Friday, January 20, 2012

The God Particle

by Conroy

Part of the 17-mile-long LHC particle accelerator
Late last year there was breathless excitement within the physics community as several experiments conducted by CERN [1] at the Large Hadron Collider [2] under Geneva seemed to hint at the presence of a fundamental, and as yet entirely theoretical, particle: the Higgs boson. What is this particle and why did these experiments so energize physicists? The short, simple answer is that the Higgs boson is the particle associated with the Higgs field, which is hypothesized to be a ubiquitous quantum “field”. Think of it as a force or condition throughout all of space that matter interacts with. It is theorized that Higgs bosons interact with other fundamental particles (electrons, quarks, etc.) to give them mass. If detected, the Higgs boson would further validate the so called Standard Model of particle physics, one of the core theories of how the universe (the fundamental particles and forces) is structured.

The news from CERN quickly spread to the general news media and Newsweek jumped to exclaim on a cover headline that the experiments hinted at, “The Meaning of the Universe.” Other publications picked up on the Higgs boson’s nickname as “the God particle”. These headlines and reactions create the impression that this discovery, if confirmed [3], would explain many of the remaining questions in theoretical physics and provide the answers to those eternal questions that have puzzled mankind for millennia. So would it?

The Profound Questions
The Higgs boson would explain why particular particles have a specific mass. Mass is a fundamental feature of matter and explaining how mass “works” would be a tremendous breakthrough. The results would also be important in the understanding of mass-less particles like photons. But the discovery would hardly answer the even more fundamental questions about the nature of the universe, such as:
  • What is the universe?
  • Where did it come from?
  • Why does it have the structure and forces that it does?
  • Is there anything outside of the universe?
  • What is the universe’s fate?
Let’s come back to these.

Everything to (Practically) Nothing
The Milky Way
There’s a terrific website – – that provides an interactive depiction of the size of the universe and everything in it. It’s a way to conceptualize just how inconceivably vast the totality of the universe is, and how absurdly infinitesimal are its fundamental parts. Let’s take a quick scan of this reality. Make a fist and stare at it, image it is the entire universe and you’re looking at it like God:
  • Our universe is estimated to be 93 billion light years across. Light, traveling at 186,000 miles per second, would take 93 billion years to cover the current expanse of the universe.
  • We can observe about 14 billion of these light years, the approximate time that light has had to travel since time began (14 billion years ago, give or take). The universe inflated faster than light a short time after the Big Bang.
  • We zoom way way in to our galaxy, the Milky Way, one out of hundreds of billions, and a mere 120,000 light years across, 0.0000086 times the distance of the observable universe.
  • We focus further, much further, to our solar system, which including the Oort Cloud, is 0.15 light years across, 1.5 trillion kilometers, or 0.0000013 times the distance of the whole Milky Way.
  • We continue closer and see the dim Sun from Pluto, nearly six billion kilometers distant, 0.004 times the diameter of the Oort Cloud.
  • We pass Jupiter, 800 million kilometers from the Sun, 0.125 times the distance from Pluto to the Sun.
  • We see the Sun, shining nuclear-bomb bright, one star out of hundreds of billions in our galaxy, nearly 1.4 million kilometers across, 0.0018 the distance to Jupiter.
  • We close in on the Earth, one planet of likely hundreds of billions in the Milky Way, almost 13,000 kilometers in diameter, just a spec compared to the Sun.
  • We see China spread 4,000 kilometers across the Earth’s surface.
  • We see Mount Everest standing nearly 9 kilometers tall.
  • We see a man standing on the summit, less than 2 meters (6 feet) tall.
  • He steps on a snowflake a centimeter (.01 meters) across.
  • And wishes on an eyelash 0.1 millimeters (.0001 meters) thick, just about as thin as the human eye can detect.
  • His heart vigorously pumps blood through his veins and he rapidly exhales moist air, red blood cells and air droplets, both about 0.00001 meters across.
  • The moisture includes water molecules 0.0000000003 (3x10^-10) meters across.
  • Each molecule includes two hydrogen atoms, each just 0.00000000003 (3x10^-11) meters across.
  • The nucleus of those atoms is 0.00000000000001 (1x10^-14) meters across.
  • The proton inside the nucleus is 0.000000000000001 (1x10^-15) meters across.
  • The quarks [4] inside the proton (and the electron circling the nucleus) are 0.000000000000000001 (1x10^-18) meters across.
  • Preons, the building blocks of quarks are 0.000000000000000000001 (1x10^-21) meters across.
  • Neutrinos, the ghostly particles the fly virtually untouched through all of matter are smaller yet, just 0.000000000000000000000001 (1x10^-24) meters across.
  • And finally to the smallest of the smallest, the theoretical strings and Plank length (the “minimum” length of anything) at 0.00000000000000000000000000000000001 (1x10^-35) meters across.

