Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts
UM masterclass New physics and the failure of the standard model
A mess, or less slightingly, a cookery book: physics is a collection of recipes from a variety of cuisines. This is the view of physicist Ronald Westra, who organised the two-day masterclass New physics, beyond the standard model, together with the Science Programme, and brought a number of big shots to the UM. Is there or is there not going to be an Einstein telescope at a depth of 100 metres in South Limburg?
This would never have been possible three years ago, says Thomas Cleij, dean of the Science Programme. At least not with these outstanding names. To mention but a few: Marcel Merk, an authority in the field of antimatter. Els Koffeman, a leader when it comes to detectors (in particle accelerators). And let’s not forget Gerard ’t Hooft, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1999 (together with Martin Veltman). Cleij just wants to say: the UM has accumulated critical mass in the field of sciences over the past few years.
Merk, born and raised in Wijck, got the ball rolling first thing Monday morning with the first masterclass. “I didn’t know what level to expect but it was above expectations. The students had to analyse original data from CERN’s particle accelerator, and that went well.” The VU professor found the UM bachelor’s, who are taking a broad liberal arts programme, extremely motivated. Although prior to doing a classic master’s programme in science, like the one in Amsterdam, they would have to spend a year working hard, brushing up on their knowledge. After the catch-up efforts they may be best off in the end, exactly because of their broad outlook.”
Everything in the Maastricht masterclass was about new physics. What does that mean? The present, so-called standard model of physics is quite obsolete, says Westra. Even the Higgs particle, good for the Nobel Prize in 2013, is based on fifty-year-old theories. In addition, the standard model is completely inadequate if you want to understand the latest developments. Westra mentions the example of dark matter.
“Seventy per cent of matter in the universe is made up of particles that we know nothing about. Dark energy is another of those new phenomena, discovered fifteen years ago. The universe appears to be expanding faster than we thought, but why that is happening is inexplicable with today’s knowledge. These are the great enigmas of our time.”
The pinch is in the fact that the standard model is incompatible with Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The solution to this dilemma is the Holy Grail of physics. Westra: “We suspect, as Einstein did too, that there is a simpler, more coherent and more elegant theoretic layer below the surface.”
That is why, after the discovery of the Higgs particle in 2012, all eyes have been focused on the ‘second run’ of the particle accelerator, in April and May. CERN will have the particles collide with twice as much energy. “Everyone expects something new to be found. If not, that would be a nightmare.”
Nobel Prize winner Gerard ’t Hooft held a Studium Generale lecture on this subject on Monday evening before a packed auditorium (Minderbroedersberg). The professor from Utrecht discussed a few scenarios, not really in Janet and John language. One of them was that this experiment reveals new dimensions on top of the four (including time) that we already know. It is an old speculation, in which ’t Hooft has little faith. Neither does he believe in the discovery of even smaller building blocks than leptons and quarks. Mathematically, it is difficult to sell. He is charmed more by the theory of super symmetry (SuSy). The latter assumes that every particle is accompanied by a kind of super partner, only its spin being different.
The national institute of subatomic physics Nikhef, to which both Merk and Koffeman are connected, has put on a poster presentation in the hall of the Kapoenstraat, on the gravitation project by professor Jo van den Brand, also from Limburg and working at Nikhef. “The institute has a remarkably high number of professors from Limburg,” says Westra.
Van den Brand, VU professor of particle physics, wants to build an advanced observatory, preferably in South Limburg, named ET (Einstein Telescope), with three underground tunnels, tens of kilometres long. Van den Brand, who was at home sick the past few days, hopes to measure gravitational waves. They are interesting because they contain information about the origin of the universe, says Joris van Heijningen, one of his trainee assistants.
Why South Limburg? Because in this region, seismic activity and geology have been mapped out well. Van Heijningen: “Did you know that it was a close call whether CERN and the particle accelerator had been on the Veluwe near Arnhem? Switzerland was chosen because there was little confidence in the Netherlands as a safe location after the Second World War.”
The first design of ET is finished, but the necessary hundreds of millions of euros still have to be collected. Whether this will ever happen partly depends on an experiment (Virgo) that is to start in Italy this year. There they are going to try and prove the existence of gravitational waves. Nobody doubts that they exist, but they have never been observed.