A Few Questions with Theoretical Physicist Lance Dixon

April 17, 2012

"A Few Questions with" is an informal, occasionally irreverent feature where SLAC employees offer their answers to questions about the lab, science, the big bang (theory or TV show) and life in general.

Scientist Lance Dixon researches theoretical elementary particle physics. He is co-author of the cover story in this month’s Scientific American, “A Unified Physics?” The research described in the article has very deep roots, says Dixon: His own involvement dates back 20 years, and he says its applications to the Large Hadron Collider have blossomed recently, thanks in large measure to the work of young physicists – including Stefan Hoeche, now here at SLAC. 

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
LD: An astronaut or pilot. In third grade I wrote a book, “I Can Fly.” My dad had a Cessna 182, a four-seater. We put six in it. We flew it to DC – it took three days. On day trips, my dad would let us practice landings. 

Who were your science heroes when you were a kid?
LD: My dad. He went to Caltech – he roomed with Ken Wilson and Don Groom – and stayed there after his Ph.D. And Richard Feynman; he showed up and hung around with us at freshman camp for Caltech.

What was your first notable research achievement?
LD: When I was a graduate student, I was involved with a couple of papers about inventing a new way to make string theory in four dimensions with orbifolds. Ed Witten was the primary author. 

Besides your own, which research projects are you watching closely?

LD: I’m watching the Large Hadron Collider, especially the search for the Higgs boson. I’ve done some theory related to it, but more of my work is related to other processes at the LHC.

What advice do you give students?

LD: Don’t get buried in your own thesis projects. Become aware of the breadth of what’s going on. And be aware of how experiments work.

What Big Question would you most like to answer?
LD: Is there new physics at the electroweak scale that LHC will discover, beginning with a single Higgs boson?

Did you ever do work you hated?
LD: I worked for an aerospace company one summer. I made copies. It was a pretty lame job.

What books are on your nightstand?
LD: There’s one I gave my son about the Navajo Code Talkers. Also The Four Percent Universe about dark energy.

Do you watch The Big Bang Theory? 
LD: My work has been on the show. Look up “Sheldon at the DMV” and what he was doing at 16. And I always check the whiteboard to see what David (physicist David Saltzberg, science consultant to the show) has been thinking lately.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
LD: Skiing. I’d like to do more hiking and climbing. I’m halfway through my lifetime list of Sierra peaks. But it was also half complete 15-20 years ago.

What’s the most worthless invention ever?
LD: Facebook. It's an infinite time sink if you let it be.

Starbucks or Peet's? 
LD: Peet's for whole beans, Starbucks if I need to do some work in the morning.

Pluto is a planet: yes or no? 
LD: Can I make a joke here? We could rename the Higgs boson Pluto: It’s not a planet; it’s a Not a planet. There are too many other similar-sized objects out there in the Kuiper belt for Pluto to get special status nowadays. It just happened to be the closest, and so it was the first one found.







Lance Dixon with son Kyle in Lake Tahoe.