Really, really big questions

December 23, 2011

Physicists in Switzerland just reported they are closing in on the “Higgs boson,” a hypothesized ultra-small unit that may be the building block of subatomic particles. Let’s hope they are right, so European taxpayers get a return on the $10 billion complex built to look for the Higgs boson.

Whether this particle is found will not affect your life in any way. But the search for abstract knowledge is part of the human quest.

Last year as the holidays approached, I reviewed the state of understanding of the size and age of the cosmos. This year for the holidays, the topic is what science knows (or thinks it knows) about some fundamental questions of nature.

* What is matter? When the atom was shown to contain neutrons, protons and electrons, these were assumed to be the basic components of matter. Then such particles were shown to be made up of quarks. Now it turns out quarks — well, you can fill in the sentence. The closer researchers look at matter, the less seems to be there. A baseball is solid at the macro scale: at the subatomic scale, it seems to be made of rapidly spinning packets of nothingness.

The Higgs boson, from which quarks may be made, is conceptualized not so much as a solid entity, rather, as a fluctuation in a mysterious field that some researchers think permeates the cosmos. What is the mysterious field? Your guess is as good as the next Nobel Prize winner’s.

Some scientists expect the Higgs boson to be proven a manifestation of “strings,” the hot idea in academic physics. String conjecture holds that in addition to the four dimensions of human experience — geometry plus time — there are six others. These dimensions are compressed to such smallness they make electrons seem huge; the spinning of the additional dimensions changes nothingness into substance. Ultimately, cheeseburgers are made of rapidly spinning other dimensions.

So far there is no evidence other dimensions exist, nor any proposal for what “another dimension” might be. In 2008, the New York Times ran an article about string thinking that hilariously included an attempt to illustrate alternative dimensions. The fifth dimension was depicted as looking like a paper towel tube. If there are 10 dimensions, good luck depicting them in three dimensions! This book by Lee Smolin, a prominent physicist, contends string thinking is highfalutin mumbo-jumbo.

* Why is most of the universe missing? The part of the cosmos that astronomers can locate — stars, nebulae and, increasingly, worlds – involves perhaps 100 billion galaxies containing 10 sextillion stars, a sextillion being an unfathomable number that is a one followed by 22 zeroes. Yet by current scientific estimates, only about four percent of the matter and energy of the cosmos resides in those stars, plus their associated planets and black holes. The other 96 percent is, well, we’ll get back to you on that.

Evidence indicates there is considerably more “dark matter” and “dark energy” – assumed present owing to the way galaxies move, but not yet located — than regular matter and regular energy. New evidence further suggests the preponderance of the cosmos is “dark energy,” which may be the utmost force in creation, more potent than all gravity, radiation and stellar output combined. Yet as Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University, who just shared a Nobel Prize for a key discovery about how dark energy appears to affect distant galaxies, says, “I have absolutely no clue what dark energy is.” Here is your columnist talking to Riess.

If dark energy and dark matter are real, then what we’ve always thought of as regular matter – what we are made of – will turn out to be weird stuff, since almost all of the universe will be made of something else entirely.

* Why is the universe friendly? Had dark energy been only a tiny bit weaker in the first eon after the Big Bang, all matter would have collapsed back into black holes. Had dark energy been only a tiny bit stronger, galaxies could not have formed. Had gravity been a tiny bit stronger, the stars would have burned through their nuclear material very quickly, and the cosmos fallen dark before life could originate. Had gravity been a tiny bit less strong, planets would not have formed; a haze of elements would orbit stars. If the four known fundamental forces possessed slightly different values, the cosmos would be weirdly distorted instead of geometrically normal. Had it not been for an unlikely idiosyncrasy of the element beryllium, stars could not manufacture the carbon on which life depends. In Harper’s, MIT physicist Alan Lightman just mulled these quandaries.

Maybe the universe is “friendly” because our cosmos has the only possible set of physical laws. (My chips are on that bet.) But having the universe be anthropocentric in character disquiets some researchers, suggesting purpose. In response, cosmologists have developed “multiverse” thinking or M-theory, which holds there are billions or even an infinite number of universes, all of which, through chance, received different physical laws. In M-theory our universe got laws that make life possible, which is good news but also a random fluke.

Stephen Hawking laid out the case for a multiverse in his recent book The Grand Design. Where’s the proof? There is none. Backers of this idea suppose that other universes are accelerating away from ours at more than the speed of light, and thus can never be observed. This makes the multiverse concept late-night dorm-room rumination, not science. To be science, an idea must be falsifiable. It’s impossible to disprove the existence of something claimed as beyond all observation.

