Why study particle physics?

When I was a teenager thinking about what to do with my life, I remember having the idea that I wanted to do something important. I thought about what were the really basic questions and decided there were really only four:

This may not be the only way of asking the basic questions, but at the time it seemed like a good one to me.

I might have devoted my life to any of them, or maybe I would have done something more practical — computers or the family business, for example. But I read a book that made a deep impression: The Neutrino, by Isaac Asimov. I haven't gone back and reread it, and by now it must be out of date — so much has happened since then in neutrinos. But that was what got me interested in particle physics.

As a freshman in college, I took physics and calculus, and it was hard since I hadn't learned either in high school. But what really excited me was that in my first semester we studied relativity. I remember trying to explain it to my family around the dinner table. Fat chance — I was studying calculus and they didn't know any, so it was as if I was speaking a different language! But it really was much simpler than I thought it would be. And the story of a guy — Einstein — who figured out something really basic and important just by thinking about it, made a deep impression.

Einstein realized that how everyone thought the world worked for over 300 years was only an approximation, which breaks down for things moving at high speed. And this had a surprising consequence: matter was just another form of energy — matter can be converted to energy and the other way around. Nowadays I encounter this all the time in experiments with fast subatomic particles — relativity has become my everyday language.

It wasn't until grad school that I learned how science really works. Pure thought by itself is rarely enough. Science advances mainly by discovering new things experimentally — at least that's my impression! And, since the easy experiments have already been done, experiments are usually hard and take awhile. But they can be great fun. Usually you're working closely with a group of really smart, dedicated people, all trying to invent new stuff to do things nobody ever did before. Of course, the pressure to get everything working by a deadline can get intense. But I quickly found I was hooked.

I've been lucky enough to have a career doing experiments and teaching people about physics. Now I'm also working on designing the next generation of particle accelerators that we can use for new experiments to come. Not everybody is cut out for this. But even people who find they're not find the educational experience valuable — as well as good preparation for the high-tech job market.

If you're interested in considering experimental particle or accelerator physics, feel free to come by and talk about it, or send me an email: kaplan@iit.edu.

Dan Kaplan
July 23, 2001