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My Background in Particle Physics

I earned my B.A. in Physics from UC Berkeley in 1982. That spring, I was asked by the undergraduate adviser where I had been accepted for graduate studies. I told him that Princeton had rejected me, and that Harvard expected me to find $10,000 a year. Face paling, he excused himself to go talk to the department head. When he came back, he said, “Here’s an application for graduate school at Berkeley. Fill this out. I’ll walk it down to the admissions office. If you don’t get accepted, don’t worry: you won’t have to pay the application fee.”

So I did my graduate work at UC Berkeley as well, receiving a Ph.D. in particle physics in 1987. There were two significant things about this era. First, it was when the fundamental ideas of particle physics and cosmology (the study of the early universe) were assembled.

Particle physics had been pursuing the use of group theory as a framework for unifying our understanding of the four forces (electromagnetic, weak, strong and gravitational). The theory had some really ugly problems. It did not account for particle masses, it produced infinities in its calculations that had to be “renormalized” away, and it had no satisfying explanation for the mathematical structure of the four forces. With the exception of the first, these problems were resolved by bringing gravity into the framework (through a Grand Unified Theory that was finally refined as superstring theory).

With regards to cosmology, the Big Bang had become dogma back in the 30s when Hubble discovered the red shift. The only available explanation for the result was the relativistic Doppler shift. The problem was that the universe was far too smooth to have been created in an explosion involving normal matter. The contribution of Alan Guth was a model of the early universe with ten spatial dimensions heated to the Planck scale, followed by an “inflation” driven by a Higgs-like particle with extremely large mass. Normal three-space and matter would only appear after the universe had cooled enormously, and light would slow down tremendously in the process. However, it turned out that there were tens of millions of possible configurations of the laws of physics in that cooling. Again, there was no way of explaining the mathematical structure of the four forces. This was addressed by assuming that our universe was only one of an infinite number of universes spawned from the original super-heated Plank plasma.

The second significant aspect of this era was the rise of Big Science in these fields. I was lucky to work on a team of eight, and turned my Ph.D. around in five years. Most of my peers worked on far larger projects, anywhere from one hundred to (at the end) a thousand researchers. The projects involved hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. Because the work had absolutely no practical utility, the arguments for funding became more and more abstract (often invoking science as a fundamental moral imperative), and then became simply political. To illustrate: the organizational success of the particle physics community, in alliance with the Department of Energy, was scandalous to the material science community, whose funding was drained to support the construction of large and larger particle colliders. The rebuttal came in the form of a proposed designer for a linear collider to study particle zoology at the Plank scale (10^40 electron volts, as opposed the the 10^15 electron volts at CERN). The sarcastic concept drawing showed a linear collider superimposed on the galaxy.

I was offered a job at BellCore (the telephone systems research lab) after graduating, but decided to give Particle Physics one more chance by joining a neutrino mass project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The woman that taught me particle theory, Mary Gaillard, was despondent. I had the feeling that she felt that I was joining the evil empire. Indeed, the nuclear weapons facilities were a vortex that absorbed a lot of talented particle physicists (I guess that DoD was worried that we’d go off and invent something even more destructive than the hydrogen bomb). So the ten years that I spent there were amidst a vital community of theorists, and I was able to keep abreast of developments in particle physics and cosmology.

I chose my position at LLNL because I knew that if particle physics didn’t appeal to me, I would be able to change careers. I did so after three years, entering Environmental Science. Unfortunately, I became married in 1994 to a trauma victim of the Soviet secret police. That trauma made it impossible for my peers to sustain their relationships with me. I was encouraged to leave the Laboratory for industry.

When I made a decision to restructure my personal life in 2000, I went through a period of enormous volatility in my career. My peers at LLNL (some of who had intervened in my personal life with disastrous effect) decided to throw me a lifeline, and I was back there in 2004 and 2005. The latter was the centenary of Einstein’s “anno mirabilus”, when he published his papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, and special relativity. The speaking schedule that year was dominated by cosmologists and particle theorists. I was able, in that venue, to come up to date on current developments in the field. What I came away with was confirmation that nothing had changed, and that theorists were simply adding parameters in order to match data that they couldn’t explain, often with unsatisfactory results. It was so dire that the NSF head of fundamental physics declared that the field needed “revolutionary” ideas.

I had begun to assemble the thoughts presented here in 2000 (see the “New Physics” tab), and offered them to some of my peers. It was then that I ran into political restrictions. I was told “wait ten years,” which was the foreseeable duration of the CERN research program. Well, that ten years is up.

I did receive some recognition while I was there. During a budget cutting exercise, funding of the National Ignition Facility was threatened. I ate lunch frequently at the NIF cafeteria, and one day found myself looking at the promotional poster on the wall, wondering how to make the program work. As I sat there, I had the sense of having a conversation with researchers from a number of disciplines. When I published that analysis (several months later), the budget discussions were resolved with an increase to support new research directions, and I was invited by the Associate Director’s office for a program participant’s tour of the facility. It was the only concrete evidence I received of the political contributions I had made to the laboratory in the eighteen months that I was able to remain there.

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