Wednesday, September 28, 2011

science week: physics, csudh style

when i think of “blue line rider,” i don’t usually think of a particle physicist*.  however, i did stumble my way into a nice conversation with john price, head of the physics department of cal state dominguez hills.  i overheard him talking on the red line and though i’m not enough of a physicist to call myself one, i recognize when it’s the topic of conversation.  though john appeared to be getting ready to do some work (headphones in, linux netbook out) when i approached him on the blue line, he seemed happy to spread the gospel of science.

as department head, i’m guessing he spends a lot more time trying to get funding than he would like and it seemed to show in our conversation.  the main obstacles he faces revolve around a general lack of interest in science.  there’s this idea that if there isn’t some immediate use for the results of research, it’s not worth doing.  because of this, when he’s asked what will come of his work, he somewhat flippantly answers “nothing at all.”  he goes on to explain that of course he expects some good of it, but he can’t say what right now.  by way of example, he notes that the first tv wasn’t commercially available until the 1940s, but the physics required to build those tvs was understood in the 1860s.  obviously, no commercial venture can wait that long, so basic research such as his is highly dependent on government funding, where opposing science seems to be fashionable nowadays (at least at the federal level here in the states).

john’s actual work is to improve our understanding of the proton. he's an experimentalist, someone who puts the theoretical physicists' models to the test. he uses a particle accelerator to smash really small things at really high speeds. from these collisions, all sorts of interesting things can be learned, if only you can detect them.  he showed me a diagram of one detector he’s built, as well as one of a newer one he’s working on.  the particles he’s looking for tend to decay very rapidly and over a very short distance, so the new one has its detectors much closer to the actual collision.  it's worth noting that the detector itself is three stories tall.  even though the detectors are very close, they need a lot of equipment behind them in order to get meaningful data.

with the frustration of funding and the joy of discovery comes some fun  some tv shows actually hire consultants to validate the scientific principles in their shows.  john knows the guy “the big bang theory” hired (recently interviewed at wired) and actually noticed some mistakes.  in return, his friend got them to put john’s program’s name in the background of one episode.

unfortunately (at least for the conversation), we arrived at my stop.  i thought about how this enlightening conversation only came about as a result of pure chance, the result of people being in close proximity to one another.  if i knew anything about quantum mechanics, i’m sure a very poetic conclusion about stochastic behavior could be written here.  as it is, i’ll just say i felt like i hit my own personal lottery that day.

* -- john tells me he’s actually a nuclear physicist because he studies the nucleus of atoms, specifically the proton.  i chose to say “particle physicist” mainly to avoid alarmist language, but also because john himself said “same thing.”

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