Across the Universe: Dramatic Science

This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2008.

From a glass-enclosed visitor’s gallery at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, I watched three technicians, encased in white suits, slowly affix bits of equipment to a large aluminum frame, the platform of an SUV-sized rover to Mars.

From the site, a view of Mars Curiosity being assembled... a bit further along than when I saw it.

Two sets of steering rockets were already attached; two large metal spheres painted black and gold were seated nearby. “Those are the fuel tanks, right?” I asked my friend Steve, an engineer on the project who guided my tour. “Like the ones that blew up the Mars Orbiter in the 1980s?” Every piece has a necessary function, and every piece has a history of what can happen if it goes wrong. Even with a recent string of triumphs, Mars probe failures still outnumber the successes.

Each piece is added in a carefully scripted order, with a quality-control specialist looking on: the torque wrench must not overtighten a nut, the accelerometer must not be installed upside down this time. It’s quite a show. Each bit of assembly calls on the engineers to move arms and hands and fingers with a control as fine as any dancer’s. We watch one technician carefully wrap a set of wires in thin golden tape; and just as carefully, unwrap them again.

“Oops,” I comment.

“Maybe he was supposed to do that,” suggests Steve.

In Switzerland, another such team is completing CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, to finally reveal the existence and nature of the theorized Higgs boson. What’s a Higgs boson? In the standard model for how ordinary matter is constructed from subatomic particles, the various ingredients of matter are labeled either “fermions” or “bosons” (named for Enrico Fermi and Satyendra Nath Bose). Roughly speaking, fermions help define the space that matter occupies (such that two things can’t occupy the same space at the same time) while bosons define how bits of matter interact with each other. Most of these particles are well known, and well measured: protons and electrons are fermions, photons are bosons.

The one exception are the bits responsible for matter having mass. The theorized mass-bearing boson, the Higgs particle, requires such high energies to produce that until now it has never been seen. That’s one reason the Large Hadron Collider was built.  The press have labeled it the “Genesis machine” to search for the “God particle.”

That nickname for the Higgs boson comes from the tongue-in-cheek title of a book by Leon Lederman, retired director of Fermilab; irony-impaired journalists have taken him seriously. Apparently they feel the need for such overwrought metaphors to turn high energy physics in a compelling drama for the general public. This description only embarrasses most physicists, including University of Edinburgh professor Peter Higgs himself.

The deeper point is that, elegant as our standard model is, it needs to be tested. Experiment is the quality control of theory. It’ll be exciting if the Higgs boson is actually detected, because measuring its properties will help flesh out the standard model. It will be even more interesting if it is not detected. It would mean that our theories are in need of serious repair. That would be a truly dramatic result.

Like a West End play, every big production needs its critics: its quality control specialists. It’s part of the overhead for doing big science. You can’t find the Higgs boson on your own.

But fixing a performance from within, while it is running, is tricky. My engineer friend Steve’s role at JPL is to find real-time solutions when a spacecraft in flight gets into trouble. In 2001 he reprogrammed a science camera to replace a blinded navigation camera, so that the Deep Space One probe could find Comet Borrelly. Where did he learn to make repairs on the fly? His degree is in theatre.

The Mars Curiosity Rover had its spectacularly successful and dramatic landing on Mars in 2010. And CERN announced the Higgs Boson in 2012.

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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