View of the Computer Center during the installation of servers. (Maximilien Brice; Claudia Marcelloni, © CERN)

September 9, 2008 – CERN (Council for European Research Nuclear) will fire up the LHC, which stands for Large Hadron Collider, a huge particle accelerator, the world’s largest ever. There are more than 2,000 physicists from all over the world working on this project. It is a 17 mile long tunnel of super-conducting magnets, 100 miles beneath the surface on the earth, looping from Switzerland into France and back again.


Fire it up, means they will collide two beams of subatomic particles, moving in opposite directions, and meeting in the center of the detector with enormous energy, which will give birth to a spray of new particles, perhaps some that no one has seen before. Some say it is capable of reproducing energies present just after the big bang, which means the particles will swirl around the tunnel at the speed of light. I’ve heard someone say it would be the equivalent of 200 pound of TNT. When the accelerator is running, collisions will occur 600 million times a second.


Fire It Up – Changing Our World

Some Physicists say they’re not sure what will emerge from those collisions, but feel sure it safe. Others say it is also possible they will make miniature black holes, and still others say they will discover new dimensions of space-time.

Alvaro De Rujula, a staff physicist at CERN, says the machine will probe what he calls “the vacuum of space.” He went on to say, “Now that sounds very peculiar, but the vacuum, surprisingly, is not empty. There is a difference between vacuum and nothingness. Take a room and take everything out, and take the light out, and people out, and air out. When you think it is truly, truly empty – it isn’t empty. It can still contain a substance, which is the vacuum, which is not entirely empty in some sense.”

Still others say this is a search for the God Particle, noting that Einstein explained gravity. But he didn’t explain why things have mass in the first place……. “We think that the masses of particles are a sort of friction with the vacuum,” De Rujula says. “They do not travel freely with the vacuum, but interact with it in some way.”

A few non-scientists have been worried that physicists are getting a little too close to God for comfort. They’re worried that this experiment could destroy the Earth via miniature black holes. De Rujula describes miniature black holes as particles of extraordinary density compared to usual objects, and says black holes would certainly be interesting, because they would be evidence for extra tiny dimensions of space-time. But he doesn’t think they are likely to appear. And if they do, they’ll be harmless.

I also heard some talk about how this machine could speed up data transfer to make DSL look like slow motion. Perhaps it will even speed up human transportation, which would give the phrase, “Beam me up, Scottie,” a whole new twist. Then there’s the rumors about a time machine coming out of this latest science project.

Two tests have already been performed, one for each beam. On Wednesday the first actual collision will take place and you can watch it live via webcast.

Fingers Crossed, Physicists Are Ready for Collider to Roll

The LHC large hadron collider in its tunnel at CERN European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.
Photo: AP

Atom-smasher may prove ‘God particle’

By Dennis Overbye, September 9, 2008, The New York Times – Failing a collision with an unforeseen asteroid or an invasion from Alpha Centauri, the world will probably not end on Wednesday, but a lot of people will be holding their breath anyway.

At roughly 3:30 a.m. Eastern time, scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, say they will try to send the first beam of protons around a 17-mile-long racetrack known as the Large Hadron Collider, 300 feet underneath the Swiss-French border outside Geneva.

And a generation of physicists, watching from control rooms and auditoriums on the scene, on Webcasts at webcast.cern or on Eurovision will meet their destiny. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, outside Chicago, will hold a “pajama party” for staff members and journalists to watch the events live from a remote control room.

The collider, 14 years and $8 billion in the making, is the most expensive scientific experiment to date. Thousands of physicists from dozens of countries have been involved in building the collider and its huge particle detectors. It is designed to accelerate protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts — seven times the energy of the next largest machine in the world, Fermilab’s Tevatron — and smash them together.

In recent weeks, there has been a blitzkrieg of papers and predictions on what might or might not be discovered, by theorists eager to get their bets down before the figurative roulette ball drops or the dice begin to tumble.

At stake is a suite of theories called the Standard Model, which explains all of particle physics to date, but which breaks down at the conditions that existed in the earliest moments of the universe. The new collider will eventually reach temperatures and energies equivalent to those at a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. There are many theories about what will happen, including the emergence of a particle known as the Higgs boson, which is hypothesized to endow other particles with mass, or the identity of the mysterious dark matter that provides the invisible scaffolding of galaxies and the cosmos.

