Really, really big questions
Physicists in Switzerland just reported they are closing in on the â€śHiggs boson,â€ť a hypothesized ultra-small unit that may be the building block of subatomic particles. Letâ€™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,â€ť 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 â€śanother dimensionâ€ť 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 â€“ 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 â€śdark energyâ€ť â€“ 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 weâ€™ve always thought of as regular matter â€“ what we are made of â€“ 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 Harperâ€™s, MIT physicist Alan Lightman just mulled these quandaries.
Maybe the universe is â€śfriendlyâ€ť 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 â€śmultiverseâ€ť 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. Whereâ€™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. Itâ€™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 â€śfriendlyâ€ť 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, â€śTo posit the existence of an infinite number of unobservable universes seems considerably more freewheeling than positing a single unobservable God.â€ť
* How did the universe begin? How did life begin? It may be centuries or millennia before humanity knows â€“ 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 christenedÂ Ametros, Greek for â€świthout measure.â€ť Thatâ€™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