A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

Particle physics gets hip with a party at the planetarium

12/07/09
Guests view a display at Adler After Dark

Guests check out a display at Adler After Dark

“Some of you are just realizing,” Fermilab physicist Don Lincoln said to the crowd in the darkened lecture hall at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, “you’re in a particle physics lecture... on a date.”

Lincoln gave a talk about the recently restarted Large Hadron Collider during Adler After Dark, the planetarium’s new after-hours program aimed at an audience that does not always find its way to the planetarium.

Many of the mostly 20- to 30-somethings that made up the crowd of just over 700 guests at Adler on Nov. 19 said they had grown up in the Chicago area and last visited the planetarium on a class field trip.

“People have fond memories of coming here as kids,” said Mike Smutko, astronomer and director of Adler’s observatory. “But they don’t come back until they have their own kids. We’re trying to capture that middle section.”

At Adler After Dark in November, DJ D-Rek spun dance music in the planetarium’s dining area next to floor-to-ceiling windows facing Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. Guests sipped wine or beer on the patio while training telescopes on Jupiter. They took in hors d’oeuvres and full-dome theater shows about the formation of the moon. And Lincoln, author of The Quantum Frontier, a book for the general public about the LHC, described to about 100 visitors how scientists at CERN planned to collide two beams of protons at nearly the speed of light.

One of the many possible effects of turning on the LHC

One of the possible effects of turning on the LHC

Lincoln said that the most foolish question one can ask about experiments at the LHC is: “What are you going to find?”

“We don’t know what we’re going to see,” he said. “But we do know what we’re looking for.”

Scientists at the world’s largest experiment are seeking answers to questions such as: Why are there three dimensions? Could there be more? What gives particles their mass? Are there new forces and symmetries we haven’t observed? Will we find something deeper, a unifying principle?

The planetarium drew guests to Lincoln’s lecture with the title “The End of the World,” playing on news stories drumming up fears that turning on the LHC would destroy the Earth.

Lincoln cataloged in his talk many of the scenarios in which people have claimed that the particle accelerator will end our existence. It might cause strangelets or a black hole that would consume us all, people have said. It might create magnetic monopoles. As Lincoln illustrated by an animated slide, it might awaken Godzilla, who will destroy cities with lasers to the tunes of Blue Oyster Cult.

Lincoln answers questions after the lecture

Lincoln answers questions after the lecture

“I could explain why each of these things won’t happen,” Lincoln said. “But what you need is something that will explain everything.”

The key, he said, was to look to cosmic rays, which can speed into the atmosphere at much higher energies than the proton beams in the LHC will ever achieve.

The universe is constantly bombarding the Earth with cosmic rays, which are primarily protons. The atmosphere, just 20 miles above our heads, is made up of protons and neutrons. High-energy collisions between protons from cosmic rays and those that make up the atmosphere have been going on for 4 billion years. And the Earth is still here; these collisions have not caused a strangelet or a magnetic monopole or an Earth-swallowing black hole.

Lincoln’s conclusion: “After the lecture, go and get a drink. We’re going to be okay.”

Adler After Dark occurs the third Thursday of every month. Tickets for the general public cost $10 if purchased in advance or $15 at the door.

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