Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
All the buzz about the ‘discovery’ of the Higgs boson, so-called God particle, during experiments conducted in the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland has now died down, in the lay press at least. Physicists, though, are hard at work pursuing their analysis of the findings and what it means for their understanding of how the universe works.
Almost everybody knows by now that the Higgs boson is one of the family of subatomic particles that was predicted to ‘exist’ by physicist Peter Higgs nearly 50 years ago, and had proved to be elusive until the experimental demonstration, to a very high degree of probability, of its existence. Thank goodness that scientists are so persevering, otherwise a lot of the discoveries that are the basis of many technological innovations might not have come about, and the world would be that much poorer and less comfortable to live in. You name it and it’s got to do with science and the scientists extending its frontiers, whether you happen to know that or not. Think telephone, radio, the car, the fridge, the oven, the heater – endless would be the list, because more and more keeps being added.
If the universe is the answer, what is the question?
The Higgs boson has been nicknamed the God particle, and this was the title of a 1993 book by Nobel Prize laureate (1998) Leon Lederman and co-author Dick Teresi, which they re-edited in 2006. I will let the author speak, in this extract from his preface: ‘Now, as for the title, The God Particle, my coauthor, Dick Teresi, has agreed to accept the blame (I paid him off). I mentioned the phrase as a joke once in a speech, and he remembered it and used it as the working title of the book. “Don’t worry,’ he said, “no publisher ever uses the final title on the final book.” The rest is history. The title ended up offending two groups: 1) those who believe in God, and 2) those who do not. We were warmly received by those in the middle… But we are stuck with it…’
The book is subtitled ‘If the universe is the answer, what is the question?’ In fact the book is a guided tour of the history of particle physics ‘in an inspiring celebration of human curiosity.’ Knowing my curiosity, my son presented the book to me as a birthday gift in 2009, and I flipped through it to get the feel, shelving it for the times to come when I would be able to savour it at leisure. The discovery of the Higgs boson has precipitated matters, and for the lay person that I am, with curiosity but limited capacity to grasp the complexities of physics, my only recourse in trying to have some understanding of this difficult subject is Lederman’s work, described as the ‘funniest book about physics ever written.’ Thank goodness my son knows my limitation!
I confess to having a great admiration for those for whom mathematics and physics are like a piece of cake: for me, and my clan of the Gopee’s in general, mathematics in particular has meant headache! I could never quite make out what my teachers of mathematics and physics were driving at. From the ‘smooze curve’ of Paul Domaingue to the infinity-wards series of Raymond d’Unienville, nicknamed Roberto, at the Royal College Curepipe, I was pretty well entangled. And between Henri Belcourt’s experiments and equations regarding mass and density to Kirpal Jawaheer’s expostulations about specific heat, my poor head seemed to become even more dense, I swear, but its mass remained constant – in defiance of the laws of physics! Mr Jawaheer was stunned when I got a credit 3 in physics at SC, even more so than I was…
In any case, I had already decided that I would be a doctor, and I found refuge in the passion of Noel Asarapin for botany and zoology, and the elegance of Karl Mulnier’s exposes on entomology in between long puffs at his Gauloise sticks. They did have a nice aroma, though. Which may have been part of the attraction, in retrospect, not to mention the friendliness of these two new, fresh arrivals on the RCC scene in 1960 and 1961 respectively.
It took me a very long time indeed, nearly half a century, but I finally got round to appreciating what mathematics and physics, and more generally science, were about and after: why the universe exists, how and why it works. Mathematics expresses the beauty of the relationships amongst things, which may be objects or concepts; physics is the attempt to define what the things are, and eventually what is at the basis of ALL things, what is the ONE THING out of which all things are made: the fundamental reality of matter. What I have understood is that the Higgs boson accounts for why matter has mass – because if it didn’t, there would not be the universe, that means no stars, no planets, no us human beings. One question that physicists and cosmologists are still trying to answer is: why does the universe exist at all or, put another way, why is it that there is a universe rather than no universe? In fact cosmologists are theorizing that there are several universes instead of just one, what is referred to as multiverse.
The way of science
If the Higgs boson had not been found, of course the search for it would still have been on, but the nagging lack of an explanation of physical phenomena would have persisted. Its importance is probably not realized by the layman, but it is vital for physicists to make further leaps in their quest for a deeper understanding of the universe, and along the way there will no doubt be some applications that will be invented for the benefit of people at large. This is the way of science.
A simple analogy to appreciate what we are talking about is the car. Imagine a brand new car with all its parts in place: the body, the engine with its carburettor/ pistons, etc, the electrical system with all its wiring and its electronic circuitry, the wheels well aligned and their shining ‘cosmic’ hubs, the comfortable interior with aircon arrangements, the music system with DVDs, etc., the GPS screen and mapquest software, the starter key in place.
These parts are in proximity to each other, but what will trigger and sustain them to act as one and in the needed synchrony or sequence? What is that truly connects them? They do not really connect until they start working together isn’t it? And that connecting factor, that gives ‘meaning’ as it were to all these separate parts, whatever their sizes, is: electricity. By a little stretch of the imagination, one could say – but keeping in mind the limits of analogy – that in the case of the car electricity is that knowing which the parts of the car gain meaning (through becoming functional). Otherwise they would remain unconnected, lie idle, and eventually rust or rot, and be devoid of any interest.
A subtler analogy is that of DNA as underlying life, all forms of life. Until the discovery of its helical structure and the mechanism by which it renewed itself (‘self-replication’) by Crick and Watson in 1952, the understanding and definition of life by biologists was incomplete and not precise enough. From then on, the knowledge that DNA – deoxyribonucleic acid – was what genes were made up of revolutionized all biological thinking about life, and threw new light on its possible origins.
The source of all existence
And so, taking a fresh look, there is the origin of the physical universe, and that of life from the derivatives of the latter: the chemicals that combine to become DNA. The physico-chemical basis of life became clearer with this discovery; it was already known, and demonstrated, that the laws of physics and chemistry could explain many living phenomena. This knowledge had already led to many applications in medicine, for example. But beyond these practical benefits of such new knowledge, new questions arose: what is the common origin, or basis of both the non-living physical universe (or multiverse) and the living biological phenomena. In other words, is there a fundamental reality that underpins both the living and the non-living which together constitute what exists? Another way of asking the question is: what is the source of all existence, both living and non-living?
Religions have a simplistic, final answer: God.
But as is obvious from all that we see happening around the world to and among humans in particular, the God postulate cannot explain anything, let alone everything. And does not admit of questioning by the use of reason, for that shakes its foundations.
Thank goodness therefore for the open-mindedness of the scientific approach. It may not have all the answers, but at least it allows for unlimited questioning. And as we know, asking the right questions will eventually lead to the right answers. That quest in is itself exhilarating, as was demonstrated by the joy that accompanied the announcement of the discovery of evidence for the Higgs boson.
But there’s more: In the August 2012 issue of Scientific American, an article entitled ‘The benevolence of Black Holes’ posits that the latter ‘may actually account for Earth’s existence and habitability.’ In fact, it goes on that ‘Our existence in this place, this microscopic corner of the cosmos, is fleeting. With utter disregard for our wants and needs, nature plays out its acts on scales of time and place that are truly hard to grasp. Perhaps all that we can look to for real solace is our endless capacity to ask questions and seek answers about the place we find ourselves in. One of the questions we are now asking is how deeply our specific circumstances are connected to this majestic universal scheme of stars, galaxies and black holes.’
All of us can join in this wonderful quest that continues. Just jump in…and start asking questions…
* Published in print edition on 27 July 2012