Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The God Particle

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 17 mile-long particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland, is the world’s largest atom smasher. I sometimes wonder if it might be the world’s largest man-made anything. Certainly it’s the world’s largest tool.

Meanwhile, the Museum of the San Raphael Swell, in Castle Dale, Utah, has a remarkable set of artifacts on display—a complete Stone Age tool kit, including letter belt and holsters, that was once the property of a Fremont Indian. The kit contains an array of stone chopping tools running from large to small. (I wonder if the individual who owned it was “union.”)

Neither tool is really of much use to us today. Stone tools are rather clumsy, even when they’re very sharp. And the LHC is only used for looking at things so small they don’t seem to be there.

It was rumored recently that the physicists conducting experiments on the LCH had found the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle sometimes referred to rather frivolously as the 'God particle.'

Some insiders dismissed the “leak” as a hoax, while others lauded the find as a potentially huge breakthrough in our understanding the how the universe works. 'If it were to be real, it would be really exciting,' physicist Sheldon Stone of Syracuse University exclaimed, upon hearing the rumor.

In the currently orthodox Standard Model describing the “building blocks” of the universe, six elementary bosoms seem to be required by the math. (We’ll leave the fermions for another time.) Of the six, only the Higgs has never hitherto be actually seen or detected in any way…until now. Yet it is the Higgs bosom, physicists theorize, that bestows mass on all the other particles. Without that tiny and elusive particle, the Standard Model offers no explanation for why objects have mass.

When reading popular reports about scientific breakthroughs, it’s always a good idea to listen closely for the metaphors. I wonder, for example, in what way a particle “bestows” mass on other particles. The image of a knight bestowing knighthood on another, kneeling knight, springs to mind. It seems to me (in my ignorance) that a particle either has mass or it doesn’t. Better yet, why don’t we just say that all particles have mass, and that “things” lacking mass aren’t particles but forces.

Adopting the semantic approach for a moment, I might suggest that objects have mass by definition. Objects that don’t aren’t objects. They just fly off into space like balloons, never to be seen again.

Even those physicists who do the most arcane math end up using metaphors and tinker-toy models to explain what they think they’ve discovered. And they make use of huge devices like the LHC to slam particles together at enormous speeds, just to see what comes flying out, because numbers themselves aren’t “real.” We just use them to describe the behavior of real things.

Not long after the rumors about the Higgs boson began circulating, physicists began taking bets about whether it would hold up to close scrutiny. Some were confident it was a false result, while others were hoping it was evidence of an entirely new particle that a new generation of physicists could spend their careers exploring.

When asked about the rumor, Nigel Lockyer, director of Canada's national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, TRIUMF, said: 'We are so close to learning something profound.'

Yet here again, we must ask ourselves what is “profound” about a particle that bestows mass? Especially once we’ve smashed it to bits and exposed it to the light of day. And why, for that matter, is this particle referred to as the God-particle? Is there something intrinsically divine about mass?

Or are we merely enchanted by dark spaces clothed in unintelligible symbols and enormous force, the way our ancestors were enchanted by the cryptic tales of the mighty Lancelot and the noble Yvain?

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