Three hundred feet below the beautiful farmlands of Switzerland and France, in a cavern large enough to hold the Eiffel Tower and the nave of the Notre Dame cathedral, in a maze of superconducting cables that could wind around the equator 6.8 times, scientists are smashing particles together hoping to unlock the key to our universe.
That’s where you’ll find Lawrence Pinsky, chairman of the UH Physics Department – when he’s not teaching physics and law here, skiing down slopes in Switzerland or taking dance classes with his wife. What ties together Pinsky’s interests in physics, law, winter sports, fancy footwork and the fundamentals of our universe? In a word, curiosity.
“In most people, curiosity is a very powerful motivator, but in science and scientists it’s an obsession,” he said.
That nagging feeling he’s always had – the one that leads many people to dump salt on slugs or shave the cat – has led Pinsky to a role in one of science’s most ambitious and important experiments yet: the Large Hadron Collider.
“I knew from a very young age, certainly before I went to high school even, that I wanted to be a scientist. And, to me, physics is the core and the foundation of all the sciences. I don’t have to apologize for being interested in anything,” he said.
Pisnky earned his bachelor’s at Carnegie Mellon University, but faced a slight interruption during graduate studies at the University of Rochester.
“I was preparing to do a balloon experiment to put instruments on balloons and fly them up in northern Canada to the top of the atmosphere to look at properties of cosmic rays, when I was drafted into the Army,” he said.
Pinsky had completed enough work to be granted his master’s and to receive a direct commission to serve as a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. Pinsky would have been assigned to serve in Vietnam, but he said the Army was struggling with retention and allowed some individuals to essentially “write their own ticket” for their first two years if they agreed to a third.
“Initially, I didn’t want to do it because I was going to go back to graduate school, but then they told me that I could come to NASA – this was during the Apollo program – and work on cosmic ray physics,” Pinsky said.
Pinsky began work in mission control for Apollo 13, measuring cosmic rays that passed through astronauts’ bodies.
“I actually defended my thesis (at Rochester) and got out of the Army in the same month,” he said. “Then I got a post-doc here at UH, and in 1975 I was offered a faculty position as an assistant professor.”
He continued studying particle physics through most of 1970s and ’80s, and in the late 1980s was invited to join an experiment at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, looking at the structure of the proton. He also began working on the Superconducting Super Collider, a particle accelerator with a 54-mile circumference planned for Waxahachie, Texas. But, once again, the government had other plans for him.
“When Congress canceled (the Super Collider), actually, it sort of opened up a window of opportunity, and I went to law school here at the University of Houston.”
Pinsky holds a J.D. and an LL.M in Intellectual Property and Information Law from the UH Law Center, but even studying the law didn’t take him away from his familiar foundation.
“When we try and organize the satisfaction of our curiosity, we try and do it by understanding the rules by which the universe works: discovering the laws of nature. That’s exactly what the law is in the social sense,” Pinsky said. “Laws are an attempt to modify human behavior. In a sense, the law is an experimental science, and I’m an experimental scientist.”
Either that, or he’s just getting older.
“In my own case, my wife says it’s just a mid-life crisis. She says some people buy red sports cars when they start seeing gray in their beard. In my case, I went to law school because I had always thought I could have done that. So I did. It’s been a world of fun.”
Pinsky’s main focus, though, is studying how the world came to be, and the answer is thought to lie in CERN’s enormous particle accelerator. At the LHC, particles will be sent whizzing around a 17-mile track at 0.999 times the speed of light, where they’ll crash into each other. Amid the debris, physicists hope to find an elusive particle thought to be the missing link to our current understanding of the universe.
In 1964, theorist Peter Higgs developed a mathematical possibility that addressed a number of issues found in the Standard Model, the theory on which our knowledge of the universe is founded. Higgs postulated that there is one particle, the Higgs boson, that acts like a force or a field and grants all others their mass but disturbs nothing in the Standard Model. The only catch: No one has been able to find it. Even so, few scientists doubt its existence.
“Most of the people who are comfortable with their understanding of nature are betting that the Higgs exists,” Pinsky said.
And if it’s there, they’re betting the LHC will find it.
The heart of the enormous mass of wires, tubes, metal and magnets buried below France and Switzerland is basically a microscope, Pinsky said. It is the most massive and expensive microscope science has ever seen, and it is large enough, scientists hope, to detect the Higgs.
“The LHC will be able to say, hopefully in a definitive way, either ‘Here it is,’ or, ‘Regardless of how pretty the theory is, it’s not true,’” Pinsky said.