But nobody really knows for sure, which is part of the fun, but which has led to a few alarming claims that the collider could spit out a black hole or some other accidental phenomenon that could end the Earth or the universe. Those claims have been vigorously rebutted by a series of safety reports and studies, the most recent of which was published last week in The Journal of Physics G: Nuclear and Particle Physics, a peer-reviewed journal.

The director general of CERN, Robert Aymar, said in a news release, “The LHC is safe, and any suggestion that it might present a risk is pure fiction.”

Even if its critics are right, the end is not nigh. For now, the beams will only be circulating, not colliding, in what is more of what Tommaso Dorigo of the University of Padua called a “mediatic” event on his blog, dorigo.wordpress.com. The intensity of the beams, he wrote, “will be more or less like that of vehicles on a dust trail in Arizona, and our detectors will be like poor souls dozing on the side, thumb up for a hitchhike in case a car stops.”

The first collisions, at a non-Earth-shattering energy of 450 billion electron volts apiece, will not happen for another couple of weeks or so. And it might take a month or two to ramp up the proton energies to five trillion electron volts — as high as the machine will go before shutting down for the winter — and collide them.

The whole world will be watching. Information on how to join them is here:



click above for awesome photos of the Large Hadron Collider

Lawsuits allege it could generate black holes that could eat the Earth

The collider’s ALICE experiment will look at how the universe formed by analyzing particle collisions.

Multibillion-dollar experiment to probe nature’s mysteries

By Elizabeth Landau, September 8, 2008, CNN — Deep underground on the border between France and Switzerland, the world’s largest particle accelerator complex will explore the world on smaller scales than any human invention has explored before.

The Large Hadron Collider will look at how the universe formed by analyzing particle collisions. Some have expressed fears that the project could lead to the Earth’s demise — something scientists say will not happen. Still, skeptics have filed suit to try to stop the project.

It even has a rap dedicated to it on YouTube.

Scientists say the collider is finally ready for an attempt to circulate a beam of protons the whole way around the 17-mile tunnel. The test, which takes place Wednesday, is a major step toward seeing if the the immense experiment will provide new information about the way the universe works.

“It’s really a generation that we’ve been looking forward to this moment, and the moments that will come after it in particular,” said Bob Cousins, deputy to the scientific leader of the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment, one of six experiments inside the collider complex. “September 10 is a demarcation between finishing the construction and starting to turn it on, but the excitement will only continue to grow.”

The collider consists of a particle accelerator buried more than 300 feet near Geneva, Switzerland. About $10 billion have gone into the accelerator’s construction, the particle detectors and the computers, said Katie Yurkewicz, spokewoman for CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which is host to the collider.

In the coming months, the collider is expected to begin smashing particles into each other by sending two beams of protons around the tunnel in opposite directions. It will operate at higher energies and intensities in the next year, and the experiments could generate enough data to make a discovery by 2009, experts say.

Experts say the collider has the potential to confirm theories about questions that physicists have been working on for decades including the possible existence of extra dimensions. They also hope to find a theoretical particle called the Higgs boson, which has never been detected, but would help explain why matter has mass.

The collider will recreate the conditions of less than a millionth of a second after the Big Bang, when there was a hot “soup” of tiny particles called quarks and gluons, to look at how the universe evolved, said John Harris, U.S. coordinator for ALICE, a detector specialized to analyze that question.

Since this is exploratory science, the collider may uncover surprises that contradict prevailing theories, but which are just as interesting, said Joseph Lykken, theoretical physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

“When Columbus sails west, he thought he was going to find something. He didn’t find what he thought he was going to find, but he did find something interesting,” said Lykken, who works on the Compact Muon Solenoid, one of six experiments inside the collider complex.

Why should the layperson care about this particular exploration? Years ago, when electrons were first identified, no one knew what they were good for, but they have since transformed our entire economy, said Howard Gordon, deputy research program manager for the collider’s ATLAS experiment.

“The transformative effect of this research will be to understand the world we live in much better,” said Gordon, at Brookhaven National Laboratory. “It’s important for just who we are, what we are.”

