Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Scientists beaten by Sod's Law

The Times, February 26, 2008

After five years of research dedicated to overturning one of the most influential theories in modern science, some of Scotland’s finest minds have succeeded only in proving a much older and immutable proposition – Sod’s Law.

A team of physicists at Edinburgh University spent two years and £7 million building a supercomputer called QCDOC, and a further three years analysing the behaviour of quarks, the tiny particles in the nucleus of atoms. Their intention was to find exceptions to the Standard Model of particle physics and open up new pathways which might lead to an understanding of the origin of the universe.

But the scientists were unsuccessful. It was, Professor Richard Kenway, of the university’s school of physics, said, “a Sod’s Law thing”. According to Chambers Dictionary, Sod’s Law states “that the most inconvenient thing is the most likely to happen” - such as toast landing butter side down. “We put in a big effort, but unfortunately we didn’t find the clue. Every time we try to measure things more precisely, the Standard Model just keeps working,” Professor Kenway said.

The Standard Model was developed between 1970 and 1973 and sets out to answers the most fundamental of questions: ‘What is the world made of?’ The answer is mathematically complex, but boils down to the proposition that matter is composed from 12 elementary particles which interact through four fundamental forces.

However, the model cannot accommodate the force of gravity within its theoretical framework. “It is a curious situation. We have a tremendously successful model, but we know that it is wrong. Gravity is not included and that is wrong, inasmuch as physicists have a belief that there has to be a complete mathematical theory which has no contradictions,” said Professor Kenway.

Scientists from Edinburgh joined with reseachers from Southampton University, the University of Columbia and Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. Supported by IBM, the computer manufacturers, they developed QCDOC – the acronym comes from “Quantum thermodynamics on a chip” - a supercomputer capable of tens of trillions of calculations per second. Despite the mind-boggling depth and complexity of the computations, the answers remained within the parameters of the Standard Model.

These results said Prof Kenway, suggested that the shortcomings of the standard model would only be revealed at the highest energy levels. That is likely to happen later this year when experiments at begin at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) and the Large Hadron Collider becomes fully operational. Located 100m underground near Geneva, this particle accelerator has a circumference of 27km and will bring a tenfold increase in the level of energy used in experimental work.

Physicists all over the world had been looking forward to the result of the Edinburgh research, which is published this month in the journal Physical Review Letters. Testing on the Cern experiment is expected to start in May, with some scientist suggesting that the next level of research could establish a fourth spatial dimension.

“Most scientists are absolutely confident that the Standard Model will break down. Or is nature so perverse that it makes it even harder for us understand, or pose still more questions?" said Professor Kenway.

“Ultimately the research brings a cultural benefit for us all: a better understanding of the universe we live in.” Except where Sod’s Law applies.

1 comment:

Alan Coady said...

Roll on the Swiss toast.