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DUALISM AND NON-DUALISM: ELEMENTARY FORMS OF PHYSICS AT CERN

  • Author(s): Roy, Arpita
  • Advisor(s): Rabinow, Paul
  • et al.
Abstract

The dissertation critically examines the process of discovery, thought and language at the frontier of modern science. It is based on two and a half years of ethnographic research at the particle accelerator complex, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, Switzerland. In March 2010, the LHC began the world's highest energy experiments as a probe into the structure of matter and forces of nature. In the light of the LHC experiments, the dissertation investigates the relation of general beliefs and technical procedures of science with the principles of classification of knowledge, to show how they conjointly constitute a specific cultural or symbolic mode of apprehending the world, and to inquire how this mode is expressed, affirmed and maintained in everyday behavior.

Dwelling amongst the particle physics community at CERN, I observed that conceptions of matter and energy were derived from submerged assumptions about how the universe works. These assumptions took the form of proscriptions and dualisms: values do not affect physical reality, the mind does not participate in the universe, or conventions do not impinge on laws of physics. In spite of this, and perhaps more interesting, I found a few puzzling concepts in specific data-sets of theory, experiment and instrumentation, that confront and challenge, quite effectively to my mind, the separations of subject and object, or sign and thing, in a discipline that ostensibly proceeds from their strict separation.

The dissertation examines the classification of handedness (right and left) in particle interactions with the underlying question: Does physics admit of orientation? To characterize right or left presupposes an observer, and conventions. But if physics proceeds from the separation of subject and object, then how can it posit - as it does - a physical universe with a preferred orientation? The focus here shifts to the experimental concept of "signatures." Decays from particle collisions, such as a Higgs boson decaying into two photons, are termed signatures and constitute the unit of discovery in particle physics. Focusing on the physics signature, I inquire into the potential relevance of formal theories of semiotics in considering natural signs. Finally, my work explores the rich material culture of the laboratory through the lens of a concept of pure circulation - energy - as it flows in the magnetic fields and currents of the accelerator. By analyzing a concept that attempts to bring together Maxwell's equations of the field with the exigencies of machine parameters, the research arrives at a key moment in the life of a laboratory when the division of theory and practice stands critically exposed.

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