Faculty Research Update: Moo-Young Han’s Sabbatical in Korea

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Professor Moo-Young Han is back from a sabbatical semester at Seoul National University in Korea. He taught undergraduate and graduate-level physics classes, and spent a great deal of time theorizing about particle physics with his colleague and old friend Jihn E. Kim. “He and I work in the same area,” Han says. “He is the foremost theorist in Korea.” Kim and Han were doing what every theoretical particle physicist in the world is doing right now: “Basically making bets about what might happen at the Large Hadron Collider.”

CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, on the border of Switzerland and France, should be up and running again in a couple of weeks after being shut down over the winter.

“Basically the purpose of the LHC is to create what might have happened a fraction of a second after the Big Bang,” Han says. “We are hoping to get some glimpse of how the matter came into being.” Data from the LHC will also help physicists discover what lies beyond the standard model in physics, which works well in low-energy regimes but appears flawed in high-energy regimes.

Han says there are many theories floating around right now about what might lie beyond the standard model, but none can be proved or disproved without new data. “There’s wild speculation,” he says. “You have to have experimental data to show which way to go.” He says the standing joke is that every physicist has five papers on hand, ready to be sent off to a journal as soon as the data from LHC is inserted.

Of course, a lot of the buzz is about the Higgs particle. But Han is also interested in quarks. “We have been talking about this thing called a quark for over 40 years and the only thing we have so far has been indirect evidence,” he says. “I think the direct confirmation of the quark is really required. We cannot talk about it forever without being able to know it’s there. I have real difficulty with that on a philosophical ground.”

Moo-Young Han first went to the Seoul National University in 1952 as a freshman. He left Korea in 1954 and eventually earned a PhD in physics from the University of Rochester. He came to Duke in 1967.

“It’s a very interesting time,” he says. “A whole army of theorists in the world is waiting. Nobody knows which way to jump right now. By summer, we’ll have some indication of which way to jump. But it will be many years before things really settle down.”