M-theory is popular in academia, as it seems to say the “friendly” aspect of the cosmos is just a meaningless coincidence. Physicist Charles Townes, who won a Nobel Prize for the concept of the maser, wryly observed, “To posit the existence of an infinite number of unobservable universes seems considerably more freewheeling than positing a single unobservable God.”

* How did the universe begin? How did life begin? It may be centuries or millennia before humanity knows – if we ever know. So let me wish you happy holidays and close on a light note:

* What is the name of the universe? Our world is Earth, our star in Sol, our galaxy is the Milky Way. But the firmament lacks a name.

Perhaps the cosmos should be christened Ametros, Greek for “without measure.” That’s a pretty classy name. Or maybe we should call it Miss Universe. In alternate years, it could be Mr. Universe.

PHOTO: An artist’s rendering shows a planet called Kepler-20e in this handout released December 20, 2011. REUTERS/NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/Handout



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M_Theory may not be falsifiable due our limited abilities of observation. But it is at least consistent with other observable phenomenon in nature and it is mathematically plausible. I think many people are disturbed by the possibility that there is no “Grand Design” of the universe and that it’s existence is only a mere fluke of nature.

Posted by berkyjay | Report as abusive

“To posit the existence of an infinite number of unobservable universes seems considerably more freewheeling than positing a single unobservable God.”

I disagree.

While it is true that neither concept explains anything, consensus is more likely to be reached on the unobserved existence of the M-verse than upon which of the millions upon millions of gods humanity worships (or has worshipped) might be responsible for manufacturing absolutely everything.

Keep in mind that religious folks have been terminating each other with extreme prejudice since the very beginning of recorded history over precisely this choice.

It’s unfortunate that human beings can’t simply live with “I don’t know.” A very bad explanation seems to always trump none at all.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

> “Whether this particle is found will not affect your life in any way.”
—This is bold, considering the history of how basic science has indirectly but pervasively affected people’s lives! If the Higgs Boson is responsible for mass, we might expect (based on my rudimentary understanding of physics at least) that understanding the Higgs field will aid our understanding of the mechanisms by which relativity works, and possibly show us how to circumvent some of its normal processes or turn them to our advantage. That should be enough to get any space or quantum theory enthusiast excited, even if the industrial fruits of this anticipated discovery will probably take another thirty to one hundred years to touch the lives of our [great?] grandchildren on any significant scale.

> “But the search for abstract knowledge is part of the human quest.”
—Why is our race so curious about such questions (such as the meaning of life) as do not reduce our risk of being eaten by predators or our give us some advantage over our peers? Why must we FEEL joy, pain or any other sensation or emotion at all for that matter? Our physiological response to certain stimuli is vitally important in terms of self-preservation, but why does there have to be a “me” to actually FEEL, OBSERVE or CONTROL anything at all? We certainly haven’t evolved these qualities of sentience or sensibility or through the machinations of microscopic mechanical clock-work. The need for answers is part of the human condition: why so?

> ““I have absolutely no clue what dark energy is.” ”
—I love honest science. It’s a great blessing to us all.

> “Maybe the universe is “friendly” because our cosmos has the only possible set of physical laws. (My chips are on that bet.)”
—Mine too, for the most part – although it would be presumptuous of us, without understanding science better than 4%, to suppose that there may not be at least a few details at the personal disposal of God: “laws” that He can choose to circumvent, within a greater and over-arching moral framework, or, within a finer knowledge of physical reality… If not so, He could never have any power over anything or responsible for anything, could He? Such a “God” could not be God at all in that case, or even a sentient “being” for that matter.

The science may develop and more closely approach truth than it does in our present conception of it; but on the basis of all the improbable “coincidences” that make our universe hospitable to life, the honest observer has three serious options:
1* Life and order are some sort of cosmic imperative,
2* God exists and so ordered the universe,
3* Some combination of the above (which are somehow related to each other), in which case the existence of God and morality itself must be part of the same cosmic imperative in #1.

