Pearl Sandick is an assistant professor of physics at the University of Utah, where she teaches a graduate course in general relativity. Her research interests include dark matter and supersymmetry. If she had more spare time, she would resume playing the viola and reading David Foster Wallace. But she does make time for pub trivia at the Green Pig Pub or Lumpy's as a member of a team called Ex Post Factorial.
It took 50 years and billions of dollars to find what appears to be the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle, in the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. What does that discovery mean to you?
It is a really big deal because it was the last undiscovered particle in our current theory of particle physics, the theory that predicts how all fundamental particles, like electrons and quarks, interact. Furthermore, it is our only evidence of the mechanism we think gives these particles their masses. My job as a theoretical physicist is to try to understand how particles and forces conspire to create the world we know, which includes phenomena that can’t be explained if the particles we’ve observed are the end of the story. I’m talking about the smallest things, so tiny that by comparison, an atom is huge. The Higgs mass is predicted in the supersymmetric models I work on, so the discovery last summer validates some of the models and invalidates others. It brings us closer to understanding the mysteries of particle physics.
What benefit accrues to ordinary folks?
The process of discovery has expanded our body of knowledge, of course, and in the process has also expanded our technology. We can thank particle physicists for the World Wide Web they developed to share data. Other advances include magnet technology and ways to handle vast quantities of data.
How much of the universe is made up of dark matter, and will the Higgs boson help us to understand it?
About 83 percent of the mass in the universe is observed to be dark matter. One way to detect it is to watch dark-matter particles bump into nuclei of atoms. The Higgs boson probably participates in this process, which may end up being how dark matter is discovered. I think we are right on the edge of discovery.
“Elegant” is a word often used to describe the mathematical underpinning of theoretical physics. What does that mean?
I would say it describes a deep concept in a simple way. Einstein’s E=mc˛ is elegant. Equations can become simple when written in the right way. Electricity and magnetism are really two manifestations of one concept, electromagnetism, and all electromagnetic phenomena can be described in one language with just two very simple equations.
Some physicists have devoted their careers to searching for the Higgs
particle. What will be your career focus?
I want to know what dark matter is and how it is related to the rest of particle physics. Dark matter is beyond our standard theory, so we have to find a bigger picture that includes it. I also want to share the excitement of the whole process by making science accessible. People are curious about what particle physics is and how we address questions about the universe. And it is really important that the public knows what physicists are doing. There is a stereotype of physicists—they look like Einstein, they have no hobbies, and you don’t talk to them at cocktail parties. But we are just regular people, and it is cool when kids aspire to be physicists.