MSc Physics after B.Tech in Information Technology

In an earlier post I wrote almost a year ago I described some options available to engineers to switch to physics at the masters and PhD level. I am glad to see the positive reception that it received. Knowing that it has inspired so many young B.Tech/B.E graduates to rethink the conventional viewpoint that we entertain in our country is very satisfying. Apart from the comments under my post, I also had some people contact me through social media to know my story and ask for personal guidance. I am always there to help if there is any information or guidance you need. That being said, in today’s article I will quench your curiosity as to where and how I did my masters in physics after doing B.Tech.

I am a B.Tech graduate who specialized in Information Technology. I completed my graduation in 2006 and entered my MSc Physics studies in 2016. So there was a 10 years gap between my undergraduate and post-graduate studies. During these years I worked in many different companies and experimented with several things both academic and otherwise. I am not going to get into the details of all that but what I can say is that I became old and wise in the process. This wisdom has given me a lot of perspective in life which I probably wouldn’t have if I was just a fresh graduate from college.

If you are under the impression that I did my masters in some well known university or institute such as IIT or JNU or somewhere abroad as I listed in my earlier post, I am sorry to disappoint you. I did my masters in a relatively lesser known university. The place where I did my masters is called Central University of Haryana or in short CUH. It is an institution under the Department of Higher Education of the Ministry of Human Resource Development. There are at present 40 universities in India that are classified as central universities and CUH is ranked 28th in that list. You may view that list in this MHRD link.

Most people when they hear the name Haryana get turned off and since I am from Kerala many people have asked me how on Earth did I end up doing my MSc in Haryana. My short answer to such queries is that just because a university is situated in Haryana doesn’t mean it is bad. In fact, CUH is a good university and the physics department there is excellent. Of course there are some cons about the place Mahendragarh where this university is located as it is a rural area. However, our main concern as students must be to focus on the curriculum and knowledge transfer rather than cribbing too much about why we ended up in this obscure place. As Aamir Khan said in the movie 3 Idiots – ज्ञान तो ज्ञान होता है| जहाँ से भी मिले, लपेट लो |

CUH has a student population that is diverse as I have seen students from across the country coming and studying there. Just like in any other university, there are opportunities for self improvement with frequent talks by invited speakers and also other programs such as GIAN courses. In addition, there are many cultural activities and events. When I was studying, there were about 20 students from Kerala and we even conducted an Onam Celebration and made all the non-Malayali students to participate in various games as part of the festival. It was fun. In the following paragraphs, I will describe the way you can get in to CUH and also the physics department.

CUCET

CUCET stands for Central Universities Common Entrance Test. This is the exam you need to take in order to get admission to CUH. Compared to IIT – JAM, GATE, JEST, DU, JNU etc., this entrance is relatively easy. Its pattern keeps changing so you need to check the current pattern if you are giving this test. Now, I will never insist you to only write CUCET. If you are interested in going to only premier institutes or some place abroad then by all means do that. However, it is wise to keep CUH as a safe option just in case you don’t want to waste another year in preparation. For me personally this was the only option left as I didn’t have too many years to spare.

Following the result of CUCET, you will be called for counseling depending on the institute preferences that you have given. I had given the options viz. Central University of Punjab, Central University of Haryana and Central University of Kerala. I received a counseling invitation from CUH and the rest is history. Depending on your rank in the exam you may have to go for multiple counseling. Once your admission is confirmed, you may choose to live in the hostel or take a room elsewhere. I took up a single room in Mahendragarh town which is 12 km from Jant-Pali village where the university building is situated. The daily commute was a problem but I preferred to live in a place where basic amenities such as market, restaurants, medical stores etc. were available. So the choice is yours as to whether to live on campus or some other place.

The Physics Department

Now we will get to the crux of the matter. The department of physics at CUH offers both MSc and PhD programs. It is new compared to other departments but there are many advantages if you do MSc from here.

The Faculty

The most important part of any university department is its faculty. The faculty members of CUH physics department are experts in their respective fields. They have done their PhD from prestigious institutes such as IIT, JNU and DU. In addition, some of them have done their post-doctoral research abroad and have a good list of publications in prominent physics journals such as Nature and Physical Review Letters. They have been more than willing to share their knowledge whenever I had doubts and difficulties throughout the course. In fact one of the reasons I decided to stay in CUH rather than dropping another year to repeat entrances is because of the good faculty members. They are friendly and knowledgeable and being associated with them would be very good for your profile.

