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Wichita State physicist sees clues to future in Nobel winners’ work

Nickolas Solomey and his friends for more than a year now have been dreaming up what Solomey happily calls the “far-fetched ideas” that Peter Higgs and Francois Englert might have made possible.

Higgs, from Great Britain, and Englert, from Belgium, won the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday, for far-fetched ideas they formulated 50 years ago.

Those ideas might become real now, far-fetched or not.

There are lessons we might draw from this, Solomey said.

After all, the discovery of the Higgs boson “God particle” last year means nothing in the short term. And yet hundreds of scientists and several European governments spent $10 billion and 25 years of planning to dig a 17-mile tunnel to discover a particle that has no practical application for us yet.

Why?

“Think about the laws of gravity,” Solomey said. And how to break them.

“Imagine making the force of gravity less than it is.”

Solomey is more than just a guy in Wichita who carries the private cellphone numbers of Nobel Prize winners in his pocket. And he’s more than a guy who knows Peter Higgs pretty well.

At Wichita State University, though he’s on a research sabbatical now, Solomey has directed the department of physics, and has for many years taught physics. In other words, he’s taught the study of some of humankind’s more famous far-fetched ideas.

A few years back, he was agonizing over what he perceived to be a reduced role for physics studies at WSU. He didn’t think some people understood how the pure-science study of far-fetched ideas can decades later lead to practical applications.

His point, then and today, is that pure science often leads to big payoffs – sometimes after 50 to 100 years. It was 1897, after all, when scientists first talked publicly about far-fetched entities called “electrons,” he said. It was decades ago that scientists first spoke of quantum mechanics. Today, lifetimes later, we carry around the practical applications called cellphones and iPads, and seemingly can’t live without them.

“By 100 years down the road, we’ll probably see some outstanding applications for Higgs,” he said.

He can already see clues about the future.

Tuesday’s Nobel award in physics, he said, was given to Higgs and Englert for their theoretical discoveries on how subatomic particles acquire mass.

Their theories are key to explaining the building blocks of matter and the origins of the universe. They were confirmed last year by the discovery of the so-called Higgs particle, also known as the Higgs boson, at CERN, the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Think about how massive objects are a problem, Solomey said. Higgs might lead to applications that can make some of the problems go away.

“We might be able to lift much heavier masses into space,” he said. “Or we might be able to create some sort of small distance levitation involving rails, and use less power to move mass that way.”

Solomey worked at CERN from 1985 to 1992 under Nobel winner Georges Charpak, and earned his doctorate in particle physics from the University of Geneva in 1992.

He’s often had a ringside seat to the unfolding of the God Particle story. One of his former WSU students, Andrew Hart, “a very good physics major,” is now a physics graduate student working on his doctorate at Ohio State University and has spent a lot of time at CERN on one of the experiments that discovered the Higgs, Solomey said.

Central to the story, Solomey said, is a lesson that Americans can learn from.

Those European governments and scientists had enough courage and vision to take a risk, he said.

Englert and Higgs theorized about the existence of the particle in the 1960s to provide an answer to a riddle: why matter has mass. The tiny particle, they believed, acts like molasses on snow – causing other basic building blocks of nature to stick together, slow down and form atoms.

But decades would pass before scientists at CERN were able to confirm its existence in July 2012.

To find it, they had to build a $10 billion collider in the 17-mile tunnel beneath the Swiss-French border.

Someday, Solomey said, people will probably know it was worth it.

Contributing: Associated Press

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