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Chat: Fred Watson

Monday, May 14, 2012

Interviewer: 60 Minutes presents a live interview with astronomer, Professor Fred Watson.

Interviewer: Fred, welcome to our chat tonight :)

Fred Watson: Welcome anybody who is interested in learning more about what we finding out about the universe. And what a pleasure it was to see the Large Hadron Collider on TV!

Bjackson asks: Do you think we will ever discover the truth to the origin of the universe?

Fred Watson: We know a lot about the origin of the universe in terms of the Big Bang Theory, which says 13.5 billion years ago there was a big event in which space and time were created, but the big questions that I'm interested in are, "How did the laws of physics arrive?", when we look at the history, we look at the physics on what is going on. "And what caused the big bang?" It may be that time started with it, but those are questions we would really like to answer.

george asks: Hi Fred, has there been any concern about recreating the big boom whereas it may backfire , What was that Movie with Tom Hanks called??

Fred Watson: The thing is that the amount of energy that we can put into experiments like this is tiny in comparison to the Big Bang. So backfire is not something we have to worry about. Some people worried when the LHC was switched that it might create a black hole that would swallow up the earth. One person tried to stop it from being switched on. But in fact nature is doing stuff like this all the time at much higher energy levels. Such as Cosmic Rays which are very much higher in energy than the LHC. And they have never created a black hole that has backfired so we are very confident knowing we are quite safe.

Jedi asks: Hi Professor, just wondering if you found the "God" particle what would that imply ??

Fred Watson: The God particle is the one that is suppose to give everything else it's mass. The reason why it's so important is that it will confirm what Physicist call the Standard Model of the universe, which is what we understand nature to be at it's most basic level. At the moment it's a mystery how things get their mass. The God particle will solve this mystery. But if it isn't found, that would be more interesting which it could mean there are hidden dimensions that would actually lead to all sorts of really exciting new discovers. So it's really a win win situation. If we find it, we get a new discovery, but if we don't, we are open to even more new discoveries.

hayleyg asks: How long is the project set to run? Is there only the Big Bang project being conducted or are other research projects occurring simultaneously?

Fred Watson: There are many experiments, some looking at anti-matter, some trying to find if there really are hidden dimensions in the universe. The project itself is probably likely to run for 20 years or so because the machine is steadily being upgraded. When it was first turned on in 2009 it was only running at half power and after an up graded it is now running at full power, but it's likely that in the 2015, there will be a further upgrade to make it even more power. The machine itself is really just a big microscope, just looking at things at a small scale so there is the possibility for many more things to be discovered with this machine.

Stinger98 asks: Could the entire universe simply be like a rubber band and it stores energy but when it reaches it's way point that energy is quickly released?

Fred Watson: People have looked at theories like that in the past, but the best theory at the moment is it is like a rubber band that has lost it's spring. The universe has expanded and expanding more quickly as time goes on. We don't know what the eventual fate of the universe is. Some people have suggested something like the "Big Rip", like the rubber band breaking. But we simply don't know, and that would be billion of years from now.

Darren.Heg77 asks: Hi, I'm taking my family to Switzerland in January, is there anything at this stage for public viewing???

Fred Watson: There is, there is a visitor's centre at the LHC. The machine itself is underground and you can't really see any of it. In fact when the machine is working, no body is allowed underground. So the best thing is to go to the visitor's centre which is in one of the suburbs in Geneva, check it out on the web. But there is stuff to see, so do check it out!

janej1234 asks: Good evening Prof Watson. I think that the Hadron collider is amazing but exactly how safe is it? Is there any chance that you guys could create another Big Bang which could end the world?

Fred Watson: It's completely safe, let me just say again that nature already gives up collisions at a much higher energy than we can ever create on earth so we are very sure we will not be able to create another big bang, there is simply not enough energy to do that.

tyron asks: Mr Watson, with the global economic downturn of the past few years, and with the American equivalent of the LHC being shut down, do you worry that the future of science is at jeopardy due to lack of funding?

Fred Watson: Yes, that's another great question. And it's true that the Americans have shut down their machine. But it's probably to do with the fact that that machine had reached it's limits. The way science is working today is what funding that is available is being concentrated on some really big experiments. like the LHC, like a big radio telescope we hope to bring to Australia called the Square Kilometre Array. We are also potentially exploring the solar system with NASA and other space agencies, so there are some wonder discovers on the horizon coming from these projects. What scientists need to also focus on is to explain to people why it is we need to know these things, and why it is important to humans. And if we can keep doing that, and ensure science can make life better for people, then we should be confident that we can stay with our heads above water.

