Two physics stories in 2012 easily eclipsed all the others, making headlines all over the place. Here are the two stories that caused the entire physics world to sit up and take notice:
1. Faster Than Light Neutrinos
Easily the most significant of these stories, if it pans out, would be the discovery of neutrinos that move faster than the speed of light. If further evidence suggests that this is happening, then 2011 will become a defining, benchmark year for physics.
Physicists have a tendency to define physics into three basic epochs:
- Pre-Newtonian physics (which really isn't considered physics)
- Classical (Newtonian) physics
- Modern physics
If neutrinos are moving faster than the speed of light, then 2011 will be yet another dividing line, because physicists will have to completely revise what they've believed they understand about the universe, possibly adopting some form of variable speed of light cosmology, which has until now been just a fringe, abstract hypothetical conjecture.
However, don't throw out your old physics textbooks just yet! Physicists are still extremely skeptical about these neutrino results, and rightly so. The whole situation is caused by results out of only the OPERA experiment at CERN and, though follow-up research has supported the original findings, there's still very little overall evidence for such a bold claim. In addition to more work at OPERA, scientists at other facilities are hoping to test the findings to get confirming evidence. It'll really be in 2012 that these results will stand or fall ... but then it took over a decade from 1905 for Einstein's papers to bear fruit, as well!
2. The Higgs Boson
One of the main goals of the Large Hadron Collider has been to search for the elusive Higgs boson, the particle which rounds out the Standard Model of particle physics by giving the other particles their mass. See, the problem with the Standard Model is that it's too perfect. The symmetries involved match up in such a way that, if it described the universe, there would be no mass of any kind.
Enter the Higgs boson. This particle is a crucial component of the Higgs mechanism, which throws the symmetries involved off just enough to allow for the observed masses to manifest in our universe. In other words, it's the particle that makes "stuff" out of energy.
For a few weeks in November and December, it was sounding like CERN scientists were going to announce that they'd discovered the Higgs boson, but these rumors appeared to be overblown. Instead, they offered only "a hint of a detection." Normally, this annual report of findings doesn't come out until the new year, but CERN decided to release them before the holiday season this year.
These results, which come from the ATLAS and CMS projects, both show some data bumps which scientists think may correspond with regions where the Higgs boson would reside. Right now, the scientists involved are saying there's about a 50% chance that the results are the Higgs. Next year, the research will ramp up in these areas and we'll have better confirmation (or refutation) of the results.
The ATLAS results indicate a mass of 126 GeV while the CMS results give 124 GeV. (GeV = gigaelectron-volts, which is an energy measurement corresponding to mass. A hydrogen atom is about 1 GeV. These results would give the Higgs boson about the same mass as a cesium atom.) It looks like the results do narrow the range of the Higgs boson's energy level to somewhere between 115 GeV and 130 GeV, giving the CERN scientists a range to explore in the future, even if they don't find further evidence right at the 124-126 range.
If these are the right energies for the Higgs, then the current version of the theory will need to be modified to account for it. There's a possibility that something like supersymmetry (or something new) would need included to make the theoretical Higgs boson match up with the one we ultimately observe.
- About.com Space - Did CERN Find the "God Particle"?, Dec. 14, 2011
- New Scientist - LHC sees hint of lightweight Higgs boson, Dec. 13, 2011
- Wired Science - LHC May Have Revealed First Hints of Higgs, Dec. 13, 2011
3. Everything Else
This isn't to say that other physics stories haven't proven interesting as well. For example, an internet video demonstrating quantum levitation went viral this year, ending up ultimately on The Today Show. Ultimately it caught my attention by sparking a fun segment on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report.
Possibly one of the biggest stories in 2011 hasn't been strongly tied to science, but rather to economics. The economy is still tottering along, trying to right itself, and science research budgets have been slashed along with everything else. Easily the most iconic aspect of humanity's space program, the costly space shuttle was retired in 2011, calling into question man's future in space. Though this means little for science itself (which can easily be carried out with unmanned missions), there's certainly something emotional that gets lost in removing direct human experience from the equation.
But science isn't safe from these cuts either. For much of the year, it looked likely that Congress was going to cut funding to the James Webb Space Telescope, the currently-being-built successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Without it, we'll be very hard pressed to observe the universe in greater detail, which is needed to gain a better understanding of the role played by both dark matter and dark energy in the formation and development of the cosmos. (In 2012, there may also be more Earth-based experiments that shed light on these.)
In November, however, some budget-wrangling saved the James Webb Space Telescope, though it did put a cap on how overbudget the project is allowed to go.
- James Webb Space Telescope - Physics Meets Politics, July 9, 2011
- About.com Space - James Webb Telescope Faces the Axe, July 25, 2011
- Reuters - NASA budget plan saves telescope, cuts space taxis, November 16, 2011
With an election year ramping up, this certainly isn't the last we'll hear of funding cuts to science research projects. As with the stories above, it looks like 2012 will help decide how this one comes out.