June 5th, 2008
As promised, this month I will be talking about my work and career. I will start at the start by discussing that which constantly inspires me and has carried me along and yet I do the least current development in: Theoretical Particle Physics.
I received my undergraduate at West Virginia University in Morgantown, WVa where I had spent the better part of my teenage years. Being a university town I was no stranger to WVU and as a high school senior, actually joined AFROTC. This was the he actual, not the junior version. I went to the registrar to sign up for a University class called “Aerospace Engineering” because I liked planes and I later found out that I would REALLY have to like planes. Still, I stuck with it for a number of years. I spent my senior year Thursday lunches changing into my uniform in the bathroom then attending English class with Mrs. Capage — who eventually would became my brother’s mother-in-law — and then setting out to AFROTC lab. After two years, I had to make a decision to stick with the Air Force (problematic for I wasn’t a citizen) or go into Physics full bore (less problematic, but math has never been my strong suit). I chose Physics and all in all I had a good undergrad stay, worked on some projects with Dr. Myers and was helped along by Dr. Rotter (father of my good friend at the time Dave). After undergrad, The University of Cincinnati was the only school that took me into their graduate program (for in my ignorance, I only applied to 5 schools instead of 50 since I didn’t care to waste my parent’s money on application fees). I really would rather have gone out west which is why Matt and I borrowed his parents van and spent over a month traveling through the Dakotas, Washington, Cali, etc… but that’s a story for another time. This is how I ended up back in Cincinnati, for I had been here before (’77-’80).
As in all US physics PhD graduate programs, you spend the first two years doing no research and just taking classes and taking it all in. It was about the second week of the program that I discovered just how out of my league I was. I had gotten consistent A’s and B’s in my physics classes at WVU but I soon understood my first physics lesson — “everything is relative” — as those grades meant nothing as to my actual understanding or practice of physics. Grueling, horrible times lay ahead and this is actually the last time I cried: when it was just all too much and I thought I couldn’t do it and I would have to abandon my dreams, my self, my image… I remember it so vividly: the sky was crying with me that day and I tried to hold back the tears but once a single raindrop fell, I could no longer contain the storm inside of me and the downpour flowed and raged. But I eventually punched through the classes and self-doubt by simultaneously learning the new material while re-learning the old (and the re- part is a gross overstatement) and passing my courses.
At the end of these two years, right after summer, came the Qualifiers, a series test covering the core Physics subjects: Classical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, Thermodynamics, Electrodynamics, and Solid State. Five subjects, three days, 4 hours a day. —– I studied, I tried, I failed. —— I fought with the department over this decision. I started blaming everyone else but the one responsible and once I found out who was really responsible and placed the blame squarely on my shoulders, I moved on. For these tests were given again in winter, a chance to redeem myself. I studied WAY harder, this time actually going to my professors for help (I know I know, it’s one of my intrinsic faults that I think I can do everything by myself), this time actually following others advice, and this time actually passing.
Thus, by spring 1998 I was formally in the PhD program. I chose as my advisor Dr. Peter Suranyi in the area of theoretical particle physics. I initially wanted to do relativity with either Dr. Esposito or Dr. Witten but I know they sensed I did not have the mathematical know-how to cut it in those fields (and I know I didn’t as well). All the same, I was very excited at the work that Peter did: he was doing work on the Standard Model of Particle Physics and how to extend it to solve problems within this model. However, soon after I joined his team and we completed our first paper together, a paper that would ultimately be my thesis, Peter took a sabbatical to Oxford, England and I, being the precocious scamp that I am, invited myself along. That too is a story for another time, those seven months of being in the presence of some of the most intelligent beings I have ever met (and me just being me and not them) and most of them no older than 23 (and I was almost 26 at the time and those three years were a HUGE difference) and those seven months ending my relationship with Beth back home but starting my two months in Europe with Carly. So after nine months of untold history, I’m back in the states and I have progressed some on our new work on Quantum Chromo Dynamics, the physics of the atomic nucleus, but it would never get far. A stupid mistake on my part set my life in a whirl (a mistake that I am not ashamed to talk about, but not here, not now and thank you Sarah my love for sticking by me and staying with me during this time) and put me in a dark place for almost a full year. All the same I kept working, kept trying to crack this new nut until finally one day Peter confronts me and tells me that I should start writing my dissertation on the paper we had written at the beginning of my program. I was dejected, for I felt like a loser for not being able to complete this new project, but also excited for I had direction and I could finally focus on my PhD (BTW, my classmate Athula Heart and Peter kept working on this problem and finally cracked it two years later).