Physicist asks: Hello Professor Watson, I was curious as to exactly how the Higgs Boson will reveal what happened during the Big Bang Fred Watson: The Higgs Boson is something that was cre

ated at the time of the Big Bang, and so what it does is finding it will confirm that the model that Physicist have are true. If we don't find it, then we have to look for New Physics, which means the universe might have been different to what we believe at the time of the Big Bang. We still know there was a very hot fire ball at the start, but it could mean it was very different and it could give us more insight into the nature of reality.

Tim-J asks: Does Mass/Length/Time dilation affect the proton in the LHC? Does it affect your results?

Fred Watson: Yes, it does. But that process is well understood from relativity and so is taking into account when the experiments are being designed.

Pomie21 asks: What is stopping the large hadron collider causing a black hole?

Fred Watson: It simply doesn't have enough energy to do that.

Nick asks: Dr Watson, my question is, CERN has continually updated their experimental methodologies over time, with the latest being the LHC, since trials have begun, are their any plans for their next venture, or is its direction still up to dictation from possible results from the current experiments taking place?

Fred Watson: Yes to the last part, the LHC will be upgraded. The question is correct in that that itself is a machine that has been developed from a machine called the LEP. So what CERN has done is try to be economical as possible by recycling the equipment that it builds. So the LHC which is the latest, it is based on earlier machines and depending on the results that come from this, that will dictate the future of the direction and whether it will be upgraded yet again. Sometimes experiments have to wait until the technology has reached the stage where they can be built. Often experiments are designed when the technology just doesn't exist yet, but are confident it will in the future.

EdHightackle asks: Is it true material is unaccounted for i.e. escapes containment after experiments?

Fred Watson: To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing that is unaccounted for. But in a way the search for the Higgs particle (God Particle) is being made by looking for what doesn't show up in an experiment so you know it got away. It's a way of balancing all the energies of the particles that comes from these experiments. The missing things is sometimes what you are looking for and that's how you know they are there.

OZZY_RULZ asks: Fred I personally don’t except the big bang theory because I’ve never scientifically proved that any explosion can cause or create anything and also how did the big bang come about anyway and I think the hadron collider is a big waste of time and money, it will achieve nothing.

Fred Watson: The reason why I accept the Big Bang Theory is because all the scientific evidence points towards it. Everything we studying the universe says there was a very energetic event that kicked everything off. It doesn't necessarily need a cause, because time itself probably started with that event. It was a real creation event, so cause and effect don't come into play once you take time into the equation. That in itself is so interesting that it's worth studying further. The engineering is so astonishing that I find it hard to believe they could do it. And the reasons for doing it is firstly human curiosity, and secondly a experiment like this stimulates technology. An example is that the image sensor in your camera started off 20 years ago as something being used for astronomy. So there is a technological spin off and that is also true of the LHC. But the other reason it is around is education, it lets people see and be excited by the quest to understand the world that we live in. And even if you don't want to attract a lot of people in high energy physics, you want them to be aware of science and how it can improve our lives. So it's not a waste of money, it's money well spent. It's relatively small in comparison to defence, but it has an enormous value in what it can give to human kind.

JudiG asks: Right through your interview I just kept saying WOW! Can you tell me what the time frame is around your experiment please? When would you expect to have some definitive evidence of the replication.

Fred Watson: The hope is that the existence of the God particle will be confirmed within this year. Because there was a glimmer of it last year, but the confirmation takes a long time. But I think looking ahead, within the next 2-3 years we'll have answers to some very intriguing questions. And particularly whether there are extra dimensions or physic we have no idea of but is a kind of underlying reality. So I think new results will come out in the short time, but the longer term experiments are even more interesting.

hayleyg asks: how many "collisions" runs are done each day? it would obviously use a lot of electricity to get those magnets operational

Fred Watson: That's right! Depends whether you are talking about groups (packets) of particles, but I'm not really familiar with the operational details. But I think they have runs that go 2-3 hours and then the beam is turned off. Because you are quite right, the electricity required is quite significant, so the people at the LHC know they cannot end up with too big of an electricity bill. That was actually one of the key concerns when it was being built.

brownfox asks: Do you know why the Hadron Collider 27kms long? I can't seem to find a reason for this length!

Fred Watson: It's all about geography, because it turns out that in an experiment like this we need a big a ring as possible to accelerate the particles around. And in Geneva there is an area between Lake Leman and the Jura Mountains which is very flat and stable. So the ring fits exactly between the mountain and the lake and that is why it s 27 km, and about 8 km in diameter.

karl asks: I thought the atomic mass of an object was determined by the amount of protons electrons and neutrons in said atom, what does the higgs boson mean about what we've learnt so far?