Black hole fears are “baloney”

Fears have emerged that the collider could produce black holes that could suck up anything around them — including the whole Earth. Such fears prompted legal actions in the U.S. and Europe to halt the operation of the Large Hadron Collider, alleging safety concerns regarding black holes and other phenomena that could theoretically emerge.

Although physicists acknowledge that the collider could, in theory, create small black holes, they say they do not pose any risk. A study released Friday by CERN scientists explains that any black hole created would be tiny, and would not have enough energy to stick around very long before dissolving. Five collider collaborators who did not pen the report independently told CNN there would be no danger from potential black holes.

John Huth, who works on the collider’s ATLAS experiment, called such fears “baloney” in a recent interview, and noted that in normal physics, even if the black hole were stable, it could just pass through the Earth without being detected or without interacting at all.

“The gravitational force is so weak that you’d have to wait many, many, many, many, many lifetimes of the universe before one of these things could [get] big enough to even get close to being a problem,” said Huth, professor of physics at Harvard University.

At the scene

When visiting the general-purpose detectors CMS and ATLAS at the Large Hadron Collider, Lykken said he was awed that 30,000 tons of electronics would have to work without anyone fiddling with them all the time.

“It just blows you away to look at these things and realize they’re not only incredibly complex and huge, but they have to actually work,” he said. “They have to work without people banging on them all day because they’re sitting underground all by themselves.”

With twice as much iron as the Eiffel Tower, CMS will run at full power for the first time in conjunction with the first beam test Wednesday, Lykken said. The magnet serves to bend particles, whizzing by at almost the speed of light, to figure out what kind of particles they are.

Although the detector’s parts weigh thousands of tons, in previous trials of CMS at lower power, the magnet actually yanked certain parts around because of its power, Lykken said.

“You’re talking about such incredible power inside both the accelerator and detectors that you never really know until you turn it all on what’s going to happen,” he said.

Scientists around the world are pumped for the first beam. Fermilab, the high energy physics lab in Batavia, Illinois, and major collaborator on the Large Hadron Collider, will be host of a “pajama party” at 1:30 a.m. CT that includes a live connection to CERN to follow the action.

Cousins believes that because the collider pushes the frontiers of science and technology, it would be “amazingly impressive if it works the first try,” he said in a phone interview from CERN. Any little disturbance of the magnetic field anywhere in the tunnel could stop the beam from making it all the way around.

Still, after a 25-year wait, he’s not complaining. “I personally will be fine if there’s some problem that has to be overcome in the next few days,” he said.


Collider Triggers End-of-World Fears

A press photographer takes a picture of the magnet core of the world’s largest superconducting solenoid magnet at the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland.
Martial Trezzini / EPA

Some Say, Earth and Our Galaxy Will Be Destroyed!

By Eben Harrell, September 8, 2008, Time Magazine – From the flagellants of the Middle Ages to the doomsayers of Y2K, humanity has always been prone to good old-fashioned the-end-is-nigh hysteria. The latest cause for concern: that the earth will be destroyed and the galaxy gobbled up by an ever-increasing black hole next week.

The Large Hadron Particle Collider

This September 10th, after 25 years of preparation, scientists at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, will try to re-create the conditions produced by the Big Bang.

On Sept. 10, scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, will switch on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — a $6 billion particle accelerator that will send beams of protons careening around a 17-mile underground ring, crash them into each other to re-create the immediate aftereffects of the Big Bang, and then monitor the debris in the hope of learning more about the origins and workings of the universe. Next week marks a low-power run of the circuit, and scientists hope to start smashing atoms at full power by the end of the month.

Critics of the LHC say the high-energy experiment might create a mini black hole that could expand to dangerous, Earth-eating proportions. On Aug. 26, Professor Otto Rossler, a German chemist at the Eberhard Karis University of Tubingen, filed a lawsuit against CERN with the European Court of Human Rights that argued, with no understatement, that such a scenario would violate the right to life of European citizens and pose a threat to the rule of law. Last March, two American environmentalists filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Honolulu seeking to force the U.S. government to withdraw its participation in the experiment. The lawsuits have in turn spawned several websites, chat rooms and petitions — and led to alarming headlines around the world (Britain’s Sun newspaper on Sept. 1: “End of the World Due in 9 Days”).