The Curriculum

The second most attractive aspect of the department is the MSc physics curriculum. It is really vast and inclusive. Depending on the specialization you seek for your future, you can tailor the curriculum with the optional subjects available. The latest syllabus (2017-19 version) is available in this link. You are welcome to have a look at it for details. I will summarize the curriculum as follows:

Core Courses

The following are the subjects classified as core in the curriculum:

  • Mathematical Methods in Physics
  • Classical Mechanics
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Electronics
  • Statistical Mechanics
  • Classical Electrodynamics
  • Atomic, Molecular Physics and Laser
  • Nuclear & Particle Physics
  • Solid State Physics

These subjects are core for obvious reasons. As a physicist you are supposed to know them. If someone asks you a question in these, you should not blink. All the other advanced topics that you learn in physics are an extension of these. So irrespective of where you study, you will find these in the syllabus. Apart from the theoretical core subjects, there are three laboratory courses as well which you have to take in the first three semesters.

Advanced Courses

As I said, advanced level courses are an extension of the core courses.  You are given a choice as to which of these advanced courses you want to study:

  • Advanced Quantum Mechanics
  • Advanced Statistical Mechanics
  • General Theory of Relativity
  • Nonlinear Dynamics
  • Introduction to Astrophysics and Cosmology
  • Thin Film and Integrated Devices
  • Superconductivity: Conventional and High Temperature Superconductors

There are other electives too as you have noticed in the syllabus. There are also two seminar presentations that you have to give in the first two semesters.

Major and Minor Projects

In the final semester, there are two types of projects offered to the students. The major project is a full fledged 24 credits project work that you have to undertake for an entire semester. You won’t be doing any coursework if you have chosen to do a major project. You can either do the project at the department under one of the faculty members or you can go to a different institute. Many students from my senior batch as well as my batch went to places like IUAC, RRCAT, SINP, DU and NISER to do their major projects. If you have an opportunity like that, I would suggest you take it as it will add a boost to your profile. You can also get references from such institutes which will aid you in your PhD applications.

There is a second option called minor project. If you are interested in doing some coursework then you can opt for a 12 credits project. But if you choose this option, then you will have to study 3 subjects worth 4 credits each to account for the remaining 12 credits in the curriculum. I chose this option because I wanted to showcase some coursework in my resume. My project was in the subject of cosmology. In addition to working on the project, I did three courses viz. Astrophysics, Nonlinear Dynamics and Superconductivity.

There will be a project viva taken by an external examiner at the end of your project. Make sure that your presentation is precise and concise because you won’t get too much time to get into details especially if the examiner has a different specialization compared to the subject in which you have done your project.

Difficulty Level

Now this is a very curious question. Was it difficult for me to do my MSc after B.Tech? Well, I would answer that with a yes. However, this answer is not generic. It is a very personal one. I am saying it because one of my juniors who is also a B.Tech graduate doesn’t find it difficult at all and he is one of the toppers in his class. I believe that any difficulty in the coursework could be related to how fresh your mind is. If you are a fresh graduate or only have 2 or 3 years of gap after your B.Tech, your mind is still fresh and you are young. My case was totally different. When I started preparing for MSc entrances, there were so many things from which I was out of touch. In 12th std and in the first two years of engineering, we learn so much mathematics. But by the time I started my entrance preparation, most of those mathematical concepts had faded away. Relearning them was the most difficult task in my opinion. Quantum mechanics was also slightly hard to digest in the beginning. I never learned QM in my B.Tech and it was a totally new experience. It was much later that I grasped the meaning of the statement, “never try to understand quantum mechanics“.

Another difficulty I faced was unlearning the engineering way of thinking and learning the physics way of thinking. Even though physicists and engineers have the same intellectual capacity, the perspective that both disciplines instil in their students is very different. You can’t ask a physicist to build a bridge and you can’t ask an engineer to sit and indulge in abstract theoretical thoughts. They both require different parts of the brain. However, it is certainly possible to switch if the situation demands it. I am glad and proud that I can now switch to both ways of thinking whenever needed.

