Makin’ those Big Decisions

Let’s you and I gaze … INNNNTOOO THE FUUUUTURRRRRRRE!

cloudsI want to be able to tell myself a story about the future. If I have no idea what the next month will bring me (like when I was applying for jobs this past spring) I can get a little stressed. If I have a story to tell myself, then I have a goal I can work towards. But if I don’t know enough to put together a story, then in my mind every future is equally likely. I could get my dream job or I could get no job. We could move to Illinois or we could get sucked through a rogue cosmic wormhole and end up on Planet Squizznonks. I have a good imagination! But my imagination needs some structure or it will freak out, like a middle school student who’s too smart for his own good.

Right now, I can tell myself a pretty convincing story about the next year or two. Anaïs might graduate and start looking for jobs. I might be working like crazy on my new experimental program. Maybe we’ll make it through a couple Chicago winters and they won’t seem so insane anymore. Story: check. No freak-outs: check.

But if I look a little farther out, there’s some pretty big stuff I just don’t know about yet. Are we going to buy a house like real grown-ups? Are we going to start having kids? Can I plan on staying at my new job that I love, or will we need to solve the “two-body problem” again when people start showering Anaïs with super-amazing job offers? (Anaïs will certainly get showered with job offers because she is brilliant and hard-working and beautiful.)

So for now, I’m trying to focus on the present. The present is pretty good. And I haven’t noticed any rogue cosmic wormholes in my neighborhood yet, so that’s something.

Now let’s peer into our copper cauldron to ponder the phuture of particle physics…

cauldronSame story, different characters. When you talk about the future of particle physics, there’s some near-term stuff that’s easier to plan and talk about, and some long-term stuff that’s hazy and hard to imagine.

In the near-term, there’s a lot of exciting questions about neutrinos that we can answer with today’s technology. For example, some people think there might be new, weird flavors of neutrino we haven’t observed yet. Also, a careful study of neutrinos could help us answer this question: “why is there stuff?” Don’t you want to know why there’s stuff?

Let’s leave that as a teaser for the next blog post: the mystery of the existence of stuff. But for now we’re talking about the future. In my artful and clever allegory, all this neutrino business is in the easy-to-imagine, anxiety-mitigating near-future. It’s good to know we have some important work ready to be done right now.

Beyond that neutrino stuff, though, it’s harder to tell ourselves the story of the next big accelerator. The problem is that right now, we don’t know enough about the next big questions. Is there only one Higgs boson, or are there a bunch of them? And what about supersymmetry? Is that a thing, or what?

Those are big, big questions in physics that will be answered by building a big, big accelerator. And until the LHC generates more data, we really don’t know what kind of accelerator we’ll need. Should we even build a new, giant accelerator? (Yes.) Should it collide protons or muons, should it be circular or linear, and who should build it? Right now we just don’t have enough data. It’s hard to say what the next big machine will be like because we’re not quite sure — yet — how to ask the next round of big questions.

That uncertainty about the future of particle physics is fuel today for a lot of meetings and powerpoint slides and general hand-wringing. My physics pals and I are working just as fast as we can to put together the next big story in a way that makes sense to us all. And that’s what I’ll spend my next few blog posts talking about. Stay tuned!