To be more specific, my “bet” is on #3. Here’s what I believe:  ,25?lang=eng#13
After getting acclimatised to the scriptural language, it took me five serious attempts to begin to understand what this chapter was talking about. Perseverance is sometimes very rewarding…

I like the whimsical end to your piece, which alludes to the issue of faith.  ?lang=eng#36

> “In response, cosmologists have developed “multiverse” thinking or M-theory, which holds there are billions or even an infinite number of universes, all of which, through chance, received different physical laws.”
—It sounds like a fudge, doesn’t it? Like,
“We have no idea how this happened yet, so we’ll “place our chips” on every possible position at once, dividing the improbability by itself to make it disappear and reduce the probability that we’ll look foolish…”

> “To be science, an idea must be falsifiable.”
—To be fair, the same is true of all of what is truly called “religion”. Religion is not science, and science is not religion; there’s a very fine line between the two, at least for now. The distinction is similar to that between faith and knowledge. There’s a reason for this schism… My “bet” for this reason is on the need for faith and the non-scientific-discernibility of God’s existence being partly a conspiracy of the same “cosmic imperative” we were talking about earlier, and partly a plan of God himself to enable us to ultimately discover true joy…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Other animals are content merely to exist. Man, burdened with sentience, is instead driven to “know” that which may never be “known” by an ego commonly unable to accept existence without the illusion of significance the concept of external purpose conveys.

If there be a creator as jealous and petty as the Old Testament describes, man is but a random soap opera ever unfolding with free will, to prosper or suffer by chance or divine whim. Such a creator would NOT be, in my opinion either just or benevolent.

In the absence of certain justice, eternal life becomes the ultimate carnival prize awarded in a “game of life” that may or may not be rigged , for or against any player or group, at any time according to God’s mood and will. No “purpose” worthy of the term could thus exist.

I am content with the years I live and live well. I am comfortable accepting the limits of what I know. If there is an eternity, it is a just bonus from a benevolent creator for all of the “deserving”, believer or not.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

“Really, Really Big Questions!” I believe, I have answers. I have posted in other forums also. However, the response is underwhelming. I hope this forum may respond in a positive way. I present my theories below.

Creation of Universe: There is a subtle source for every physical existence like a physical particle and a quantum of space. Thus, this subtle source is the source for the entire physical universe. Since physical dimensions are the properties of the created physical space, before this creation, the source does not ‘have’ this property. Thus, the creation of space (and other physical existences like particles) that started with big bang can be visualized as the swelling of water crystal by soaking (not an exact analogy, since the crystal has initial physical dimensions). A quantum of the subtle source resides with the created particle and quantum of space.
GRAVITY: GRAVITY IS THE FORCE OF ATTRACTION BETWEEN THE QUANTA OF SUBTLE SOURCE while the other three fundamental forces are the forces created from the subtle source. This delineates why gravitation is holding a special ground when compared to the other forces. Since a quantum of subtle source exists with every quantum of space also, even space can exert gravity!

DARK MATTER: The gravity exerted by ’empty’ space is what we have called as DARK MATTER!

DARK ENERGY: Does the creation that started with the big bang continue even now? Yes! The accelerated expansion of the universe suggests that the creation of space still continues at this accelerated pace. This is what we have called as dark energy. Thus, dark energy is the force of creation unlike the other physical energies that are created energies.

More based on response!

Posted by akbmurugan | Report as abusive

Maybe science is looking at the wrong side of the scale.

Negative energy exists. Sunlight cannot reach us by passing thru nothing.

Something is there providing the medium. Same as you and I – if we were made of nothing – we would not be here. Something is holding us together.

Naive to say it is nothing if you cannot see it or measure it.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

The ‘M-verse’ is good for ‘astro-biologists’ and ‘astro-ontologists’, even ‘astro-pithecanthropus’ rice-bowlers, and at least we get the joke. ‘Intelligent space bugs’, ho, ho! But it’s the ‘closing in on Higgs boson’ variant of Heisenberg Principle that worries me. What if someone will set the spark off, then we will all be blown away?!

Posted by Chip_H | Report as abusive


Naive to infer “it”, the “something” is sentient, benevolent and is purposeful. When a cow drops it’s calf on or near a bed of fire ants, what “purpose” could possibly be worth the inevitable result and suffering?

The all-powerful and omnipotent affect life, for better or for worse. Accordingly, their actions and inactions will be judged. To lead, serve as an example, or inspire devotion they must be WORTHY.

Religions offer lots of “smoke and mirrors” to forestall such judgment by man, none credible. By what reasoning do some accept or support fear and ignorance as a long term “plan” for mankind?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

It used to be that what the priests said was just accepted as truth. Since Aristotle we have the tool of logic, the difference between correct and incorrect reasoning, ‘deductive reasoning’.

This has led to a shift, a new paradigm, a new point of view. It destroyed most of the old beliefs, which were evaluated just the same as any knowledge. Today, nothing remains of this except mythology and history. Define a God and we can pretty much prove it doesn’t exist.