Should we be scared? No. In June, CERN published a safety report, reviewed by a group of external scientists, ruling out the possibility of dangerous black holes. It said that even if tiny black holes were to be formed at CERN — a big if — they would evaporate almost instantaneously due to Hawking Radiation, a phenomenon named for the British physicist Stephen Hawking, whose theories show that black holes not only swallow up the light, energy and matter around them, but also leak it all back out at an accelerating pace. According to Hawking, if tiny black holes occurred at CERN, they would evaporate before they got a chance to do any damage. (Even if Hawking’s theories prove to be wrong — no one has yet witnessed black-hole evaporation — scientists at CERN say the LHC’s collisions are already known to be harmless: an equivalent amount of energy is produced hundreds of thousands of times a day by cosmic rays colliding with the earth and other objects in the cosmos — always without incident.)

After taking in the results of CERN’s report, the European Court rejected Rossler’s request last week for an emergency injunction that would have stopped the LHC (it will still hear his lawsuit). The U.S. suit is pending, but CERN spokesman James Gillies said that even if it is successful the experiment will go ahead without U.S. participation.

“The U.S. court has no jurisdiction over our equipment. It could pull American scientists out of the experiment, but that would just be a great shame for them. The LHC presents no risk. What it does do is hold the promise of substantially enriching humanity by providing insight into the mysteries of the universe. It’s a tremendously exciting time for physicists here and around the world,” he said.

Scientists believe the LHC’s results will help fill in gaps in the Standard Model, the far-reaching set of equations on the interaction of subatomic particles that is the closest that modern physics comes to a testable “theory of everything.” For example, scientists believe the LHC will produce a particle, the Higgs Boson, that will end debate over how matter in the universe acquires mass. Or, it could even provide evidence for more ambitious theories of the universe, such as string theory, which unites quantum mechanics and general relativity, the previously known laws of the small and large that are currently incompatible in the Standard Model.

Despite these exciting prospects, however, physicists studying the cosmos at CERN and other accelerators still face a fundamental dilemma: to explain the awesome scale of their work while calming the public’s inevitable trepidation. There remains a credibility gap surrounding high-profile physics, after all: The most tangible results of atomic research in the last 50 years have been bombs capable of ending all life on earth. CERN officials refer to the laboratory as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics because they feel “nuclear” in the literal translation carries negative implications, and tour guides at the LHC are quick to point out that the accelerator has no weapons applications.

But it’s not just physicists whose work provokes strong and often irrational fear, according to Professor Robin Williams, director of the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation at the University of Edinburgh. He points out that the millennial anxiety about scientific and technological breakthroughs predates particle physics. When the locomotive was first conceived, for example, even some engineers predicted catastrophe resulting from the human body’s inability to withstand the strains of high-speed travel. The word “vaccine” comes from the Latin word for cow, “vacca” — the first vaccinations, against smallpox, used bovine ingredients, leading to widespread fear that the injections would turn humans into cows.

But Williams also believes that the flip side of such fear is faith in the redemptive potential of science (there are equally irrational websites about CERN, for example, that predict the LHC will create wormholes to distant corners of the universe where humanity can escape to other inhabitable planets). Williams wrote in an e-mail: “I have come to see that in their early days, new technology and scientific breakthroughs often serve as Rorschach tests — a phenomenon about which we have little concrete understanding, onto which contemporary social anxieties (and dreams) can readily be projected. As a result we find (often polarized) utopian and dystopian visions being articulated.” Humanity will certainly survive the LHC’s experiment, Williams added, but so too will its darkest fears about its own destructive potential, and hope for its future.


The God Particle

COLLISION COURSE: Higgs hopes the LHC will end a 40-year search for his namesake particle

Higgs Boson: A Ghost in the Machine

By Eben Harrell/Geneva, Time Magazine – Get physicists and cosmologists talking about their work and they will tell you that there are elegant theories and messy ones. Almost all of them believe the universe conforms to an elegant one. A central goal of today’s physics, in fact, is to show that at its very beginning, the universe was ordered and unified. But this unity didn’t last for long. Just instants after the Big Bang, as the explosion cooled and its contents scattered, the cosmos’ forces and matter differentiated. The universe fell from a state of perfect grace into its current complexity, in a cosmic parallel to Adam and Eve.

