There was an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Leonard said nothing had happened in physics for 80 years. It was pretty funny – horribly inaccurate, but pretty funny.
I finished Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman on the weekend. They are transcripts of the six easiest to understand lectures that Feynman gave to his CalTech class in the early 60s – just shortly before Feynman won his Nobel prize. Before Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time in the 80s, the Feynman Lectures may have been one of the most popular physics books. They are two years of lectures for the Freshman and Sophmore classes at the university.
I was a little disappointed in 6 Easy Pieces. The reason they were easy was that they covered easy topics. They were essentially the very first six lectures of a freshman physics class in 1962. While it is obvious the Feynman knew the material far better than I, it still meant that there was no new material in the lecture for me.
One of the lectures was on how quantum mechanics fits into physics. Feynman won his Nobel for advancements in Quantum Mechanics and Weak Force theory. But 50 years of advancement since then meant that there were aspects of the field in which I knew more than this expert.
Like the existence of the Higgs Boson. I’ve had four separate chats about the Higgs in the two days since the ATLAS and CMS projects made their announcement that they have found a new particle that seem in all ways congruent with the theorized Higgs boson.
It was also back in the 1960s that the Higgs field was theorized. It has taken until 2012 to achieve some measure of proof that the theory is correct. It required the construction of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the special ATLAS and CMS detectors. The LHC is huge and crosses two countries. The ATLAS detector itself is the size of a 5 story building. The ATLAS project has something like 3000 physicists from dozens of countries working on it. (ATLAS, The LHC and CMS all were built for more than just Higgs discovery, but it is one of the principle reasons.)
It is a bit mind boggling to think of the effort invested into a physics concept I do not even understand. (And I’ve tried, but for true understanding you need to know the math not just the words.)
And they succeeded. That is amazingly cool. Chalk one up for science.
Now I want to go get the rest of the Feynman lectures to see if it will help understanding…