by 2” in size and only had about 1 megapixel. We scientists needed for them to be smaller, for space flight, and we needed better resolution so we could see more details. We now have 16 megapixel chips that don’t take up much room in our phones, or in our spacecraft telescopes. This allows us to send selfies on Facebook and to see the universe in much greater detail than we could before.
It is an example of science driving technology and technology driving science.
Another example is lasers. In the 1960’s there was much excitement in the scientific community about their discovery. The first ones were bigger than a wood stove. We used them for rather exotic studies of molecular structure. Now we even use them for such mundane things as a carpenter’s levels.
What new human capabilities will arise from the discovery of the Higgs particle, or gravity waves is something that will probably not be answered for decades.