Many great minds — Democritus, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Albert Einstein — took giant steps toward bringing the universe’s lost unity out of hiding. In 1964, Peter Higgs, a shy scientist in Edinburgh, added his name to that list by coming up with an ingenious theory that gave scientists the tools to explain how two classes of particles, which now appear to be different, were once one and the same. His theory proposes the existence of a single particle responsible for imparting mass to all things — a speck so precious it has come to be known as the “God particle.” The scientific term for it is the Higgs boson, and to find it physicists are counting on the most powerful particle accelerator ever constructed: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, a 17-mile underground circuit that took 25 years to plan and $6 billion to build.

The LHC won’t begin operation until this summer, but when Higgs, 78, made his first visit there on April 5, it was, in the nomenclature of particle physics, “an event.” Grown men and women with Ph.D.s swarmed Higgs for autographs, but he appeared far more taken by the experimental equipment he hoped would find the Higgs boson and thus prove his theory. A particle detector called ATLAS, for instance, is 150 ft (46 m) long, 82 ft (25 m) high, weighs 7,000 tons and is connected to enough cable and wiring to wrap around the earth nearly seven times. “The sheer scale of the detectors was overwhelming,” Higgs later said, displaying about as much emotion as you get from this restrained British scientist. Another outpouring: “I suppose I’ll open a bottle of something if they find it.”

He’ll have waited a long time, at least in puny human terms. In 1964, Higgs theorized a mechanism to explain how two types of particle, massless like everything else immediately after the Big Bang, came to acquire different masses as the universe cooled. Using this mechanism, which two Belgian physicists simultaneously posited, scientists were able to extrapolate how all particles get their mass. Higgs thus plugged a major hole in the Standard Model, the far-reaching set of equations on the interaction of subatomic particles that is the closest modern physics comes to a testable “theory of everything.”

Working from Higgs’ theory, scientists postulate that initially weightless particles move through a ubiquitous quantum field, known as a Higgs field, like a pearl necklace through a jar of honey. Some particles, such as photons — weightless carriers of light — can cut through the sticky Higgs field without picking up mass. Others get bogged down and become heavy; that is the process that creates tangible matter. “The Higgs gives everything in the universe its mass,” says David Francis, a physicist on the ATLAS experiment. Pointing at CERN’s grand geological amphitheater of the Jura and the Alps. “None of that is possible without the Higgs.”

Yet so far no once has been able to find the Higgs boson in the stream of debris emitted when two particles are smashed together at high speeds. Scientists at another CERN particle collider, LEP, felt they came close before the accelerator shut down in 2000. Scientists using the Tevatron accelerator at Fermilab near Chicago are still hoping to publish a discovery before CERN starts analyzing data later this year. Higgs says he is 90% sure that the LHC will find it, but he doesn’t have the final word. “With all respect to our theoretician friends, experiments find out the truth,” explains Tejinder Virdee, the head of one of the LHC’s experiments. “You can make conjectures, but unless you verify the conjectures, they are metaphysics. That’s why many of us haven’t minded spending our entire working lives building this experiment.”

Higgs jokes that he now tells his doctors to do whatever’s necessary to keep him alive until the data from the accelerator can be analyzed. He has his professional reasons for wanting to see his theory confirmed. For the rest of us, solid proof of the Higgs boson would provide a cosmic solace: that beauty and unity exist at the very foundation of the universe, however rare they sometimes seem in the world.


Visiting a particle accelerator is like a religious experience, at least for Nima Arkani-Hamed.

Nima Arkani-Hamed, a leading theoretical physicist, thinks the universe has at least 11 dimensions.

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN –Immense detectors surround the areas where inconceivably small particles slam into one another at super-high energies, collisions that may confirm Arkani-Hamed’s predictions about undiscovered properties of nature.

Arkani-Hamed is only in his mid-30s, but he has distinguished himself as one of the leading thinkers in the field of particle physics.

His revolutionary ideas about the way the universe works will finally be put to the test this year at Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider, which will be the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.

The accelerator, estimated to cost between $5 billion and $10 billion, could provide answers to questions physicists have had for decades. Thousands of scientists from around the world are collaborating on the project at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN.