Now that I have completed my MSc, I am confident that I can tackle any subject in physics. The two years you spend studying in an institute will certainly rewire your brain and I am happy that it did.

Advantages of B.Tech

This my friends is where I am going to make all B.Tech graduates happy. We are first and foremost engineers. We build things ranging from large scale structures to computer software. Throughout our B.Tech curriculum, one thing that is taught always is to gain practical skills that can be readily used to solve problems. My B.Tech degree combined with my corporate experience gave me so many advantages over regular physics graduates who were studying with me. The most important among those were computing and communication skills.

While I faced difficulties in the coursework, when it came to computing, I was the king in the class. People used to look at me as if I am some kind of alien because coding and other computer related activities came naturally to me. Whenever there was a computing issue, I was the first person people called. Many students had sought my help in making presentations and other things and I was always ready to help.

In the final semester, my instructor asked me to learn LaTeX and I learned it in about 4 hours and wrote my project dissertation in it. I never learned LaTeX before that in my life and I just learned it without any problems. To my knowledge only 4 students in my class wrote their dissertation in LaTeX while everyone else wrote in MS Word.  In my project, the initial work was learning cosmology in a computing perspective. From Day – 1 I was sitting and coding in Python to simulate galaxies as point objects. And every day I visited my project guide and reported on my progress (Yes! Every single day!) This comes from my corporate experience where I had to work under pressure to achieve targets within time limits to make my bosses happy.

For my project I also had to learn a software called Galacticus which in my opinion is the most difficult software that I have encountered till date. It is a Linux-based tool that generates plots related to galaxy formation and evolution. If I didn’t have the advantage of my computing background, I don’t think I would have been able to do anything with that software.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not indulging in self praise. I am just pointing out the advantages I had which helped me balance my disadvantages. Yes, there were few physics students who were equally skilled in computing. But compared to the majority in my class, I did have my advantages.

Living in Mahendragarh

If you decide that you don’t want to live on campus or anywhere near it but in the township of Mahendragarh and travel to the university daily then my suggestion is to take a room that has an attached kitchen and cook your own food. In Delhi you get something called “one room set” which is a combination of a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom but I didn’t see those in Mahendragarh. There is a food problem in Mahendragarh. It is very difficult to get tasty and healthy food that would satisfy your nutritional needs. There are a few restaurants but they are just “okay” type i.e. not too great. I had taken a room in one of those “PG accommodations” where food was provided but it was a bad idea as the cook didn’t know what he was doing. I would much rather cook my own food. My advice to you is to do the same. If two or three people can take a house and run it properly with cooking food and maintaining the rooms, it would be the best. I have seen tiffin services but never tried them so I can’t comment on their quality. There are laundry services available so if you don’t like to waste time washing clothes then you can avail those.

The town has two supermarkets and one elaborate market that resembles Sarojini or Lajpat Nagar except on a much smaller scale and lesser quality. There are also home appliances and furniture shops. I bought my table from one of them which was a good deal for me. There are tailoring and bag repair centers and also clothing and utensils shops. There are also many medical stores and hospitals in case of emergencies.

Winters can be as cruel as the summers or even worse and therefore you must be prepared for those. And regarding power failures, I would refrain from commenting on it because it is pointless.

Conclusion

So, do I recommend the physics department of CUH as a place for higher education? Absolutely yes! If you want to do your MSc there, go ahead. You won’t be disappointed. But as I said, there are better options out there and you may want to keep CUH as a backup option just in case you won’t make it to the other places. Most of my readers I am sure are young and energetic and can do much better than me in their academics and thus get their admissions in premier institutions either in India and abroad.

There are many engineers who have made it to the world of physics before me and some of them did it really spectacularly. There is another blogger who has written about their stories. You can read about them here.

If there is any feedback, suggestions or queries you are welcome to comment below. In the beginning of this article, I mentioned that in addition to commenting on my previous article, some students had contacted me via social media. You can certainly contact me via social media if you want to talk to me directly. I am very active on Instagram and you can follow me here if you like.

I will be writing a future post about what it is like when you embark into academia after you have crossed 30. It was a funny as well as annoying experience for me and if you are an aged candidate there are certain things that you must know before you make the same decision as me. So that’s it from me today. Thanks for reading!

Why Study Astrophysics?

