Coming back to life

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Published: February 19, 2015 1:42:11 AM

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN gets a new purpose, while GPG, an open-source encryption programme, gets a new lease of life.

Two extraordinary events are underway in February in science and technology, the first in quantum physics and the other in computer security. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN will be brought back online next month to face its next challenge, to seek evidence confirming the validity of extensions to the Standard Model of physics in general, and the ominously-named ‘dark matter’, in particular. The Standard Model describes the nature and relations of fundamental particles, and dark matter is that portion of the material universe which is not perceptible to the senses but is inferred from the force of gravity which it exerts.

Two years ago, the LHC had produced a quantum leap in physics by verifying the existence of the Higgs boson, a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is the Standard Model. It was the first significant confirmatory event in particle physics in recent times, resolving a crisis of confidence which developed as the blackboard pulled too far ahead of the laboratory. The method of science proceeds by forming theories on the basis of observations, and then confirming or rejecting those theories by means of rigorous testing, a necessary precondition to proceeding to the next theory. In the case of physics, large swathes of theory could not be tested because a laboratory powerful enough to probe the basis of the universe, which could only be built by multinational scientific collaboration, did not exist. For decades, the situation was like someone planning to build a house on the basis of an architect’s blueprint. The blueprint existed and was unanimously held to be beautiful, but there was no confirmation that the bricks for executing it existed. The house was hailed as one of the finest edifices ever built, but its existence was not established beyond doubt.

The LHC changed the game when it put the spotlight on the Higgs boson in 2013, but it failed to take the next step forward. The rubble of smashed particles it generated was expected to contain evidence of super-symmetry, familiarly known as Susy, which posits that the fundamental particles of the perceivable universe are each mirrored by much heavier invisible particles, whose effects are seen only in terms of gravitational attraction. They are like twins lost at the fair, and their rediscovery would complete the picture of the Standard Model, which has a numbers of hazy bits—there are too many particles whose existence is theoretically predicted, but they remain undetected.

The overhaul at CERN has charged up the LHC to achieve far higher energies than in 2013, and physicists look forward to the discovery of the gluino later this year. That’s the doppelgänger of the gluon, which moderates relations between protons and neutrons and thereby holds atomic nuclei together. Further on, the quarks that build those protons and neutrons are expected to be mirrored by squarks and the photon by the photino. Photons bear light. What do their mirror images bear, darkness? Sorry, that’s a PJ (physics joke).

Confirmation of the existence of dark matter would allow theoretical physics to forge ahead with renewed vim. Meanwhile, another development earlier this month has drawn attention to the weakness of the open-source movement—it doesn’t work without volunteers. Werner Koch, the one-man army behind Gnu Privacy Guard (GPG), a free and open-source encryption programme which is used by lakhs of people who need privacy to pursue activism, journalism or other nefarious ends, overcame a liquidity crisis that he has been in for years, something that could have wiped out the only free and universally available military-grade encryption for internet communications. A story in the US public interest media site ProPublica brought him public donations from all over the world, and also drew attention to the weird paradox that dogs security and privacy software. The software most trusted by specialists in this category is open-source, since users can read the code for themselves to exclude the possibility of backdoors. However, since it is open-source, some of the hottest programmes are maintained by less than half a dozen people part time. Koch is one of the few people to have remained focused on his project, and as a consequence he did not have the wherewithal to maintain his family and hire a developer for GPG.

Koch was apparently about to check out of the altruistic life and get a boring and paying job when Edward Snowden staked himself out in Sheremetyevo airport. He decided to stick it out, realising that privacy was about to become an international obsession. Now, the Linux Foundation, Facebook and Stripe have paid or committed to GPG, but it is only infinitesimal fractions of their profit margins. Koch’s predicament exposes the only weakness of open-source—its payouts are generally way out of proportion with its intrinsic value and while it protects lives, it does not guarantee livelihoods.

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