Friday, September 12, 2008

Unveiling Nature's Deepest Secrets

Man must understand his universe in order to understand his destiny," said Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

Mankind took a significant step toward understanding the universe this week. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that began its first tentative operation on September 10 at CERN is our most ambitious (and most expensive) effort yet to understand how the universe came into being and why nature is the way it is.

The origin of the universe is echoed in the smallest of particles and the fiery fragments they create when colliding at or near the speed of light. In late fall of 2008 or early spring of 2009, when the LHC is fully operational, protons will be slamming into protons at 99.999999 percent of the speed of light, and scientists and interested laymen alike will hold their collective breath for what ensues.

Whereas in nuclear fission or fusion, mass is converted into energy according to Einstein’s famous formula, E = mc2, at the LHC energy is expected to be transformed into mass (m = E/c2), creating particles that will test the most successful particle physics theory called the standard model. At the heart of the standard model, formulated in the 1970s, is Higgs boson, a particle that has never been detected, but without which this theory remains just that, a theory.

Some scientists, including English physicist Peter Higgs who came up with the idea of the particle that is meant to account for an object’s mass, worry that the LHC may not be able to detect the Higgs boson. That can very well mean, of course, that there is no Higgs boson to begin with, and you cannot detect something that doesn’t exist. Would that mean that for 40 years scientists have been chasing a red herring?

I think that is the wrong way to look at it. If the LHC confirms the existence of Higgs boson, wonderful! If it doesn’t, that’s wonderful too! Why? Because while the complex intellectual edifice called the standard model may come down like a house of cards, it will most likely open the door to a yet deeper theory whose beauty and predictive power will surpass the standard model. Nature gives up her secrets only under torture, it would seem, but when she does, we can only marvel at the fact that her imagination always proves richer than ours.

The LHC experiment is also expected to shed light on the validity of string theory. According to its detractors, it's a vast wasteland where bright young physicists have gone to seed for almost four decades. For now, though, string theory is the leading candidate to unite the four fundamental forces of nature - gravitational, electromagnetic, weak and nuclear. Can it prove to be the fabled "Unified Theory" that eluded Einstein? Can the LHC discover "sparticles," the supersymmetric particles predicted by the theory and represented by higher vibrations of strings, the visible universe being the manifestation of only the lowest vibrations? It is not to a scientist that we turn to but to a poet - Tennyson - for insight into the elusive nature of truth: "I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro' Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades For ever and forever when I move."

Be that as it may, the success of the LHC is assured one way or the other. Even if most of us cannot follow the enormously complicated calculations and interpretations that will occupy LHC scientists for years to come, we can still rejoice when nature reveals her mysteries. Scientists toil for decades to clear dense undergrowths that stretch into forever and suddenly a vista of breathtaking beauty opens and we look at each other "with a wild surmise - Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

The silly talk of tiny black holes that may be created at the LHC that can gobble up the earth (Switzerland first, France second ...) has brought rebukes from reputed scientists but I find such fears humanizing. An $8 billion dollar experiment designed by thousands of scientists working for 14 years that has not some scare built into it isn't worth its name.

The micro black holes are expected to disintegrate far too quickly to do any damage, as predicted by Stephen Hawking's theory, but let's say that something utterly unimaginable and unexpected happens and the black holes begin to act on their voracious appetite.

What then? Well, can anyone imagine a more honorable way to exit the earth than in our quest to understand our destiny?

You can also read this blog here.

1 comment:

exquant said...

Physics and theology:

The quest for the holy grail of knowledge (i.e., the origin of the universe and its evolution) more and more sounds like a thirst for a religious experience.

The endeavor, however, is noble and it is part of mankind's tradition across the barriers of time and culture. If an ultimate deity existed, It would have rewarded humble creature's attempts to comprehend the Universe..

The whole physics community was gratified when quantum electrodynamics of Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga answered the electromagnetic riddles but challenges remained. General relativity offered a new Calculus for the large scale structure of the universe. The standard model is the only dynamic model that integrated weak and electromagnetic interactions and quantum chromodynamics. Field theory provides the mathematical foundation for the standard model. However, this model does not address gravity. During the last forty years, we have gained confidence that we are on the right track. The standard model has been the fodder for zillions physics grad students aspiring for the union card. Is the superstructure about to collapse? What if the large hadron Collider does not find the Higgs Boson?

Science itself is an evolutionary process. The standard model is predictive and its power of prediction can not be nullified by a single experiment's failure to find the Boson.

Failure of LHC experiments to discover the Higgs will not spell doom for the standard model. It could just mean that the Higgs Bosons are very elusive particles beyond the net trawled by LHC. I do not believe that the LHC will have much to say about the string theory because we are still far from the energy scale of interest to String theories.

String theory's elegance is beyond question but its power to predict measurable characteristics of the
physical world is not. It is probably natural to presume that nature abhors ugliness and beauty reigns supreme. But it would be rather uncritical at this point in human history to accept string theory as the theory of every thing.

The scientific community has multi-pronged efforts to discover the nature of reality, for example, observational astronomy. With large, orbits based telescopes, now we can see far into the edges of the known universe. With the availability of access to institutional telescopes through the Internet, high science will become available to the masses.

I fervently hope that the LHC gives us the Boson because it would offer a lot of us some comfort that a breakthrough in critical human knowledge in the very field of our own past exertion was achieved in our times.

The probablity of a micro-black hole emnating from LHC to devour the galaxy is less than the probability of your becoming a winged angel in real-time.

While the standard model and String theory are both mathematically elegant, the real theory will probably blow our mind. God(s)/Nature has/have decided to keep it a secret. Just a joke, I am not even agnostic.

I do not see the LHC as a make or break experiment but it is man's latest effort to understand the mysteries of the beginning of time and space.

Higgs Boson! => Celebrate and continue
No, Higgs! Try harder for more funding and do not lose heart

Proabably, the ultimate truth is not knowable.

I would bet $20 that Higgs will not be found. I will only accept 20 bets on a first come first served basis.