Insurrection in a Little Kingdom—The Real Story of the Standard Model of Particle Physics

Semester: 

Spring

Offered: 

2021

Howard M. Georgi (Department of Physics)
Freshman Seminar 51U 4 credits (spring term) Enrollment: Limited to 12

At the end of the 1960s, particle physics was in a very chaotic state. There were experiments producing apparently conflicting data that were as confusing to the theorists as they were to the experimenters themselves. There were dramatically different theoretical approaches, none of which were convincing or even thoroughly understood. Less than 10 years later, we could put the standard model on a t-shirt and we had a very plausible guess for how the pieces fit together into a unified theory of particle interactions. I had the great good fortune to participate in this remarkable decade of particle physics, so I know what really went on, not just what has been recorded in the history books. My hope for this seminar is three-fold. I want to try to explain what happened and why to a diverse group of students in a way that preserves the flavor of the physics without getting lost in technical details. This is a difficult task and I hope to get help and insight from the students in the seminar. I want to look at some of the Scientific-American-level attempts by physicists to explain what they were doing as they were doing it. I believe that scientists must do a better job of this kind of outreach, and again I hope to learn a lot from the students about how to do it better. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I want to try to expose the amazing diversity of thought that went into this mini-revolution. One of my great joys in this period was that I got to know and often collaborate with many of the giants of late-twentieth-century physics. The people watching was almost as much fun as the physics. From this personal study, I concluded that there are many ways of being a great physicistprobably as many different ways as there are great physicists. This suggests that there are more ways of being a great physicist that we have not seen yet.

Prerequisites: Background in physics is not required, but curiosity about physics and physicists is important! The assignments will be mostly short essays and in-class presentations on the readings with a few algebra level calculational problems.

See also: Spring 2021