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Friday, 20 July 2012

Through the looking glass: symmetry and stained glass windows

So why are we here then? Come to that, why does anything exist at all? These questions might sound more philosophical than scientific, but this is the true scale of the questions on which the scientific method can now be brought to bear. The question of why the world around us exists, why the matter in the universe has not all annihilated with antimatter is a big one, and this week I was fortunate enough to speak with Harry Cliff at the London Science Museum, formerly of CERN, and Dr. Adrian Bevan at QMUL, about why this asymmetry exists. We spoke at some length about violation of symmetries and the experimental techniques we can use to see where matter and antimatter behave differently, I am extremely grateful for their assistance, as I feel that I have learned a great deal about the way in which cutting edge particle physics research is carried out.

These big questions can seem daunting at times, but it is worth remembering that science often progresses in small steps, the solutions to seemingly trivial questions leading us bit by bit towards the answers to larger ones. One of these smaller questions, which I have been looking at this week is why there are giant arcs of light beside distant galaxy clusters. We understand quite well the gravitational lensing effect which produces these phenomena, but our best models of the universe predict that the probability of us seeing it so far away in space is practically zero. So this small question points us towards possible issues with our greater understanding of the universe itself.

Image credit: ESA/NASA
An Einstein ring caused by gravitational lensing, pictured by Hubble

Back here on earth, I had a discussion this Wednesday with Dr. Kostya Trachenko at QMUL, regarding the nature of glasses and the glass transition. He dispelled an apparently apocryphal notion regarding the fluidity of stained glass windows with which I had been impressed some time ago - I had been misinformed that the thickening towards the bottom of the panes in these old windows was due to the glass flowing like a liquid.  According to Dr. Trachenko, although this flow would occur, it would take longer than the age of the universe to produce the observed effect! Our conversation also helped me gain a greater insight into what constitutes a phase of matter and the outstanding problem of describing the behaviour of liquids. He also provided me with links to a range of other resources for further reading, which I found most helpful.

Of course, if you'd like to read more about these mysteries, then don't forget to follow TWDK on facebook or twitter, so we can tell you when the main site goes live!
I have just two weeks left working for TWDK, and the best use of my time at this point will most likely be to spend it writing. I have yet to write up the considerable bulk of the information I have accumulated over the last month and a half. It is unlikely therefore that I will meet face to face with many more academics over the course of this internship, so I will take this opportunity to thank those who I have spoken to for their invaluable assistance. This has made my job not only easier, but immeasurably more interesting and educational as well.