August 14, 2008
In the quest for ‘the God particle,’ mystics get a new machine
Web extra music video: Large Hadron Collider rap
The Large Hadron Collider. Image courtesy Boston.com
Last weekend they cooled it to 456.25 F below zero.
Buried 300 feet beneath the border of France and Switzerland, 17 miles long, 14 years in the making, it now begins two months of tests before some 7,000 scientists from around the world come to its grand opening party in October.
I love the Large Hadron Collider.
I love it that the citizens of twenty European countries have been willing to pony up $8 billion for something whose findings may have huge relevance to the frontiers of scientific theory, but zero relevance to the practicalities of everyday life. Like great art and literature, it may fundamentally recast our understandings of the essence of existence, but it won't invent Tang or Velcro, nor will it enable the West to say nyah-nyah to the Russians.
(On the other hand, I don't love it that political timidity and a poverty of imagination led the United States, which has chipped in $531 million to the LHC budget, to abandon construction of our own, even more powerful Superconducting Supercollider in 1993, having wasted 10 years of planning, two years of digging and $2 billion on a 54-mile proton racetrack beneath Waxahachie, Texas, that is now worthless for probing the secrets of the universe but a real contender for the title of world's most expensive mushroom farm.)
I love the exotic "God particle," the as-yet-undetected Higgs boson that the LHC may create when it crashes protons together at energies of 14 trillion electron volts and recreates the conditions of the Big Bang 30 million times a second, and whose existence will push physics beyond the Standard Model that has dominated science's understanding of the universe for nearly four decades.
(But I don't love it that the baseline of American scientific literacy is so low; that the frontiers of quantum physics and cosmology are so abstruse; that so many scientists who put a high priority on talking to one another rarely bother to help the public that funds their work grasp what they're up to; and that science journalism, like arts journalism, has become an endangered species.)
Best of all
If you listen to what cosmologists say about the origin of the universe, you have to put your mind in a place where mystics also dwell.
Just try this on for size: At the beginning of time, 14 billion years ago, every single thing that exists in the universe today was compressed into one single point a zillion times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Oh, and by the way, it's entirely possible that before that Big Bang, there was a whole other Big Bang, which created a whole other universe, and before that, yet other Bangs and universes. If that is what scientists really say is true about genesis, and it is, it strikes me as something even more inconceivable and awe-inspiring than anything in biblical Genesis.
Or try wrapping your mind around this: Quantum physicists say that the smallest things in the universe aren't things at all; they're not matter, they're energy. What's more, there is no there there. Stuff isn't anywhere in particular; all that exists is probability, a calculable likelihood that various weirdly named entities will turn up in one place or another, though if you look for them, you'll change where they are.
Einstein famously hated this now-accepted idea, saying, "God does not play dice with the universe." But I find the implications of a probabilistic universe way more mystical than what follows from a mechanistic universe, including the one described by Einstein's theory of general relativity. Imagine that any given point in the cosmos, at any given time, might contain nothing at all. And yet out of all this nothing comes something. You got that? The ultimate reality described by quantum physics is arguably as ineffable as the reality of Ezekiel, Buddha or the Kabbalists of Safed.
There's one other thing I love about the LHC: the empirical bearing it may have on string theory.
Ever since the 1970s, physicists have been trying to do something that eluded Einstein for the last 30 years of his life: come up with a scientific theory that accounts for all the fundamental forces in the universe. The great accomplishment of Einstein's youth was to take on the problems that had come up
So it fell to the scientists after Einstein's death to come up with a single theory, the Standard Theory, which accounts for the strong force, the weak force and electromagnetism, a theory that has been borne out by empirical findings. But what about gravity? A more recent theory, the "theory of everything," which includes gravity as well as the other three forces in the universe, has two huge disadvantages.
One is that this grand explanation of reality, called string theory, is even harder for our human brains to comprehend. It says, for example, that instead of there being four dimensions (three of space, and one of time), there are actually 11 dimensions. It says that what we call matter is actually made up of quivering little loops and strands, vibrating in those 11 dimensions, called "strings," which are so small that there is no hope of ever detecting them. It says there are actually multiple parallel universes, coexisting right now, and that we happen to live on the surface membrane (the "brane") of just one of them, oblivious to the other, equally real branes all around us. String theory, in other words, says stuff that makes Richard Dawkins sound like Rashi. If you can believe in string theory, you can believe in tsimtsum.
And that gets to the other disadvantage of string theory: the problem of belief. Until now, many of our planet's most beautiful minds have perfected the elegance and coherence of string theory, but they have been unable to find empirical evidence that either validates or confirms its predictions. Without such evidence, without the potential for a theory to be disproved, it's not entitled to be called science. It's more of a philosophy, a belief system for brainiacs.
But now, for the first time, the LHC may provide evidence that string theory has predictive power, or that it's just wrong. If string theory's concept of "supersymmetry" turns out to be right
Worried that one of those miniblack holes could destroy the Earth? Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku puts the odds this way: "Because of Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, there is a tiny chance that anything will occur. There is a chance that fire-breathing dragons will be produced by the LHC. But the probability of this event is so small, one can show that it will not happen in the lifetime of the universe."
According to Kaku, at a 1993 congressional hearing about the soon-to-be cancelled Superconducting Supercollider in Texas, a congressman asked a physicist, "Will we find God with this machine? If so, I will vote for it." We won't find God in the LHC. But if we can get our minds to fully comprehend what we do discover with the LHC, we may yet find God in ourselves.
Marty Kaplan, who holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media & Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in molecular biology. His column appears here weekly and his blog every day. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kate McAlpine's Hadronic rap