Monday, July 11, 2005

Nuclear Physics, Cosmology and a Gordon Conference

I leave in the morning to spend a few days at the 2005 Nuclear Physics Gordon Conference. The Gordon Conferences are relatively small, intimate meetings, designed (so I'm told, having not attended one before) to facilitate discussion of cutting edge topics. They are typically held in small colleges all over New England, and the one that I'm attending is happening at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

It'll be interesting to be at a nuclear physics conference, since I don't typically attend them. I'm going to this one to give an invited talk titled "Connecting Fundamental Physics and Cosmology". This is the talk I often give to audiences predominantly composed of particle physicists, in which I discuss the issues raised by the energy budget of the universe, discovered through increasingly accurate observations over the last decade. I talk about dark matter, dark energy and the baryon asymmetry of the universe.

As I've mentioned before, the story with dark matter is a particularly interesting example of how microphysics and macrophysics - particle physics and cosmology - can work together to help explain one of the most fundamental questions about reality. If we're lucky, our colliders will discover the properties of new particles, which, with the help of data from dark matter detection experiments, may be identified as twenty percent of the missing matter content of the universe.

There is an interesting precedent for this connection, and it has a nice tie in with nuclear physics. In work beginning in the 1940s and continuing up to the present day, physicists have been able to use well-established nuclear physics data in the context of an expanding spacetime, to understand the abundances of the light elements in the early universe. This prediction of the hot big bang theory, and its remarkable confirmation through precision measurements of primordial Deuterium, Helium-3, Helium-4 and Lithium abundances, is one of the most stunning pieces of evidence supporting our modern cosmological model. Primordial nucleosynthesis (or Big Bang Nucleosynthesis (BBN)), as this process is known, thus provides a compelling template for other cosmo-particle connections, such as the search for dark matter.

Given this rich history of the interplay between nuclear physics and cosmology, I expect to feel quite comfortable as a cosmologist at a nuclear physics conference. In fact, such interplay is not just historical. I'm looking forward to learning a little more about how nuclear physics can help us understand more about supernovae, neutron stars and neutrino physics, and even how the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) might unlock some of the secrets of matter at high densities that are so important to understanding the early universe.

The only downside to this trip is that I suspect that my Internet access will be very sparse over the next three days, and so I don't expect to blog again before Friday, although I will if I can. When I get back I'll give a more detailed report on the conference.
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