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Particle Physics for Non-Physicists: A Tour of the Microcosmos
Course No. 1247 (24 lectures, 30 minutes/lecture)
Taught by Steven Pollock
University of Colorado at Boulder
Ph.D., Stanford University
Would you like to know how the universe works?
The science that has found many of the answers to that profound and age-old question is particle physics: the study of those impossibly tiny particles with unbelievably strange names: bosons and leptons, quarks and neutrinos.
In Particle Physics for Non-Physicists: A Tour of the Microcosmos, Professor Steven Pollock translates the language of the remarkable science that, in only 100 years, has unlocked the secrets of the basic forces of nature. You will become familiar with the fundamental particles that make up all matter, from the tiniest microbe to the sun and stars. You will also learn the "rules of the game"the forces the particles feel and the ways they interactthat underlie the workings of the universe.
This course is designed to be enriching for everyone, regardless of scientific background or mathematical ability. Virtually all you will need to enjoy and benefit from it are curiosity, common sense, and "an open mind for the occasional quantum weirdness," according to Professor Pollock. As he leads you through the seemingly complex but surprisingly understandable field of particle physics, Professor Pollock offers:
A tour and explanation of the "particle zoo," the name that scientists give to the alien-sounding creaturesthe hadrons and leptons, baryons and mesons, muons and gluonsthat are the smallest bits of matter and energy that exist. They inhabit a world that is impossibly small: 10-15 meters or less.
A knowledge of how these particles fit into perhaps the greatest scientific theory of all time: the Standard Model of particle physics. This theory says that everything in the universe is made up of particles that interact according to fairly simple and well-understood rules. It is as much a masterpiece in the field of science, Professor Pollock asserts, as the collected works of William Shakespeare are in literature.
Easily understandable explanations, often through the use of such simple analogies and images as snowflakes, mirrors, and rubber bands, of such terms as "quantum chromodynamics," "gauge symmetry," and "unified quantum field theory."
An appreciation of how particle physics fits together with other branches of physicssuch as cosmology and quantum mechanicsto create our overall understanding of nature.
Surprising Science: Particles that Pass through You and Inspiration from a Glass of Beer
These lectures are often surprising and relevant to your daily life. For example, the name "quark" has no scientific meaningit was taken from a passage in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. And did you know that every day, billions of neutrinosunimaginably small particles that originate in the core of the sunpass through your body, then go right through the entire earth and continue on into space? Or that the inspiration for the invention of the bubble chamber, a device for detecting subatomic particles, came from watching bubbles in a glass of beer?
Particle physics also affects your life in that it is "big science," requiring very large sums of money to conduct. One day, the U.S. may again consider a particle physics project that approaches the scale of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC). This enormous "atom smasher" was approved by Congress, then terminated in mid-construction in the 1990s. Such a project costs billions of your tax dollars. Do you know enough of the science involved to decide whether you would support it? This course tells you what you need to know to make an informed decision.
The Personal Stories Behind the Physics
The human side of science is often every bit as absorbing as the discoveries. This is certainly true of the key scientists of particle physics, men and women whose genius, determination, and travails helped construct the Standard Model. Those you will meet include:
Max Planck, who said the work that led him to propose that light might consist of bundles of particles, or "quanta," was the most strenuous of his life. "The whole procedure was an act of despair," he recalled, "because a theoretical interpretation had to be found at any price, no matter how high that must be."
Paul Dirac created an equation that successfully described the electron, and also predicted the existence of antimatter. But Dirac downplayed the latter finding. When antimatter was in fact discovered several years later, in 1932, he explained his earlier reluctance by simply asserting that his equation had been smarter than he was.
As a woman in Germany in the early 1900s, Emmy Noether wasn't allowed to take college courses or earn a Ph.D. She earned a doctorate in mathematics on her own by sitting in on classes, and worked for years without pay as an assistant professor. But she invented a theorem that was invaluable in Albert Einstein's work, and in helping particle physicists understand complex systems.
The Latest Research: Dark Matter, String Theory and the Higgs Boson
This course is geared to giving you a better understanding of developments in modern physics that are reported in such publications as Scientific American and the "Science" section of The New York Times. The final lectures focus on cutting-edge issues in particle physics: unresolved questions, new theories and experiments still to come.
Professor Pollock will fill you in on the latest ultra-high-energy particle accelerators. The newest in the U.S., the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) is studying the conditions that existed only a fraction of a second after the birth of the universe. He also describes the essential and continuing role that particle physics will play in the investigation of "dark matter" and "dark energy"both of which have been measured but not identifiedand in inflation theory, an extension of the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.
Will particle physicists eventually succeed in creating an ultimate particle theory: a "theory of everything" (TOE)? Does the Higgs particlethe last predicted but yet-to-be-captured specimen for the particle zooreally exist, and what are the implications for science if we can't find it? Right now, there are no answers. But this course will teach you why the questions are so compelling, and so important.
Steven Pollock University of Colorado at Boulder
Ph.D., Stanford University
Steven Pollock is Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned his Masters and Ph.D. in Physics from Stanford University.
Prior to taking his position at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Professor Pollock was a senior researcher at the National Institute for Nuclear and High Energy Physics.
Professor Pollock is the author of the multimedia textbook Physics I. He became a Pew/Carnegie National Teaching Scholar in 2001, and is a member of the American Physical Society-Nuclear Physics Division and the American Association of Physics Teachers. He has presented both nuclear physics research and his scholarship on teaching at numerous conferences, seminars, and colloquia.
Professor Pollock is the recipient of the Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship and the University of Colorados Boulder Faculty Assembly Teaching Excellence Award. He has taught a wide variety of physics courses at all levels, from introductory physics to advanced nuclear and particle physics, with an intriguing recent foray into the physics of energy and the environment.