Fred Watson: The thing is that those particles are themselves, we now know composited of smaller particle Quarks. Which are the building blocks of matter and it seems they need this additional particle, the Higgs particle to have any property of mass. So we are looking at a deeper level than an atom, we are looking at the inside of the components of an atom .

Muzza asks: As an Australian that is currently attending high school and has an interest in astronomy and physics but lives 3-4 hours away from a university that teaches physics and with no money to attend said university. What would you recommend that I do to pursue a career in the field or should I give up and settle for something else?

Fred Watson: Never give up! Actually it's a situation that faces many kids I know in Coonabarabran where the telescopes are, which is actually more like 6 hours from the nearest big city. And in the end what they do (depending how motivated they are), when they have a chosen subject they want to peruse, they do everything in their power to learn more. Getting a job, moving away from home etc. Often we are so connected by the internet there is so much that can be done remotely. And remote education is one of the things that can be done., especially in science. So there is ever hope that you will be able to carry on your education, probably online but hopefully at a university. But don't give up!

georgek asks: The fact that the protons are moving in opposite directions does this not mean that the experiment is twice the speed of light and hence cannot be directly compared to the big bang as even if it started from zero theorically it couldn’t accerate faster than the speed of light ?

Fred Watson: Great question! First of all, when things reach almost the speed of light we know that that is the speed limit. So if you have two sets of particles travelling at opposite directions at almost the speed of light, the collision speed is almost the speed of light, it doesn't double It adds in a very peculiar way, but the amount of energy is doubled. So that's not a problem for the Collider, but the point about the Big Bang and the universe expanding, it could actually expanded faster than the speed of light, and probably did within the first gazillionth of a second. And that's because what's happening there is space itself is expanding, it's objects moving through space that can't. But if space itself is expanding, it can. The speed limit is for things travelling through space, not for space itself.

shawnu asks: One question I've wondered about over the years is if space and time are warped by gravity and therefore mass, isn't the 13.5 billion year calculation a guess. How do you deconstruct the measure of time the closer you get to the Big Bang...?

Fred Watson: What really helps us in that is that astonishing though it seems, we can still see the Big Bang. Because when you look deep into space, you're also looking back in time. And you are also looking back at a time when the universe is glowing brightly. But what we see when we look is the structure in that glow of the Big Bang (radio region of the spectrum) and that structure tells us that we are on the right line, that the way we believe the universe was after the big bang is exactly what this structure tells us. So we're helped by this property of astronomers, or rather this aspect of astronomy.

tcrowdey asks: Hello Mr Watson I envy your job. I am a average guy who spends much time thinking on the universe. One thing has always confused me. When the hubble telescope looked at a empty patch of the heavans and actually found thousands of galaxies, we were told the light from them was almost as old as the universe itself. How are we here as a race on a planet billions of years after the big bang now seeing light that was created just after the big bang ie how did we get way out here, at what seems to be faster than light coming from just after the big bang. Shouldn't that light have beaten us to this point in the universe, or is the universe running backwards?

Fred Watson: It's a great question, the point about the big Bang is that it happened everywhere. So we were in the centre of the big Bang just as much as someone on a galaxy 10 billion light ways away. But what I said earlier is we know right at the beginning the universe expanded very rapidly, so the fact is that the universe is very big and when we look back at the galaxies we are indeed looking back to a time, almost at the beginning of time. If it sounds wrong that the universe expanded faster than the speed of light, remember it is space we are talking about, rather than things moving through space.

Eugene asks: What is the basic difference to the Synchrotron in Melbourne? Just bigger?

Fred Watson: Yes, the LHC is much more powerful and bigger, so of course much more expensive.

Denton asks: I am interested to know....do you believe in God?

Fred Watson: It's a really complicated question and in the normal sense, no. Perhaps the answer is that I don't believe in God in the same way most people do. But I think there are mysteries that we simply do not understand that is almost the same as believing in God. More like physics mysteries.

Bjackson asks: whats your goal as a scientist yourself Professor what are your objectives and goals for the future!

Fred Watson: Actually my main objective today is to excite people about science. To try and bring science to a level that everybody can feel they are part of. But in scientific terms, I hope that we will start unravelling some of these very deep mysterious, how does space and time work? And how it is time only runs one way? And these are questions part of physics and astronomy. But really the bottom line is I love seeing people get excited about science.

Interviewer: Fred, unfortunately we are out of time. Thanks to everyone for their fantastic questions but we were not able to get through all of them tonight. Do you have any final comments for us?

Fred Watson: Thanks everyone for your fantastic questions, if you have any other questions please visit my website and see the Contact page. Thanks!

Interviewer: This concludes our chat with Fred Watson, Sunday May 13, 2012.

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