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Physics + MathPhysics & Math

Hail and Farewell, Grand Colliders

ByFrank WilczekThe Nature of RealityThe Nature of Reality

Physicists, to their credit, are notoriously unsentimental and future-oriented. “Today’s sensation is tomorrow’s calibration” describes their modus operandi .

Nevertheless! Today America’s flagship collider, the Tevatron at Fermilab in Illinois, will cease operation, and Europe’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, near Geneva, will lead the exploration of the deep microcosmos. That changing of the guard inspires reflection, and merits celebration too.

Some historical perspective will highlight the special role of colliders in fundamental physics. The goal of experimental work in fundamental physics, crudely speaking, is to find out what the smallest, most basic building-blocks of the material world are, and how they behave (which, if you think about it, effectively defines what they are). In the early days of science, optical microscopes revealed the existence of tiny creatures and the cellular structure of life in general. But light cannot resolve structures much smaller than its wavelength, and the wavelength of ordinary light is tens of thousands of times larger than the size of atoms.