So, what was my Dissertation? It’s entitled “Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model parameter space exclusion by analyzing metastable scalar vacuum configurations“ and regrettably each terms requires a bit of explanation and I encourage you have www.wikipedia.org handy as you read this:
In Particle Physics, we have what is called a “Standard Model”. This model (note: a model is not reality… it is scientific maya… it is truth only as we see it) organizes and categorizes all the particles and interactions of the known universe, though perhaps more accurately of the known earth, into a two distinct and elegant categories: Bosons (integer spin) or Fermions (half-integer spins). The fermions represent matter and are further broken down into leptons such as the electron and neutrinos and the quarks that make up the proton and neutron. The bosons represent forces and include the photon (Electrical/Magnetic force; i.e. “light”), the gluon (Strong Nuclear force), and the W and Z (Weak Nuclear Force). The graviton associated with Gravity has been theorized but yet been found. AND THAT’S IT: two types of matter particles (leptons and quarks) and four types of forces carriers (photons, gluons, W/Z /Z-, graviton). That’s the universe in nutshell; the nutshell that was the big bang. But all is not well. This model is jenga-esque in a lot of ways… adding a new block or taking one away threatens to always topple the whole structure. And in this case, it’s the mass of the very object responsible for giving mass to other particles — the Higgs mass — that is unstable and threatens the Standard Model. Enter the MSSM to the rescue.
The MSSM is the acronym for the Minimally Supersymmetric Standard Model. It’s principle is simple: much like we have anti-particles that create partners to all particles by “flipping” the charge — for example, turning a negative electron into a positive anti-electron — this model proposes to create another set of partners to each particle by “flipping” the spin (to all you physicists, I know this is a poor choice of words). In other words, we assign a bosonic integer spin (0, 1, 2, 3, …) partner to every fermionic half-integer spin (1/2, 3/2, 5/2, …) particle and vice-versa. So the fermionic (1/2 spin) electron gains the seleptron (1 spin) and the bosonic photon (spin 0) gains the fermionic photino (spin ½). Now do this with every particle in the Standard Model and you have the MSSM and I won’t go into HOW this solves problems, but it does.
But the universal law of jenga must be obeyed and that leads us to my thesis. Adding all these partners to the model comes at a high cost: over 100 new parameters must be added to the model to describe all the interactions that all these new particles have with each other as well as with the original particles as well as with the anti-particles as well as with the force carriers! These parameters are undefined and we have no way to pin them down, but we can narrow the scope of our search, which is the core of my thesis.
We can reduce this “parameter space”, this space of over 100 new parameters, so that we are only dealing with 5 parameters out of the hundred. We do this by invoking several tricks which I won’t mention, but it’s akin to looking at at the heartbeat of a person to see if they are alive and ignoring the other organs. Then, we do the coolest thing in my thesis: in a computer, we start plugging in values for these five parameters and see if they will lead to the universe blowing up. That’s right, these five parameters lead to what is known as a “metastable” vacuum and under certain combination of parameters will actually lead to what is known as a “false vacuum” which would (quite literally) pull the rug out from under the universe and cause the ground energies of particles to plummit and this would have “explosive” results. So if we have a set of parameters that leads to the universe blowing up AND this event occurred in the past (before our current age of 15 billion years), then the values assigned to that set of parameters CANNOT be true for we are very much alive and stable (this is known as the Anthropic Principle). Now if the blow up occurs in the future or if it doesn’t occur at all, then we can’t say that these are in fact the true values or not so the best we can do is “exclude” the region we know can’t be real, the region that blows up in the past, and leave the other regions for further investigation. Below is a graph from my dissertation as an example: the axis represent the parameters we are investigating. Each circle represents a set of parameters we put into the computer that did not lead to the universe blowing up or blew up in the future. Every “X” represents a set of parameters where the universe DID blow up in the past. Hence, the region under the dashed line is our best estimate for a region in parameter space that is “excluded”, that can’t be real because if it were, we wouldn’t be here to draw the graph.
I defended my PhD in December 2001 on the eve of my 29th birthday. I chose a time after lunch, opened up all the windows so that it was cool inside the room (since I knew I would overheat during the presentation and it ensure a maximum number of people would fall asleep), and I made sure to make my presentation as flashy as possible for all that stayed awake. I passed with flying colors (did I mention I love presenting and I’m actually good at it?) and formally received my PhD in July of 2002. It was around this time that I began teaching at local Schools and became interested in MMOGs…
…but that is a story for next time (From MSSM to KVCC).
 Both my Thesis and my Presentation will seem garbled because they require MathType to be installed; I’m working on fixing this for it hurts me to see such beautiful work garbled up.