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Rig Veda to particle physics

In National on July 5, 2012 at 6:05 pm
– Hymn on creation steers Indian’s hunt for Higgs boson
Vivek Sharma talks at CERN about the search for the Higgs boson

New Delhi, Dec. 13: Physicist Vivek Sharma who was born in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, and now leads an international group hunting for the Higgs boson sees the search as an attempt to seek out answers to questions posed in the Rig Veda.

Sharma, who went to a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Pune and pursued master’s in physics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, says he was drawn to experimental particle physics after learningRig Veda hymns from his mother, a Sanskrit scholar. The ancient text has a hymn on creation that speculates on the origin of the universe and describes a period when “all that existed was void and formless”.

“It was a shock, it left an impression in my mind. Thousands of years ago people were contemplating our origins,” said Sharma, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and head of a Higgs search team at CERN, the European research laboratory.

He was still a high school student but began thinking how modern technology might be used to probe creation. The Higgs boson, the subatomic particle that Sharma and his colleagues are looking for, was predicted in the 1960s to explain the origin of mass.

A discovery of the Higgs boson is important for physicists because it is the last missing, or unseen, piece of a bedrock theory of physics called the Standard Model that explains all the forces and particles in nature except gravity.

Sharma moved to the US in 1984, treating higher studies in the US as a route to plunge into experimental physics requiring expensive machines — particle accelerators — but spent five years at CERN in the early 1990s where he discovered two new subatomic particles, including a cousin of the proton, but five times heavier.

His enthusiasm for experimental physics emerges in his talks — whether delivered to fellow-physicists or aspiring students. It also appears to temper any emotions that might spring each time particle detectors at CERN spot signals resembling traces of the Higgs boson.

“Experiments will ultimately tell us what is right and what is wrong,” he said. In the coming months, Sharma and his colleagues will refine their analyses and combine the data from the two main particle detectors looking for the Higgs boson.

“Our curiosity about our origins doesn’t change anybody’s life, but there is a satisfaction from understanding such things,” Sharma said in a telephone interview ahead of the CERN seminar where scientists presented their latest results from the Higgs search.

“But when we build machines like the Large Hadron Collider (the particle accelerator at CERN where proton-proton collisions are used to search for the Higgs boson), it requires us to invent new technologies that can change people’s lives,” he said.

The World Wide Web was created at CERN to help physicists move data around between different computers in a seamless fashion. “It’s a great example of how something that is good for physicists turned out to be fantastic for the public,” Sharma said.

New technologies and ideas that are born in experimental physics laboratories may have implications in information technology and medicine. “Our goals are esoteric, but what sometimes comes out benefits the public,” he said.

Sharma, whose routine in recent years has been eight weeks at CERN and 10 to 15 days with his wife and 7-year-old daughter in San Diego, is also keen on drawing more students to physics.

His homepage has a link to a talk he once delivered to prospective students and their parents. “The popular belief that physicists do not make much money is totally false,” the link says. “Physics majors make more money than chemistry or bio majors.”

source Rig Veda to particle physics.


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