March 20, 2006–The Mark C. Marin Center at Antilles School on St. Thomas was pulsating with excitement Monday, as about 200 students from many of the island's public and private schools anxiously listened to some of the world's top physicists attempt to discuss one of the field's great cosmological mysteries: What is gravity, and what is its role in the universe?
The physicists – Nobel Prize winners Gerard t Hooft, David Gross and Frank Wilczek, along with Dr. Lawrence Krauss, and Virgin Islands native Dr. Edward Thomas Jr. – have been on island for the past week debating the issue at a seminar dubbed "Confronting Gravity: A Workshop to Explore Fundamental Questions in Physics and Cosmology," which was held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
"This whole thing is very exciting," said Antilles Headmaster Ted Morse before the presentations began. "Anytime you have the opportunity hear from Nobel laureates like this, you go for it. It's totally worth it for us to take some time off of school and listen to them speak."
Morse said the event took about three to four months of planning, and was the brainchild of Kim Woodbury, the school's physics and chemistry teacher.
Woodbury also credited Cecile deJongh, director of the J. Epstein Virgin Islands Foundation, for putting Monday's event together. The Epstein Foundation sponsored last week's conference and Monday's event, along with the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where Krauss is the Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics and chairman of the Physics Department.
Krauss, who also spoke during Charter Week events at the University of the Virgin Islands (See "Physicist Says Universe is Expanding, Flat"), told students that the universe is expanding, and said that if gravity were the only force in the universe, then planets would be colliding with each other instead of moving farther apart. He explained that scientists do not know what is preventing such collisions from happening, but that the answer lies in discovering exactly what constitutes the energy found in "dark matter" and "empty space" – the regions that lie in between planets, galaxies and stars.
Gross expounded on Krauss' statements by briefly discussing some basic aspects of elementary particle physics, including the makeup of an atom, and the "strong" and "weak" forces generated inside the nucleus. The weak force, he said, gives rise to radioactivity and the transmutation of elements, while the strong force holds the nucleus together.
"We've discovered that when the quarks that makeup the neutrons are close together, they move around freely inside the atom, but when you try to pull them apart, there is a strong force between them which keeps them together – kind of like a rubber band. What scientists are now trying to determine how gravity works to unify the two forces, and the other forces in the universe," he said.
Gross also spoke animatedly to students about science in general and encouraged them to join the field. "We're here to recruit you," he said. "We need young people who are motivated and excited to come into science and to make discoveries, since most of the questions that need to be answered remain unanswered. Science is a wonderful way of life, and you'd be doing something that's fun and adventurous, where the work is challenging. It's like playing games, and you get to do that all the time."
Wilczek, also honored for his work in elementary particle physics, had a different recruiting tactic – luring students in by visually showing them some of the perks of the job. "Science can really expand your mind and teach you about realities you never knew existed," he said while showing students an image of what scientists believe is inside empty space – an image that he described as looking like the inside of a lava lamp.
"Progress comes from small discoveries made by many people, and those discoveries contribute to our understanding of nature," 't Hooft added after Wilczek's presentation. "So, if you decide to become a scientist, it's most likely that you'll discover something, and that discovery will help us make some more progress in the field."
't Hooft described some of the ongoing efforts being made by scientists to discover the molecular makeup of the graviton, where he said "all the mysteries lie," and the other realms of science students might find interesting. 't Hooft said he is working on trying to find the "ultimate truths" of physics, which he said is a field based on theories and probability.
Thomas Barrows, a student in Woodbury's senior physics class, said after the event: "This was a really great opportunity to be around such profound scientific figures who know about the world in a way we don't." Barrows, who introduced 't Hooft onstage, added that their class has been researching the physicists for the past few weeks, and have started to study about dark matter and black holes.
Classmate Jerrick Amaro, 16, added that he was inspired by the lecture. "Physics is fun, and you get to explore the world," he said. "I'm really interested in it, and this whole thing was a great learning experience.
Students from Charlotte Amalie and Ivanna Eudora Kean High Schools also attended the event, along with students from All Saints Cathedral School, Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic School, and the Montessori School.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.