The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 19, 2013

Nobel Conference explores tiniest bits, farthest reaches

3 Nobel laureates to speak at Oct. 1-2 conference

By Dan Linehan dlinehan@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — ST. PETER — If our mysterious universe was born in a big bang 13.8 billion years ago, it was at that moment so small and compact as to defy imagination. Science can’t go back, but its particle accelerators are trying to re-create the primordial universe.

Gustavus Adolphus College’s 49th Nobel Conference, “The Universe at its Limits,” searches for the connections between the vastness of the universe and the tiniest bits of matter. The two-day conference begins Oct. 1 and is streamed live online.

This is the Nobel Conference chair and physics professor Steve Mellema has long argued for. But he has also long been aware of physics’ reputation for being inaccessible and esoteric, which are fancy ways to say regular people are bored by what little of it they can understand.

He said the conference’s organizers took care to pick speakers who were not only at the cutting edge of their fields but who could condense the most important parts of their findings to a regular audience.

Mellema gave a conference preview Wednesday to a group of a few dozen at the Linnaeus Arboretum.

Consider light, he said. Even the closest star, Alpha Centauri, is 4.4 light years away, meaning it takes light that long to get to Earth. This means that if you look up and see the star, you’re actually seeing it as it was 4.4 years ago. It could have gone supernova, but we wouldn’t know until the light journeyed here.

“Telescopes are time machines,” he said.

Physics professor and Nobel Conference Director Chuck Niederriter interviewed and wrote about the eight lecturers for the conference magazine. These descriptions are mostly taken from his work.

Frank Wilczek

Wilczek, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics with two other scientists for his discovery of “asymptotic freedom.” This theory says that “the closer quarks are to each other, the less the strong interaction between them.”

Tara Shears

Shears is a professor of physics and researcher at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, where she works on an experiment designed to investigate where all the antimatter in the universe has gone.

Alexei Filippenko

Filippenko, a physics professor at the University of California in Berkeley, is mostly involved in studies at the optical, ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelengths.

Samuel C.C. Ting

Ting, a professor of physics at MIT, was in a group that found a new particle, called the J particle. For this work, he shared the 1976 Nobel Prize in physics with Burton Richter.

More recently, Ting was the driving force behind getting a piece of experimental equipment, called an alpha magnetic spectrometer, aboard the International Space Station in May 2011.

George F. Smoot

Smoot, a professor of physics at the University of California in Berkeley, was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 2006 for his work on the Cosmic Background Explorer.

Lawrence M. Krauss

Krauss, a physics professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, studies cosmology — the origin and fate of the universe — and particle physics. But he’s worked in a broad range of the sciences.

The Rev. George V. Coyne

Coyne, the chair of religious philosophy at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., is both a scientist and a Jesuit. He believes that the “universe participates in the mystery of the god who created it,” Niederriter wrote.

S. James Gates

Gates, a physics professor at the University of Maryland in College Park, has studied so-called “superparticles,” a theoretical elementary particle.

Tickets to the conference cost $115 for reserved seating or $70 for general admission. For more information, call 507-933-7520.