If the results confirm any of Arkani-Hamed’s predictions, they would be the first extension of our notions of space-time since Albert Einstein.

“We’re essentially guaranteed that there’s going to be something surprising,” Arkani-Hamed said of the Large Hadron Collider, which will operate inside a 17-mile circular tunnel.

Regarded as a “gem,” Arkani-Hamed is “opening our minds and creating a new world of ideas that challenge deep-grained preconceptions about spacetime,” said Chris Tully, professor of physics at Princeton University, who is working on the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at the Large Hadron Collider.

“From the point of view of the big experiments at the LHC, there is no amount of money or craftsmanship that would produce the kind of insight that comes from sharing LHC data with a true visionary like Nima Arkani-Hamed,” Tully said.

Formerly a professor at Harvard, Arkani-Hamed currently sits on the faculty at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where Einstein served from 1933 until his death in 1955.

“He was lured from Harvard to the IAS; I’m sure that’s considered quite a coup,” said Daniel Marlow, a physics professor at Princeton who is also collaborating on the CMS experiment.

Arkani-Hamed has had a hand in explaining how the world can operate according to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which describes the universe on a very large scale, and at the same time follow quantum mechanics, laws that describe the universe on a scale smaller than the eye can see.

Some of the key mysteries that stem from these clashing theories include why gravity is so weak, relative to the other fundamental physical forces such as electromagnetism and why the universe is so large. These issues come up because on an inconceivably small scale, the particles that make up our world seem to behave completely differently than one might imagine.

For example, if you are driving a car, your GPS tells you where you are, and your speedometer tells you how fast you are moving. But on the scale of particles like electrons, it is impossible to know both position and speed at once; the very act of trying to find out requires incredible amounts of energy.

If it takes so much energy just to try to pin down a particle, then, in theory, all particles should have temporary energy changes around them called “quantum fluctuations.” This energy translates into mass, since Einstein famously said that mass and energy are interchangeable through the equation E=mc2.

“It makes it extremely mysterious that the electron, or indeed, everything else that we know and love and are made of, isn’t incredibly more massive than it is,” Arkani-Hamed said.

A theory that has emerged in recent decades that claims to bring some relief to physics mysteries like these is called superstring theory, or string theory for short. Previously, scientists believed that the smallest, most indivisible building blocks of our world were particles, but string theory says the world is made of extremely small vibrating loops called strings.

In order for these strings to properly constitute our universe, they must vibrate in 11 dimensions, scientists say. Everyone observes three spatial dimensions and one for time, but theoretical models suggest at least seven others that we do not see.

Arkani-Hamed proposed, along with physicists Savas Dimopoulos and Gia Dvali, that some of these dimensions are larger than previously thought — specifically, as large as a millimeter. Physicists call this the ADD model, after the first initials of the authors’ last names. We haven’t seen these extra dimensions because gravity is the only force that can wander around them, Arkani-Hamed said.

String theory has come under attack because some say it can never be tested; the strings are supposed to be smaller than any particle ever detected, after all. But Arkani-Hamed says the Large Hadron Collider could lead to the direct observation of strings, or at least indirect evidence of their existence.

In fact, by slamming particles into one another, the Large Hadron Collider may detect particles slipping in and out of the dimensions that Arkani-Hamed has worked on describing.

Particle collisions should begin at the Large Hadron Collider in August or September, according to the US/LHC Web site. Evidence of theories such as the ADD model could be discovered by 2009, Marlow said.

Data reflecting Arkani-Hamed’s work on large extra dimensions “would really provide the first confirmation in this very profound way we might think about nature,” Marlow said.

Arkani-Hamed always had a great love of the natural world as a child. Though his parents are also physicists, he considers it his “act of teenage rebellion to become one too,” as his mother wanted him to become a doctor.

He remembers being impressed around age 14 that Newton’s laws could enable him to calculate such things as the minimum speed that a space shuttle had to attain to escape the Earth’s gravitational field. He’d wondered whether scientists had reached the figure of 11 kilometers per second by trial and error, shooting things in the air until the right speed emerged, until he could calculate it himself.

“When I figured out how to do that for myself, I just thought it was just the coolest thing, that little old me, scratching away on my piece of paper, could figure this out,” he said. “From about 13 or 14, I knew that this is what I wanted to do.”