In which Holmes is excited, your host reflects on physics, and a little nostalgic reverie is shared.
I was awakened by a tugging at my shoulder. It was Holmes. The candle in his hand shone upon his eager, stooping face, and told me at a glance that something was amiss.
“Come, Watson, come!” he cried. The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”
(The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1904)
In science, discovering that a theory is supported by experiment is wonderful. But discovering that it’s wrong is often when the real excitement begins. And more often than not, it involves wearing clothes.
This morning the wireless (well, BBC Radio 4, at least) was positively abuzz with news that experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), have thrown supersymmetry (SUSY) into question. That’s quite a thing, because if you knew SUSY like I know SUSY*, you’d know that it’s a major component of particle physics theory. I shan’t bother rambling on about it here because (a) I’ve got a ‘to do’ list so large that it’s going to collapse to a singularity under its own gravitational field and more importantly (b) Nature has a great article about it. If you’d like a high-level overview of the LHC, and the LHCb experiment which is the focus of the current news, there’s a video available from the nice people at CERN. (Your appreciation will be heightened if you have a taste for 80s-style, Fairlight synthesizer music.)
I sometimes try to imagine what it would be like if someone disproved the theory underpinning my own PhD thesis. I’m pretty sure that I’d be fine with that: it was eight years of my life, including taking a necessary undergraduate degree, but one has to accept the workings of science. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s the same thing with SENS Foundation: our mission is predicated on our work to prove, or disprove, the viability of the technologies which underpin rejuvenation biotech. Some results will, I like to think, be positive; some negative; most, I suspect, will be fall somewhere between the two extremes, and lead to reconsiderations and shifts in approach. That’s just how it should be.
The LHC wasn’t built to prove the correctness of existing theories. It was built to test those theories. There’s a subtle but important difference between the two, and that difference is often a major component in separating ‘good science’ from ‘bad science’. Doubtless the LHC wouldn’t exist if the theories under test weren’t well-developed and promising, and doubtless hopes were high that those theories would be correct, but the LHC will be every bit as successful if it delivers negative results as if it delivers positive results.
Ah, and that final moment of nostalgia. In the video from CERN there’s an image of the map they use to visualize their grid computing network and load. In 2002, when I was an undergraduate I spent a summer working in Imperial’s High Energy Physics department, as part of the LHC ATLAS project. In particular, the Imperial team was working on grid computing. My job was to build a web-based interface for job submission and tracking. I called it GUIDO (Grid User Interface, Demo Only) and part of it involved a map to… well, to visualize the grid computing network and load. Alas, I didn’t take a screenshot, but it did appear in the background of a photograph taken at an eScience conference that year. You can just make out the lines signifying data streams, joining the elements of the grid, and the stacks representing analysis jobs at those elements.
* Copyright on this joke expired several years ago.
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