Define ‘God’ as ‘everything’ and we are all on the same page once again. —Although we might disagree on some details, these are likely testable. A larger untestable theory might be academic, but it still must be consistent with reality.

As for the Higg’s boson, well, go back a hundred years when the electron was news and you find the same non-sense said then.

We are already using string theory and getting more accurate results than we would without it. So, it already has practical value including predicting the Higg’s boson.

It’s hard to say what another hundred years will bring but understanding the universe around us will allow us to engineer devices which could not be designed without such an understanding.

When you find a contradiction, something has to give. Something (a premise) is incorrect, not logic itself. To continue to believe in the Gods, means ignoring this fact. —This is so extreme, that if you could just show one instance of God stirring the pot, all of our logic, mathematics and science would be invalidated, all at once.

Instead of statements being true or false, they would depend upon God making them true or false, thus completely unpredictable by logic.

That would take us back 20 centuries to the old paradigm of needing to ask the priests to communicate with the Gods and divine the answers. One plus one would not be two, but whatever the priests say it is at the given moment, …assuming they did a good job.

But we can’t use reason to convince a true believer, not unless or until they learn logic. Once they learn logic they will eventually figure it out. It might take them a while to come around, but it’s inevitable if they apply reason to their religion.

Eventually they may want to say that logic does not apply to their God related stuff. -That’s what St. Thomas of Aquinas concluded many centuries ago. LOL The thing is, logic applies to everything, or it doesn’t apply. Aquinas had the answer but was so afraid of his God that he just put it above his own reasoning. But then who could blame him considering he had the Pope’s ear and speaking out might have been very foolish.

This is first year philosophy (logic) stuff, and is used as an example of a classic error in reasoning.

Anyway, pointing out all the absurdities only works after they know logic to the extent of also being able to see these absurdities, as absurdities, instead of miracles.

There are even scientists and programmers out there who don’t get it, simply because they have not formally applied deductive reasoning to their beliefs, leading to St. Thomas’ dilemma, or the truth (which is that their faith was unfounded and delusional.)

That there was no creation is difficult for them to swallow because it contradicts their belief system. Nothing new there, some still believe the sun goes around the earth.

Posted by FDavies | Report as abusive

Hawkings seems to go to great lengths to try to dismiss the notion that there is a God. Hawkings is known to be dismissive of people of faith which is somewhat ironic given his latest book. What is creating a book on theories that can neither be proved or disproved other than an article of faith? Only in that case it is faith in ones self. It takes an incredible amount of hubris to conduct that exercise let alone to publish it and think people will pay to read it. Crazier still is the fact that there are many that will likely pay to read it. Though given the other time wasting activities that occupy modern life maybe less so.

Posted by AustinG | Report as abusive

Not sure if my recent comment was sent. Will resend – remove duplicates.

How to solve cosmic mysteries

The mystery of Dark Matter can be solved if one realizes that Newton’s law of universal gravity is not universal but only applies to gravity in our solar system because it is only based upon observations of planets in our solar system. It fails when observations of galaxies far out of our solar system are obtained. A patch to the law of gravity offering Dark Matter was offered to explain the extra gravity. Actually, adding a term linear with distance, (A*r), to Newton’s constant G will explain the galaxy observations and our solar system observations.

This is explained in a collection of essays in “The Misunderstood Universe”, along with solving other mysteries.

The next most serious mystery is that of Dark Energy also explained in another essay. It is due to the fact that the redshift for very remote galaxies and their standard candles, type Ia supernovae, must deviate from linearity as the redshift increases, and the photon energy approaches zero (never negative). Thus the distance of remote galaxies, based upon their magnitude, is larger than that determined from the “non-linear” redshift dependence. Because of the unproven belief that the redshift is due to the Doppler Effect and that the galaxies are receding, it was necessary to introduce Dark Energy to explain the increase in the receding velocity. This resulted in a waste on a Nobel prize in Physics that have to be corrected by future generations. Other essays in the cited collection address other mysteries and errors in the cosmos. Would like to hear reactions. email

Posted by saisenberg | Report as abusive

“Whether this particle is found will not affect your life in any way.”

I disagree. Nobody knew in the early 1900s that theory of relativity would affect people’s lives in anyway. Look what happen now. GPS, satlelites, etc.. wouldnot be possible without that theory. So far every scientific discovery has found applications in our every day lives.

Posted by kieplangdu | Report as abusive