I doubt the human mind can truly conceptualize the size of anything on scales larger than the solar system or smaller than a cell (I can’t anyway). We can see the Sun and have sent space probes past Pluto. We can see the thickness of a piece of paper and understand its even smaller constituent parts. Yet the great unanswered questions lie beyond these narrow boundaries of observation and intuition.

Physics and Fantasy
Newton pushed knowledge forward
The human mind has done a miraculous (though maybe ingenious would be a better term) turn in piecing together this reality over the last 3,000 years. As Alan Lightman recently wrote, observation, experiment, and theorizing has pushed us – we think – to the very bounds of existence, from the building blocks of all space and time to the edge of the universe; from worshiping gods that controlled the winds and the tides to general relativity and quantum mechanics; from Aristotle to Copernicus to Newton to Einstein to today’s geniuses. But so many “whys” remain. Why do forces (gravity, electro-magnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces) act on matter as they do? Why only these forces? Why do the fundamental particles (electrons, quarks, photons, to name a few) have the intrinsic qualities they do (mass, charge, spin, etc.)? Why this array of fundamental particles? Where did all this stuff (matter and energy) come from? In short, why is the universe like it is and behave like it does?

As knowledge has grown, so have the mysteries. In the last couple of decades, physicists have confirmed that the great bulk of the stuff (matter and energy) in the universe is comprised of dark matter and dark energy (combined about 96% of the total). Dark matter doesn’t interact with the electro-magnetic force, so we can’t observe it directly, but it bends light from distant galaxies with its cumulative gravity (gravitation lensing), so we know it’s there. Dark energy is spreading intergalactic space apart at an accelerating rate. Science has nothing more than theories about what these are. As noted, the fundamental particles have intrinsic characteristics, like the mass of an electron. This (mass) may be the result of how electrons interact with the Higgs field and its Higgs bosons, but still, even if we can explain the mechanism, does that tell us why the values are the way they are?

Physicists generally agree that if any of the intrinsic properties of matter or the strength of the fundamental forces was even a tiny bit different, the universe would not be the way it is. A tiny change to gravity and matter wouldn’t clump together, no stars, no planets. Small changes in the strength of the nuclear forces and nuclear fusion wouldn’t occur, no oxygen, or carbon, or any heavy elements. The universe as we know it and life as we understand it are possible because of the exact intrinsic properties of matter and forces. That, to science, is an uncomfortable result. A seemingly inexplicable and random set of values that govern everything; Science wants an answer to the “why”.

A depiction of an 11-dimension "string"
Many theoretical physicists believe they have found the answer: String Theory. In a much abbreviated explanation [5], String Theory holds that the fundamental forces and particles are made up of tiny vibrating “strings” the size of the very smallest realm of space. The manner in which the strings vibrate gives rise to the intrinsic properties of particles and forces. In a way, this is a simple and elegant explanation. But very strangely, String Theory requires there not to be our familiar four dimensions (three of space and one of time) but 10 or 11 dimensions. Where are these weird, impossible-to-conceive-of dimensions? According to String Theory, they’re bundled up on the tiniest of spacial scales and therefore invisible to observation. Sound strange? Well the more we look the stranger the universe appears. However, String Theory for all of its elegance and promise is nothing more than a theory. The details exist on a scale of space that we can’t observe or test, and probably never will be able to observe or test. We don’t even have real equations to test because the math is so complicated, but instead rely on approximations from math we can model. String Theory might be right, but we may never be able to prove it.

One offshoot of String Theory is the calculation that the geometry of an eleven-dimension reality could take many forms, something like 1x10^500, a number so huge that for practical reasons can be considered infinite. Every one of these geometries would give rise to different string vibrations and hence different intrinsic values for the fundamental particles and forces. This idea has been extended to posit the existence of other universes, one for every possible geometry. This is one possible form for what physicists term the multi-verse. Our universe isn’t everything, just one of a practically infinite number of universes. Think about this for a second. Does a multi-verse seem possible? It might be. How can we say that it isn't' possible? We can only see part of our own universe, let alone detect the presence of elements that exist outside of our universe (if they’re there). But again, like String Theory, it likely can never be tested, never observed, never proved. Beyond our universe, by most people’s perspectives, is beyond our reach.

