A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

Fermilab takes stage in The Da Vinci Code-like physics thriller

06/12/08

Albert Einstein agonized that his special theory of relativity enabled the creation of the atomic bomb. He would not have wanted to hand another theory with military applications to a still violent world, particularly if that theory leads to production of a weapon more powerful than the A-bomb.

Yet, the love of knowledge likely would prevent Einstein from destroying such a successful theory.

So what would Einstein do?

Mark Alpert has an enticing theory of his own that Einstein did succeed in his two-decade quest to prove the Theory of Everything before his death in 1955. That theory, often termed the "Holy Grail" of physics, would remove the uncertainty in the universe, making it predictable. If Einstein succeeded, Alpert theorized, Einstein would tell his students to keep the theory secret until mankind could keep from blowing itself up.

“I can imagine a scenario where he would tell his assistants to just wait until there is a world government,” Alpert said. “These men would wait their entire lives. That is the sad part. You could argue that the world is worse off now.”

In Alpert’s book Final Theory released June 3, he mixes abbreviated particle physics lessons, with action-packed shoot outs and car chases as he explains a the attempt by a history of science professor to piece together the theory. Evil-doers race the professor to find the former students and mathematical equations of the theory to use it to build the most powerful weapon the world has ever seen. The two quests collide at the United States’ premier high-energy physics laboratory, Fermilab.

Why high-energy particle physics?

HEP provides an atypical setting for a fiction thriller, but Alpert views it as the perfect vehicle to introduce people to some of the real-life science theories and technological advances that he reports on as an editor of Scientific American. Many of the science fiction attractions of the past have become the doable science of the present.

“I think there is a huge increase in interest in [high-energy physics],” Alpert said. “Look at all the people who are interested in the LHC. I recently was at the World Science Festival. It was packed. And most of these people were not scientists. They don’t understand the math. I don’t understand the math. When I edit articles for Scientific American, I don’t put the math in, but people like the excitement of science. I think people key in on that.”

Unfortunately, a small segment of those people--especially mainstream media—key in on the excitement of far-fetched hypothesis of physics-powered catastrophes such as the lawsuit alleging the LHC startup will create a black hole that will swallow the Earth, he added.

Alpert scoffs at the idea. His book aims to promote science not mislead people into believing experiments, rather than their applications, are dangerous.

“In my book, the theory is dangerous. It is not the experiment itself that is dangerous. It is the military application of the theory that is dangerous.

“I don’t want to ever tell anyone we should not do research.” Alpert said.

“The message is: Let’s work on our humanity before the technology advances. The sad part is people can use research for military purposes. We should grow up as a species.”

Alpert, who received a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from Princeton University, uses the scientific inquiries of his main character, a “lapsed physicist”, to impart lessons about the universe, science and the drought of US funding for scientific programs, particularly at Fermilab.

Readers should not get intimidated. The science comes in easily digestible bites mixed in with international espionage, strip clubs, and skin heads.

“It is mostly a thriller. A lot of car chases. I gave it to a 14-year-old son of a friend of mine to read, and he loved it,” Alpert said. You don’t even need a high school degree to read it.”

Why write about Fermilab?

The idea for the novel sprang out of research Alpert was doing on Einstein for Scientific American, as well as a trip to Fermilab to research a story on the shift to neutrino research.

In his first trip to the Batavia, Illinois, laboratory in 2006, Alpert was wowed by different approaches of how to find physics beyond the Standard Model, the current recipe for matter and the forces of nature.

At the energy frontier, the Tevatron, the world’s highest-energy particle accelerator, and its two four-story detectors, CDF and DZero, produce and analyze sprays of millions of particles each second from collisions at nearly the speed of light. The particles could hold the key to extra dimensions and new never-before-seen constituents of matter. Those particles are the same that existed a fraction of a second after the big bang and eventually combined to form the world we see.

At the intensity frontier, Alpert toured the BooNE/MiniBooNE experiment, which studies antineutrino events, where the world’s least understood fundamental particle morphs into its own antiparticle. That could produce a possible key to how  antimatter switched to matter 14 billion years ago, creating the universe filled with planets.

“In the back of my mind, I was thinking this is great thriller material. It is very James Bond. There is so much going on here,” Alpert said.

The Tevatron control room, CDF collision hall, accelerator tunnels, Wilson hall, and MiniBooNE's 40-foot-in-diameter detector filled with mineral oil--a flammable, dense material --create high-tech, unique settings for the book’s climax.

Alpert incorporated as many experiment specifics as possible into the novel to avoid the criticism of taking too much literary leeway, such as received by the book Angels and Demons set at the European high-energy physics laboratory CERN.

“I tried really hard to make it accurate, but for narrative reasons I changed little stuff,” he said. To help the villains, a supply closet materializes near the CDF collision hall and the MiniBooNE detector opens easier than usual.

CERN, which will have a beam seven times the power of the Tevatron, has captured the imagination of the world and could have provided Alpert’s setting. But he wasn’t seduced by the new experiment on the block.

“I was just so impressed with the Tevatron,” he said. The accelerator performs at near perfection; 300 times better than expected in the original design. “Until the LHC comes on, this is the most powerful (accelerator) in the world, and there may still be some amazing physics to come out of here in the next few years.”

MiniBooNE, an example of neutrino research, not done at CERN’s LHC, also provides another portal to physics that could change forever the way we understand our world.

“I really had so much fun on the tour and the excitement that is going on there,” he added. “I tried to inject that into the book.”

See the Web site about the book, including the science behind the book and Fermilab’s role in the setting.

Here is a video of Mark Alpert talking about Final Theory

Read the New York Times review of the book.

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