The study of our universe

Cosmology – The study of our universe

I am often asked why I am so obsessed with studying astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology etc. which serves no practical purpose to anyone. The people who ask such questions entertain the notion that anything that does not give immediate monetary benefit is not worth pursuing. In this article I will try as much as possible to highlight the benefits of pursuing pure science such as astrophysics. I will be using the words astronomy and astrophysics interchangeably as differentiating the two is not the main aim here.

Astrophysics to me is an eternal subject. The study of our universe will continue as long as the universe exists and therefore the subject of astronomy will stay on for trillions of years into the future (or at least till any intelligent species can make the study.)  We exist because the universe exists and that makes the study of our universe the most important of all subjects in my opinion.

A person who does not have any training in astrophysics or for someone who thinks he or she is too “practical” may not be convinced with this answer. For such people, any subject should have the potential of generating immediate revenue. In their point of view, the trendiest subjects that have a career potential in the market are the ones people should be pursuing. That point of view is not essentially wrong. However, these so called trendy subjects are like soap bubbles. They form and then get destroyed after a period of time. People pursuing them always run a risk because if the subject of their choice goes down in popularity, they are forced to learn the next trending subject in the job market.

Space science as a subject does not suffer from this problem. It has lived on ever since the dawn of human civilization and is bound to continue into the foreseeable future. Besides, making money in my opinion should not be our pursuit as a race of intelligent beings. Our world is slowly moving towards a non-monetary one and thus our real pursuit should be the attainment of knowledge and its applications.

Astrophysics - A pure science

Astrophysics – A pure science

As I said, astrophysics is a pure science. If you ask any astrophysicist as to whether a particular theory found by him or her has an immediate application in daily life, he or she may say that there aren’t any. However, the same thing can be told about many other subjects. I have added some references that will tell you about many subjects that fall into the category of being “useless” to the “practical” folks but are still pursued by thousands. Hence, it is not something that one must criticize astronomy with. No subject is useless. In the hand of the right person, the scope of any subject is limitless.

If you are willing to delve deep enough, you will know that astronomy is actually a field with a lot of practical applications. Of course the applications come indirectly and eventually but the impact is profound. Astronomy is a frontier research field. In order to do any kind of research in it, you need cutting edge technology. The study of astronomy thus pushes the limits of our current technology thereby contributing to the development of new and innovative methods in terms of instruments, processes and software to get things done. Therefore, pushing research in astronomy will push research in other fields when these technologies are used in the broader sense.

The benefits of astronomy comes from technology transfer i.e. by transferring the technology that was originally invented for astronomy into various applications in the industry. Some areas where we can see the fruits of research in astronomy are optics, electronics, advanced computing, communication satellites, solar panels and MRI Scanners.  Even though it takes time before an application of a research in astrophysics finds its way into our daily life, the impact it eventually makes is worth the wait. Astronomy also has revolutionized our way of thinking by constantly giving us new ideas throughout history.

Let’s now look at a few examples where the research in space sciences and technology is helping humans around the world:

Medicine

MRI Scanner

MRI Scanner

Perhaps the most important application of astronomy for us would be its technology transfer to medicine. Both astronomy and medicine requires us to see objects with ever more precision and resolution in order be accurate and detailed in our analysis. The most notable among the applications is the method of aperture synthesis. It was developed by the radio astronomer Martin Ryle of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. His technology is now used in Computerized Tomography which is commonly called CT scan. It is also used in Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI and Positron Emission Tomography or PET in addition to other imaging methods.

The Cambridge Automatic Plate Measuring Facility has collaborated with a drug company whereby blood samples from leukemia patients can be analyzed much faster. This helps in better accuracy in medication.  The method that is now used for non-invasive way to detect tumors was originally developed by radio astronomers. It helped increase the true-positive detection rate of breast cancer to 96%.

The heating control systems of neonatology units, i.e. units for newborn babies were initially developed as small thermal sensors to control telescope instrument. The low energy X-ray scanner used for outpatient surgery, sports injuries etc. was developed by NASA. It is also used by the Food and Drug Administration of USA to study the contamination in pills. The software that is used for processing satellite pictures is also helping medical researches to do wide scale screening of Alzheimer’s disease.