There are in fact several other theories about the multi-verse. Some of them are even used to explain the Big Bang. Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicists and theoretician, has even suggested that the Big Bang itself need not to have been the event that started time and the universe as we understand it. Instead the universe may have an indeterminate, hazy, origin [6]. Time and the universe didn’t start at a point but existed in some form before. Is this possible? Perhaps, after all we cannot simulate conditions at the exact moment of the Big Bang because all physical reality breaks down at a “singularity”, something math can’t handle. But again, can this idea ever be tested? If not, is it even science?

It seems that modern theoretical physics is reaching for answers to all the “whys” listed above. Is it physics or fantasy? The Higgs boson, as Gregg Easterbrook wrote, would be a bit of cosmic plumbing, but hardly an explanation for everything. String Theory and the multi-verse may represent man’s ultimate triumph in understanding the universe (or universes), or they might be dead ends. Either way, lacking real evidence, supporters of these ideas must take them purely on faith.  

Universal Awareness
Whenever we ask the “why” questions, ponder the origin and fate of the universe, and try and understand why things are the way they are we rub against the edge of science and enter into philosophy and even theology. The Big Bang, and the size, complexity, and detail of the universe, all could lead to God. An empiricist (and this writer is one) is tantalized by the amazing strides we as a species have taken to understand the universe. It’s remarkable really. But it seems that to understand everything we need to observe everything. We need to see before the Big Bang, we need to see outside of the universe. We need to see smaller than the smallest distance of space and beyond the 14 billion-year-old cone of the visible universe. We need to see as God might see.

What’s more likely or unlikely, that in an infinite number of universes that exist somewhere at sometime (in what and when no one can say) we inhabit one that has the properties that have allowed the Earth, and life, and humans to evolve and ask these questions and look for their answers? Or that our universe, entirely at random, exploded into existence in a form that allowed us now to exist? Or that we live in a universe created specifically so the Earth, and life, and humans could emerge to ask the “big” questions? Or is there some other explanation yet?
The aging universe.

One thing we can be certain of is that there is a beauty and wonder and miracle that the universe has evolved and that we, made up of the very fabric of the universe, part of it and subject to all its rules, can marvel in its complexity and search for its meaning. In at least this one place and one form the universe has made itself aware. Perhaps there is nothing more amazing than that.

There are many theories for how the universe may end. It could rip itself apart as space expands forever, or maybe it will die a cold death as matter spreads out and cools through entropy. In such scenarios the universe for all intents and purposes dies. All will be lost. The questions we ask, the knowledge we gained, the civilization we created, our Earth, our Sun, the solar system, and everything else will be gone. The universe faces the same mortal dilemma as we individual humans do. Viewed one way this is sad and depressing and begs the question many people have asked about their own lives: What does it all mean? I wonder if there is an answer to that question, if it’s one for science to explain, or if an answer will come from somewhere else.



[1] The European Organization for Nuclear Research.

[2] State-of-the-art, very large (matching its name) with a circumference of 17 miles, and very expensive with a final costs, including upgrades, in the tens of billions of dollars.

[3] Researchers expect to have enough data to make a call on the existence of the Higgs boson by the end of this year (2012).

[4] Readers will not be surprised by my pointing out that the term quarks was borrowed from Jame Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

[5] And I’m no expert, so please refer to Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos for more expansive and expert explanation.

[6] See his recent The Grand Design, which for full disclosure I have only read reviews of.

1 comment:

  1. Electron Space-The Conduit to Advanced Technology! The other way that scientists will discover how the universe works and how particles move in space is to develop a computer program capable of mapping the inside of an atomic particle. Science has decided to build huge particle accelerators like the one at CERN. However, this research will finally reveal new information worthy of further exploration but the secret of success will not come in this way but rather by developing a computer program that is capable of mapping the inside of an atomic particle.

    Elements possess varied electron conduction properties. Scientists must first select an element or combination of elements such as sodium chloride (NACL) for example, where the electron conduits are large and easier to map. In elements with larger “E. Conduits” the electrons are moving at relative slower speeds. Water (H2O) has huge electron conduits and slow moving electrons but because of its fluidity it is unstable and so would be an impediment for experimentation. So, whatever substance is selected, the electrons must be numerous and slow moving as this undertaking requires stable and consistent computer measurement. Every geometrical formation that exists within the atomic particle must be charted. These geometrical formations will prove to science that other dimensional particles are intersecting particles that exist within our spectrum of perception or dimension.[more…]