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Science, Maths & Technology

Fundamental physics and the magnetic monopole

Updated Wednesday 9th May 2007

David Milstead can't predict what might spin off from his research into magnetic monopoles but, just as splitting the atom led to the electronics revolution, he's sure that today's pure physics research will lead to tomorrow's everyday technology.

Throughout history humans have tried to describe the basic units from which everything else is made. Although the idea of indivisible building blocks of matter, or atoms, was first suggested in 5th century BC by Democritus, Aristotle's later assertion that matter was simply made up of different proportions of four fundamental elements (earth, water, fire and air) was to sweep the idea aside for 2000 years.

But even when the concept of the atom returned, that too had to be revised when, in 1897, J J Thompson discovered the electron. Atoms weren't indivisible after all, they weren't the fundamental building blocks of the universe. Before long it was realised that atoms are actually made of protons, neutrons and electrons. This discovery revolutionised our world with the dawn of electronics and the development of the television, radio and computer. But it didn't end there. In the 1960s experiments began to show that these particles were made up of yet smaller particles, called quarks.

To get your hands on quarks, you have to smash together protons and electrons at extremely high speeds, as fast as the speed of light. There are only a few laboratories in the world with these facilities, so physicist Dave Milstead has to travel to Germany to see it happening in a particle detector the size of two houses. It's a dangerous process so the detector is encased in thick concrete and lies seven storeys below the city of Hamburg.

To date the quark is the smallest particle to be detected, but Dave Milstead believes something else exists - called a magnetic monopole. While electrons and protons carry an electric charge if magnetic monopoles do exist they would carry a magnetic charge. Dave says that if the magnetic monopole is detected, it will solve a fundamental mystery of the universe - why electric charge comes in whole packets, never in fractions.

So far no one has proved whether magnetic monopoles exist or not. Some scientists are looking to the sky to see if they'll come from space, some look at volcanic rock to see if they're in the earth, but Dave has an novel approach - he wants to try looking in a pipe. Dave thinks that these particles might be embedded in the pipe of the Hamburg particle detector, a by-product from years of high energy physics experiments. In fact, he's been waiting for ten years for the pipe to be replaced so he can begin his quest for the magnetic monopole.

If someone succeeds in finding a magnetic monopole it will open a whole new chapter in particle physics. Just as the splitting of the atom led to the electronics revolution, Dave is sure that today's pure physics research will lead to tomorrow's everyday technology.


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