The Earth System

Asteroid 2011 MD

Asteroid 2011 MD

Our planet is under the constant influence of the Sun and our climate depends on it greatly. Studying the dynamics of the sun and other stars thus help us have a better understanding of Earth’s climate and its effects. Studying the solar system, especially asteroids tell us about the potential threats that they pose to the Earth. We do not want to be wiped out like the dinosaurs and studying potentially hazardous objects give us insights into how we can protect ourselves in time of a catastrophe. Even the recent passage of the asteroid 2011 MD dangerously close to Earth is a reminder that we should accelerate development of technologies to prevent an impact. Missions to asteroids also give us opportunities to test our technologies in future space exploration and also give insights into subjects such as geology.  It is also important to do space exploration as part of our long term exploitation of space based resources.

Industry

Charge Coupled Device

Charge Coupled Device

In industry, there are many technology transfers that can be cited. For instance, the Kodak Technical Pan was a film originally developed to use in solar astronomy to record the changes on the surface structure of the Sun. It is now used by industrial photographers, medical and industrial spectroscopy specialists and industrial artists. Until recently, the Technical Pan was also used to detect diseased crops and forests, in dentistry and medical diagnosis. It was also used for probing layers of paintings to check for forgery.

The Charge Coupled Devices or CCDs were first used in astronomy in 1976 as sensors for astronomical image capture. This Nobel Prize winning discovery not only replaced film in telescopes but also in personal cameras and mobile phones.

IDL or Interactive Data Language is used for data analysis in astronomy. It is now also used by companies such as General Motors to analyze data from car crashes. This means that astronomy is contributing to research in vehicle safety.

IRAF or Image Reduction and Analysis Facility is a collection of software written by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. It is used by AT&T to analyze computer systems and to do graphics in solid-state physics.

Communication

GPS - Global Positioning System

GPS – Global Positioning System

Radio astronomy has given birth to excellent communication tools, devices and data processing methods. For example, the computer language FORTH was first developed in order to be used at the Kitt Peak Telescope. The founders of the language also created the company named Forth Inc. and the language is now being used widely by FedEx for their tracking services.

The satellites of Global Positioning System rely on distant astronomical objects such as quasars and other distant galaxies to determine accurate positions. So, next time you use GPS, remember the stars.

The most common everyday communication application of astronomy would be Wireless Local Area Network or WLAN. Astronomer John O’Sullivan in 1977 came up with a method to sharpen images from a radio telescope. It was later found to be useful in strengthening radio signals in computer networks thereby giving birth to WLAN.

Aerospace and Defense

Aerospace and Defense

Aerospace and Defense

Astronomy and the aerospace industry share many technologies that include telescope instrumentation, imaging and processing techniques for images. A defense satellite is basically a telescope that is pointed towards earth and thus use very identical technology and hardware to that of astronomy. The methods used to differentiate between rocket plumes and cosmic objects in stellar atmosphere models are similar as well. They are studied for use in early warning systems.

A device called solar-blind photon counter was once invented by astronomers to measure particles of light from a source without being overwhelmed by the particles from the Sun during the day. It is now used to detect the ultraviolet photons coming from the exhaust of a missile thereby aiding in UV missile warning system. It can also be used to detect toxic gases.

Energy Sector

Solar Panels - A source of clean energy

Solar Panels – A source of clean energy

The techniques developed to detect gravitational radiation produced by massive bodies in acceleration is used to determine the gravitational stability of underground oil reserves. That is a fantastic application in the energy industry.

The methods in astronomy can also be used for finding new fossil fuels in addition to evaluating the possibility of new renewable sources. Companies such as Texco and BP use IDL to do analysis of core samples around the oil fields. The graphic composite material that was initially developed for an orbiting telescope array is now being used by Ingenero in their solar radiation collectors.

The technology used in X-Ray telescopes to image X-Rays is now being researched for plasma fusion. If successful, it would lead to a boom in clean energy in future.

Education and International Collaboration

Astronomy in Schools

Astronomy in Schools

Astronomy is a great tool to stimulate young minds. If you want children to pursue careers in science and technology, astronomy can help a lot. It engages the minds of kids and helps them keep up to date with the happenings in the scientific world. This therefore affects not just astronomy but other subjects as well. Modern science is a more collaborative effort. And astronomy has been instrumental in bringing together many countries to collaborate on projects that require telescopes and other instruments located at multiple points in the world. Researchers travel around the world to work on these facilities. This brings in many other advantages such as cultural transfer as well.

