Why Are We here?
Strange things are happening these days. Take the other day. On
my way down to Rutgers, I stopped at a red light and noticed that
the cars turning onto the road ahead were moving very slowly.
Then I saw the wild turkey. It had walked calmly to the
centerline and stopped there, standing like a statue, watching the
two lanes of traffic go by on either side. Finally, a lady stopped
her car, got out and shooed the bird to safety where it
immediately started grazing on the grass. This intersection is not
out in the country and how that turkey got there is a mystery to
Believe it or not, there are other, bigger mysteries than whether
or not a young woman''s disappearance is connected to her
relationship with a member of our legislative branch. You would
never know it from the media attention, would you? One of
these really big mysteries appears to have been solved. It has to
do with our roots and I do mean roots that go back to the very
beginning. Which brings me to Erice, Sicily in July of 1988.
My wife and I were in this little walled town for two of the most
interesting weeks of my life.
I was a lecturer in a NATO-sponsored course on the topic of
"microbatteries". The other lecturers and students were a truly
international group and we made a number of friends that we still
keep in touch with. Virtually none of the townspeople, waiters in
the restaurants or shopkeepers spoke English and, with nobody
fluent in Italian, it was an adventure dining out in the evening.
The highlight of the two weeks was a special celebration of the
25th anniversary of the center at which the course was held. The
center was started by a highly respected nuclear physicist named
Zichichi. We in the course were invited to attend the celebration.
We were surprised to see a goodly number of carabinieri in their
fancy uniforms, with guns at the ready, outside the building as
The ceremony was in Italian or English depending on the
particular speaker''s choice, with no interpretation. However, I
became somewhat concerned when I heard the terms "Mafioso"
and "assassinado" used in Zichichi''s remarks. At that point, I
thought perhaps those carabinieri weren''t there just for show!
Indeed, it turned out that in the audience was the widow of a
former president of Sicily who was assassinated when he tried to
crack down on the Mafia. Not only that, but his brother was one
of the speakers. I admit to being somewhat relieved when the
ceremony was over without incident and we enjoyed a positively
sumptuous buffet afterward with lobster and other delicacies
fresh from the Mediterranean. If I''ve repeated this story, forgive
me. It is the season of summer reruns.
What does all this have to do with our roots? Well, there were
two Nobel Laureates at the ceremony. One was Tsung-Dao Lee
of Columbia University. I knew then that Lee had received the
Nobel Prize for something to do with "charge-parity" violation. I
didn''t realize the significance of his work then, however. This
charge-parity goes something like this. Say you look in the
mirror and there is your twin but everything is opposite; your left
is his right, etc. With charge parity, you expect that your twin
will behave in every respect just like you. For us humans, you
probably would think it highly unlikely.
However, let''s switch to particles of matter and antimatter. Think
of, for example, an electron with its negative charge. Its
antiparticle is the positron, which mirrors the electron and has a
positive charge. Virtually every ordinary particle has an
antiparticle like this. It was assumed in nuclear physics that the
antiparticle behaves exactly like its ordinary counterpart in a
mirror image kind of way. Tsung-Dao Lee shared the Nobel
Prize for showing that this was not necessarily true. This was a
big deal at the time.
Meanwhile, the Big Bang was being confirmed and some began
to wonder about why we and everything else around us are here
at all. In the Big Bang, there were equal amounts of ordinary
matter, the stuff of which we''re made, and antimatter. With
equal amounts of these two types of stuff, when they get
together, they annihilate each other and there''s nothing left!
So, after these billions of years, you''d think that the universe
would be completely empty. But here we are! Back in 1967,
Andrei Sakharov, the Russian physicist, suggested that the
reason for us being here is that charge-parity is violated and the
antimatter decays slightly faster than ordinary matter. This
would mean that before the two types of matter could get
together, much of the antistuff was gone, leaving the excess
ordinary stuff we see today. Sakharov was later in the news for
his political views in the old Soviet Union.
To try to detect the small differences between stuff and antistuff
is exceedingly difficult. Another Nobel was given in 1980 to a
couple of Brookhaven workers, James Cronin and Val Fitch, who
found evidence that a particle known as a K-meson and its anti
particle did show a difference in behavior. However, since that
time there was the question as to whether this K-meson may just
be a special case.
But there''s another kind of meson called the B-meson that''s about
10 times bigger than the K. I mentioned some time ago that a
good friend had taken us to visit the Stanford Linear Accelerator
Center (SLAC) in Stanford, California. It was positively
awesome to see the size and complexity of just a small part of
this facility. Well, they have what is essentially a B-meson
factory in a collider they nicknamed BaBar. BaBar turns out Bs
like crazy but these things only last a millionth of a second or so!
But, because they''re bigger than the K, it''s easier to follow the
decay and its products. The net result is that the statistics show a
very high probability that the antiparticle decays faster than the
These results indicate that this charge-parity thing is violated for
at least two particles and their antiparticles. That makes
scientists a good deal more comfortable that other particles will
likely show the same effect. While the work isn''t the final word
by any means, this study seems the most convincing one to date.
I, for one, am certainly relieved to find that I''m here legitimately,
if only on a statistical basis!
Allen F. Bortrum