Law & Order and physics

In the L&O ep. “Big Bang” an unemployed theoretical physicist is arrested for murdering the wife of a leading physicist in the field…who stole said killer physicist’s ideas.

In interrogation, the killer’s thesis is laid out to the detectives:
In Proton Decay, the proton does not decay into (insert technobabble), but instead (more abstract technobabble).

Is any of the science outlined in the episode sound? Does the technobabble make sense, or is it just gobbledygook made up for the show?

Sorry, there is no Youtube vid to show what I’m describing.

At this point, there is no experimental evidence that protons decay at all.

You don’t need experimental evidence for theoretical physics. :slight_smile:

I thought it was beta decay of the neutron that was discussed in the episode. No?

Proton decay is something that particle physicists think about occasionally, though not as much as they did 10-20 years ago. Through very careful experiments, we’ve been able to determine that if the proton does decay, its half-life is longer than about six million billion billion billion years. (The Universe itself is “only” about 14 billion years old.) This serves as a useful test for proposed particle physics theories: if it predicts that protons decay more readily than this, you’ve got to go back to the drawing board.

Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you how plausible the statement is without knowing the precise technobabble it contained. Most theories with proton decay predict that the proton would decay into a pion and a photon; does that ring a bell at all?

Warning: I am not a professional physicist. (Just an enthusiastic amateur.) Also, I haven’t seen the L&O episode in question.

There was (is?) a non-zero rate of proton decay predicted by some Grand Unified Theories of physics. From this page:

The experimental search for proton decay was undertaken because of the implications of the grand unification theories. The lower bound for the lifetime is now projected to be on the order of […] 10[sup]33[/sup] years.

[…] So far, no convincing proton decay events have been seen. […] This low probability for a null result suggests that the proposed lifetime of 10[sup]33[/sup] years is too short.

I can’t speak for what’s in the episode, but unlike protons, neutrons are already known to decay (when not in an atomic nucleus).

I looked up several plot summaries, but none of them were very detailed. It’s been ages since I’ve seen “Big Bang”, but I do remember that mentioned how current experiments had failed to detect any protons decaying, thus leading to the assumption about the proton’s half-life quoted above. The fictional scientist’s theory suggested that protons do decay all the time, but do so in a different mode than convention expected, and that the experiments all missed it because they weren’t set up to watch for that mode. While trying to explain it, the scientist drew a Feynman diagram for the D.A. I wasn’t able to make out anything on the sketch back then, but perhaps it’s possible these days with blu-ray and/or hi-def.

IIRC, he did relate exact decay products. I don’t recall if his theory had different decay products than the conventional theory, or whether it was just a different “mode”, but he was insistent that it was the different mode that made all the difference about what the old experiments were detecting. He wanted to review the old data, but was denied by the other scientist who later stole his theory, and this was his motive for murder.

I very vaguely recall watching this episode, like, eight or nine years ago. I don’t remember any of the dialogue, but I do seem to recall being impressed by the reasonableness of it. I’d have to see a clip to be sure, but I don’t think I would have had that feeling if the decay modes and detection difficulties mentioned in the script weren’t somewhat sensible.

That’s MY idea, you @Q#@%#^&%!

Clearly this is a modern version of a Galileo anagram. The script writers needed some plausible science, any science, and one of them knew an eminent physicist. This guy has a theory that he is embarrassed to publish, but wants the credit for if sometime in the future it turns out to be true. So rather than copy Galileo, and write silly anagrams to his colleges (something which would be impossible to do with modern physics anyway,) he has grabbed the opportunity to publish his idea in a manner that allows him to keep credit, but not become ridiculed. So all you need do to spring him, is check the credits at the end of the episode.

Easy. :smiley:

You know how great the Dope is? It’s so great that there’s a guy on it with a large collection of Law & Order DVDs and just enough spare time and boredom to rewatch the episode in question and transcribe the dialog.

Here’s Briscoe reading the victim’s husband’s biography:

And here’s suspected mad bomber Dr. Weiss explaining the research that Manning stole:

As to whether that makes any sense, I’ll leave that for others to decide.

Nice work, friedo.

On the physics…

The omega minus (or [symbol]W[/symbol][sup]-[/sup]) was discovered in 1964 at Brookhaven National Laboratory. This L&O episode took place in 1994, so that would make the victim 56 years old. Seems reasonable. The actual experimental group had 33 members, none of whom (of course) were named Manning. (Journal article for the [symbol]W[/symbol][sup]-[/sup] discovery: Physical Review Letters 12, 204–206.)

The proton decay detection method outlined is reasonable. That is, a vat of liquid viewed by light-sensitive photomultiplier tubes is a common setup, and the scale of the active detector volume (i.e., the size of a very large room) is reasonable.

Both proton decay modes mentioned are actually searched for. The one Weiss poo-poos is favored by many grand unified theories, partly because the daughter particles are the lightest charged lepton [electron] and hadron [pion] possible, a situation which has certain advantages. This mode is also relatively easy to search for because the two-particle final state (as opposed to three or more particles) means that the electron has a specific energy and the pion has a specific energy. You need only look for those two particles with those exact energies, so the expected rate of “fake” signals is low.

The other decay mode (p–>e[symbol]n[/symbol][symbol]n[/symbol]) is also viable and searched for by experimentalists, although detection is more difficult. The outgoing electron’s energy can cover a wide range (rather than always being the same every time), and the outgoing neutrinos go completely undetected. Thus, in the lingo, one would say that the “signature” of this decay is more easily mimicked by other processes, making it a bit harder to study (but not insurmountably so).

It is further possible that Manning had designed his analysis software to look solely for the e[symbol]p[/symbol] channel and not the e[symbol]n[/symbol][symbol]n[/symbol] channel. This would have been overt, though. He would have presented his results as such (“A Search for Proton Decay via p–>e[symbol]p[/symbol]”, or whatever) and everyone would already realize that he didn’t look for other decay modes.

Regarding “we can synthesize three of the basic forces of the universe”… Weiss is noting that the observation of proton decay would be a boon for grand unified theories, which (sometimes) predict proton decay and which indeed are attempts to integrate our descriptions of the electromagnetic, strong, and weak forces into one well-behaved package (that is, “synthesize three of the basic forces of the universe”).

Regarding “we would be on the verge of reading the mind of God”… Erm, maybe.

Anyway, they very clearly had a particle physicist on hand, as these bits of dialogue are surprisingly realistic in content (if overly dramatized in tone).

No, it’s so great that it brings together people who actually care if popular TV bothers to get the physics right with a guy who has a large *Law and Order *collection and someone who can evaluate the the data. I love you guys, man

So friedo, can you look at the closing credits and see if there’s any 'Dr. …" with a credit of consultant?

THe credits list two technical advisors, Michael Struk and William Fordes, both of whom appear in the credits of billions of L&O episodes. So I doubt that they are physicists.

The episode was written by Ed Zuckerman, who has written a bunch of other episodes. Maybe somebody should look him up and ask him.

You do good work!