From the examples I mentioned and countless other examples that you can find online, it is pretty clear that the study of the universe is very beneficial to humanity. There are many people around the world who are interested in the study of the universe but are thwarted by the pseudo-pragmatic folks who think the subject is useless. My suggestion to anyone who wishes to study the subject would be to not let others tell you how practical or impractical that subject is. If they do not like what you are doing, it is their problem, not yours. Half the people who advice you against the subject do not really know anything about its breadth and depth.

The Sextant - An ancient celestial navigation tool

The Sextant – An ancient celestial navigation tool

As mentioned before, astronomy changes the way we think and look at this world. Even before writing was invented, humans have looked up at the sky to make decisions regarding when to plan the crops, how to keep track of the days and months or how to navigate the seas. Some of the greatest quests of human kind would not have been possible if methods to study the skies weren’t invented. Where we came from and where we are going are deep philosophical questions that are yet to be answered. In my opinion, studying the cosmos using rigorous science is the only way to finally know the answer.

Before I end, I must thank astronomers Marissa Rosenberg and Pedro Russo and all the other eminent people whose insightful articles I have referred to create this write-up. I have added them as reference for anyone who wishes to read more about the advantages of investing their time and effort in studying astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology and related areas, which are considered pure science without any immediate practical value by many.

My father often quotes the old saying, “People will come and go, but the institution remains.” I would like to rephrase that and say, “People who oppose the study of our universe will come and go. But the universe will remain.

Bibliography

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The Higgs Boson – Why bother?

It is often one of the questions raised in both scientific and religious sectors. Why bother about the Higgs Boson or in common language, the God particle? Is it worth all the money and technology spent to find a particle that may or may not exist? It was a few years ago, that an American named Elizabeth Hershkovitz who shared my interests in cosmology and particle physics mentioned the Higgs Boson. Our conversation caught me seriously thinking about it.

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN has been in news for the past few months since the claim of the discovery of faster than light neutrinos that allegedly emanated from it. Last week, the noise increased even more with some strong indicators of the presence of the Higgs Boson in both the ATLAS and CMS experiments. It is speculated that very soon a 50-year-old quest will come to an end when more data pours in from the two experiments.

Discovery and Mechanism

Nobody wondered why anything would have mass up until early 1960s when Peter Higgs, Philip Warren Anderson, Robert Brout, Francois Englert, Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen and Tom Kibble proposed the famous Higgs Mechanism, laying the theoretical framework for the massive experiments conducted at CERN today. This mechanism has close resemblance to Yoichiro Nambu’s work on vacuum structure of quantum fields in superconductivity and also the Stueckelberg Mechanism studied by Ernst Stueckelberg.

It was discovered that when a gauge theory combines with an additional field breaking the symmetry group spontaneously, gauge bosons acquired finite mass consistently. Despite the large values involved, it allowed a gauge theory description of the weak force, developed independently in 1967 by Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam. Though originally rejected, Higgs’s paper was resubmitted to Physical Review Letters, with an additional sentence on the existence of massive scalar bosons which eventually came to be known as Higgs bosons.

Let me first make sense of all these jargons. Particles roughly fall under two categories viz. fermions and bosons depending on whether they form matter or carry force. The fermions are themselves divided into hadrons and leptons based on whether they interact using the strong or weak force. Further, the hadrons are divided into baryons and mesons according to their quark structure. A gauge is a special coordinate system that varies based on a particle’s location with respect to a base space or a parameter space and a change of coordinates applied to every such location in that system is called a gauge transform. A gauge theory is a mathematical model of a system to which gauge transforms are applied.

Usually these are gauge invariant, meaning all physically meaningful quantities are either left unchanged or transform naturally under gauge transformations. Symmetry breaking is a phenomenon in physics where infinitesimally small fluctuations acting on a system that cross a critical point decide the system’s fate based on the branch of bifurcation taken. It is used extensively in string theory and other allied theories to explain the initial conditions of our early universe. Scientists such as Higgs calculated that when particles interact with a field that permeates space called Higgs Field, they acquire mass. As mentioned earlier, this concept was required to explain the electroweak symmetry breaking that separates the electroweak interaction into electromagnetism and weak nuclear force where, after the breakage, some part of the left over mathematics manifests itself as the Higgs boson.