To understand the importance of the LHC, Pinsky suggested to imagine your vision is blurry. If someone told you he or she could give you glasses that would allow you to see 100 times better, would you take them up on the offer? Physicists have.
The LHC will provide magnification 100 times finer than science has yet seen. But this fact alone isn’t enticing enough to some to justify spending billions of dollars and 14 years building a particle accelerator, Pinsky said. He has another suggestion: consider Christopher Columbus. When he asked for funding to sail the ocean blue, he said he was going to find Japan.
“People always thought Columbus was an enigma because he was obviously a very bright, intelligent person and he could not have made such a stupid mistake,” Pinsky said. “But the point was, he was being dumb like a fox. He was just trying to get the jewels.”
That doesn’t mean those looking for the Higgs don’t truly expect to find it, Pinsky said, but when you’re asking for billions of dollars and the manpower of thousands of people, you need a good reason. For Pinsky, though, the answer is simple.
“Maybe if you never had glasses before, the universe is not that much more interesting when you get a hundred times finer. But until you look, you don’t know. You don’t know what you’re going to find.”
Through the looking glass
Positioned along the massive magnets used to guide the speeding particles around their circular racetrack is an apparatus called “Alice.” The sweetly named machine is actually a heavy ion detector that will slam lead nuclei together to create plasma similar to that believed to have existed only millionths of a second after the Big Bang. It is thought that as the universe formed it was in this plasma, made up of quarks and gluons – the fundamentals of all matter – that minute disruptions upset the smoothness of space. These fluctuations allowed matter to condense and form stars and planets. These fluctuations were, Pinsky pointed out, smoother than the top of his shiny, veneered desk.
“This is a humongous achievement because the fluctuations here are less than a part in 10 thousand, less than a part in 10 to the fourth, which is decidedly bigger than the vote in Florida in Gore v. Bush.”
To understand how great an accomplishment that is, and to feel incredibly small, think of Pinsky’s generosity.
“If I was giving away stars, I would not just give away one star, I’d give away 10,” he said. “I could give away 10 stars to every human being that has ever lived in the history of our species and I would not run out in the Milky Way. And there are more galaxies that we can see in the known universe than there are stars in the Milky Way. The immense enormity of the universe is just dwarfing to your imagination. Your sense of self-significance begins to wane enormously.”
The minute fluctuations, the so-called lumpiness, that resulted in those almost incomprehensible numbers of the universe, are what Pinsky and the rest of the team working on Alice are looking for.
“We want to understand the properties of the quark-gluon plasma. So how do we do that? Well, we have to make one,” he said. “We won’t have a whole universe, but we’ll see a little microcosm of the big bang.”
Too big a bang?
After spending more than a decade and $8 billion to plan and construct the enormous particle accelerator, the thousands of scientists from across the world working on the LHC were briefly held up by two men.
A lawsuit filed in March in federal court claimed the particle accelerator would create a tiny black hole that would sink to the center of Earth and subsequently eat up the planet. Luckily for Earth and its inhabitants, that scenario isn’t likely.
Cosmic rays, or particles hurtling through space at enormous speeds, collide with earth’s atmosphere constantly, Pinsky said. These rays are much more powerful than those produced by the LHC. If that power were strong enough to make black holes, it would do so billions of times a day and the effects would be noticeable; however, physicists have yet to see any evidence of an abundance of black holes.
To further poke holes in the theory, Pinsky cited theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.
“If you had a very small black hole – and very small in this case means something the mass of Mount Everest, not the mass of a proton – (Hawking) calculated its lifetime would be a millisecond. It would literally explode, because as it lost mass it would become brighter and brighter and the whole thing would just disappear in a blinding flash.”
So, even if the universe did create these black holes, they would disappear so quickly that we wouldn’t be able to see them.
“People who are very knowledgeable about this have thought about every potential aspect of it and have decided that the risk of any hazard is effectively zero,” Pinsky said. “If it’s some other scenario that we’re totally unaware of than we have no way to assess what it is.”
In June, the accelerator was declared safe and plans continued as scheduled. The LHC will move forward Sept. 10, accelerating particles at a slower speed – a test run of sorts – before increasing the energy to the final 5 trillion electron volts.
“I cannot tell you yet what we’ll find. I can’t tell you whether the Higgs is definitely there,” Pinsky said. “What I can tell you is, my bet would be we’re going to take a hundred-times-finer-resolution look at the universe. And never, never in the history of our trying to figure out what made the universe tick, has that big a step revealed nothing new.”