Summer research defies gravity

8 mins read

When you ask a friend “What are you doing this summer?” you’ve probably heard the casual reply, “I’m doing research over the summer.”

It turns out that there is a lot more to this answer than just a lab coat and a few extra months on campus. In fact, the real answers to this question are incredibly interesting from the view of someone interested in science and are enlightening to just about anyone interested in learning about the world from a different point of view.

I wanted to find out how professors and students here at Swat are helping to shape this view. In a series of interviews, I got to learn how research here at Swat contributes to the greater scientific community, why the topics studied are important, and how the research experience varies depending on the field and on the individual conducting the research.

This week I talked with Ariel Rock ’16, who spent his summer conducting theoretical physics research. The best part of learning about this research was realizing how much we don’t know. I remember being taught gravity in terms of apples and Newton at an early age. But it turns out that we really can’t explain it effectively this way. Gravity doesn’t actually doesn’t “fit in” with the models of how physicists explain the world.

The following interview is the story of a physicist teaching a non-physicist that the truth is rarely pure and never simple.


Physics is freaky

SF: As you mentioned before, physics can be explained with relativity and quantum physics. Can you explain this a little more?

AR: Relativity is the study of gravity, something that everyone’s familiar with, I hope, unless you’re magic, and then I want to talk to you. So, there are other forces, the strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, electromagnetic force. This is how we understand everything that happens. Quantum field theory is interactions at a small scale: strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces. And then there’s gravity and gravity’s just there, and we don’t know how it fits in with the other forces.

SF: Why does it not fit in?

AR: The other three forces I just named can be described using particles. Gravity can’t be explained using what we call the standard model. The SM is the combination of all the particles we know, and their interactions, and the predictions they give us. And like I said, gravity is there, and we are freaked out by that … Basically, physics is freaky.


Testing out the Standard Model Extension

SF: So, what is being done to make physics less freaky?

AR: You can extend the standard model into the standard model extension. We need to figure out how to take gravity and put it in the SM. So, we need to test out the standard model extension, and that’s what I do.

SF: First of all, what does the SME state?

AR: Put very simply, the SME predicts breakdown in symmetry. And symmetry is a really fundamental part of physics. The ‘Lorentz Invariance’ principle is saying that physics is symmetric, whereas Lorentz Invariance violations are the breakdown of symmetry. (An example of this breakdown in symmetry would be detecting differences in the speed of light. This is unsettling, because most models of the universe say that the speed of light is supposed to be constant.)

SF: So, how did you study whether the SME is true, and whether Lorentz Invariance violations exist?

AR: We don’t know if this theory is true, but mathematically it makes sense. But science says that it’s useless unless we have data. So we’re asking, if we had data, would we be able to tell if this theory were true? And we’re asking, given data that had the signals we’re looking for, would we be able to extract what we need? We’re assuming the data we have answers the question, but we don’t know how to get the answer out of the data. So what I did was work out different algorithms to detect vacuum dispersion of photons (the algorithms will detect whether the photons change speed — in other words, whether the speed of light varies).

SF: Can you give an example of what you’re trying to find out from the data?

AR: Say that you have a bunch of photons of high energy, and some of them may slow down or speed up based on their energy. I’m trying to find out how we detect whether they have slowed down or sped up based on that energy.


The experience of research: Flailing Around

SF: How did the research experience differ from what you thought it would be?

AR: A lot of this summer was me flailing around … I mean, I was a freshman. And it was a lot more applied than I thought it would be. Because I thought it was just ‘theoretical physics! Pen and paper and not doing much!’ But it was a lot of going onto websites and looking at people’s algorithms and adapting them. And it was lot more coding than I thought.

SF: What was your favorite part of doing this research?

AR: I really like the feeling that you’re doing something interesting. I also like being with other people who were doing research. I worked in one of the teaching labs just set up at a computer, but I got to eat lunch with professors and students here and talk about their research.

SF: How is this different from learning in the classroom?

AR: There aren’t any lectures, you have to teach yourself everything. You just feel like you’re drowning a lot.


Swat and Beyond

Rock continued to explain his work, saying that “the big thing in theoretical physics right now is unifying quantum theory with gravity. This is one way to do it. Another way is string theory, and there are others. So I’m testing out whether this particular theory is true.”

Rock’s research experience shows how fragile our understanding of the world really is. Regarding the theory he tested this summer, he says, “Either this one is true, or one of the others, or none of them and then we have to start rethinking everything.”

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