For those who did not understand the tough words described, the mechanism can be thought of as tantamount to the famous “celebrity and mob” example. In a room, where people are evenly distributed, the entrance of a celebrity would change everything. People will try to flock around her and when she moves, the crowd would move along with her making her motion difficult. The workings of the Higgs mechanism can be thought of as something very similar to this. The universe contains the Higgs field at all places and any particle put in this field would interact with it. And the effect of this interaction is what we feel as mass. Simply speaking, the Higgs boson is supposed to be responsible for giving matter, its mass.

The current excitement at CERN is because of relatively identical results from two separate experiments in LHC. The bar is set very high on the proof of the existence of Higgs boson and only 1 chance in 3.5 million is allowed to be wrong. And the identical results from two different experiments might be indicative that we are getting pretty close. It reminds me of John Schwarz and Michael Greene’s calculations on a night in 1984 when they were eliminating the anomalies in string theory. There was thunder and lightning outside and Greene said jokingly, “The Gods are trying to prevent us from completing this calculation”. It was a metaphor about Gods becoming upset when humans get closer to solving the mystery they created for them.

The Necessity

Here again I drill down to the bedrock of the question I asked in the beginning. Why should we bother about Higgs and spend all that money on these massive LHC experiments? It goes without saying that there is an awe inspiring effect when new discoveries in physics and astronomy are made. I see physicists with utmost reverence since they allow us to see through the reality that makes us and everything around us. The Higgs, if discovered, would complete the fundamental theory of particle physics called the Standard Model, which currently consists of 17 particles and 3 fundamental forces. The fourth force viz. gravity is explained by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. String Theory, Loop Quantum Gravity etc. attempt at unifying both the standard model and general relativity but I think that is the subject of another article.

Once complete, physicists can use the standard model as a foundation for something called supersymmetry which predicts heavier sister particles for the already discovered ones. It states that for every fermion, there will be a corresponding boson and vice versa. For instance, an electron might have a supersymmetric partner called “selectron” while the photon will have its supersymmetric partner called a “photino” etc. The mass of these supersymmetric partner particles will again depend on the mass of Higgs itself. Currently, the results pouring from LHC indicates that it is light enough for the occurrence of some of these particles in these experiments. Scientists are also excited by the fact that they can now start looking for the building blocks for supersymmetry as well and see whether they fit the predictions too. Gravitational physics, the crossover between particle physics and cosmology, requires explanation for the mysterious dark matter. And mathematics suggests that the lightest of these supersymmetric partner particles make up the dark matter that hold the galaxies together.

The most fascinating aspect of mathematical physics is its consistency and predictability. We can create equations to explain current observations and make predictions about the unknown based on the current equations. And history is witness for continuing success and occasional failures of such mathematical models. And those that fail become foundations for more successful theories. Not just in physics, but also in other branches of study this has been going on. Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Dirac etc. are examples of highly successful theoreticians whose mathematical predictions exactly matched with experiments and observations giving birth to modern science as we know it.

Famous physicist Eugene Wigner, one of the founding fathers of supersymmetry has stated this phenomenon as the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. Whether Higgs Boson is a “God Particle”, is a multifarious question. People belonging to religious sectors might see God’s hand in all the predictability of mathematics that has led science to where it is today. Others like me prefer to think that every discovery in science converges into how the universe began through quantum fluctuations in a pre-existing nothingness which is clearly indicated in the mathematics of several scientists including the recent works of Edward Witten and Lawrence Krauss. We need to understand that nothingness itself has certain properties because of which universes can indeed be created spontaneously out of nothing without any recourse to a supernatural creator.

The Higgs boson, to the common man would sound like the figment of imagination of a group of elite geniuses that doesn’t have anything to do with his everyday life. However, when we look at science, historically there have been many examples where a completely “alien looking” theory became used on a daily basis. Here I would like to use the example of the application of general relativity in satellite navigation that gives GPS the pinpoint accuracy it requires.

The more we understand the universe, the more beautiful and elegant it becomes. Let’s hope the good news comes before the year ends so that this festive season can be sweeter than all the ones that came before. To quote Halliday, Resnick and Walker, “the universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

Bibliography

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