Thursday, July 05, 2012

Begging the boson...?

If you've been consuming the news in almost any fashion, by now you know that the scientific community is all atwitter over new evidence that the folkloric boson, or Higgs boson, actually does exist. (It's named for phsyicist Peter Higgs, who first theorized its existence in 1964.) This find is also known more whimsically as the God particle, so called because its existence theoretically provides a physical explanation for the origins of mass that serves as a plausible substitute for some divine mechanism in the universe's debut. Seems researchers managed to get the blessed thing to rear its tiny head in a mega-nuclear accelerator, Geneva's Large Hadron Collider. The hunt for the Higgs was in fact the very raison d'etre for the contruction of the $10 billion collider, thus making this the costliest purely experimental science project in world history. In any case, the Higgs' potential impact on scientific understanding is such that another article dubs it "the missing cornerstone of physics."

OK...

But here's what I still don't get. The central enigma of all natural (i.e. non-religious) explanations for the universe (and life itself) is, of course, this: How did matter originate from (supposed) nothingness? How did we have a void, and then suddenly, we have all sorts of cool cosmic stuff? (Cool cosmic stuff is the preferred technical term among physicists.) Researchers say that validation of the boson answers that question. As they see it, the boson, a subatomic particle, passes through a magnetic field, soaks up some added energy in the process, and thus paves the way for matter. One article on the discovery makes this analogy: "As particles travel though this field, they acquire mass much as swimmers moving through a pool get wet..."

Huh? Even if one accepts that reasoning at face value...so where did the particles come from? And what about the force-field? Maybe those items aren't matter, exactly, but they're something, so we still need an explanation for how those building blocks emerged from the void. To riff on the above analogy, before you can have a wet swimmer, you first need...a swimmer.

What am I missing?

19 comments:

Adrian said...

Hi Steve - good to hear from you, as always.

I don't know of any scientist that doesn't break out in hives when they hear the term "God particle". I saw several physics blogs applaud the fact that the CERN announcement never used that term even once. I'm not sure where it came from and if anyone thinks the Higgs is a substitute for God they need their head examined as it doesn't do anything of the sort. Of course.

As for the question of how something can come from nothing, well, it's one of those questions that can't really be answered until it becomes a lot more specific. (It also has little to do with the Higgs, BTW.) If we were an early theologian or philosopher and "something" is matter and "nothing" is the absence of matter then we've had good answers to that question for years. But of course people don't like the answers so the goal posts shift. Depending on the definition we either know the answer, have a well-supported theory, have reasonable hypotheses but nothing firm or in some cases the question may not even make sense. Do you want to delve into the details or get links to articles or books?

Ultimately I don't see how "God" helps anything. We're stuck with the same problems as before, only now we have to also explain God.

Adrian said...

Maybe those items aren't matter, exactly, but they're something, so we still need an explanation for how those building blocks emerged from the void.

Just to extend a bit - what do you mean we "need" an explanation? Clearly it would be better to study and learn but if we don't have an answer then what?

And what do you mean by "void" - from context it sounds like it's space without space and without any physical laws? If so, what makes you think there ever was such a thing? What makes you think there could be such a thing?

I don't mean to attack you and I don't really expect an answer. I'm only bringing it up because I think that, when trying to think about these things, we often have some fuzzy intuitive ideas about what the cosmos should be like but which, when articulated, actually make even less sense than the ideas they're opposing. That's the case with "nothing" and "something" (not to mention "God"). Sometimes just trying to be very clear about the question can illuminate the answer. Sorry if that sounds a bit patronizing - I'm really talking about my own fuzzy thinking as much as anyone else's :)

Steve Salerno said...

Logically speaking, isn't the natural, primordial state of everything--nothingess? Nonexistence? How could it be otherwise?

a/good/lysstener said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Adrian said...

Pre-modern philosophers have said that the natural, primordial state of things would be "chaos" where all matter is swirling unsorted. Other said it was eternally unchanging just as we see it today. Others said it was made of perfect spheres. I don't think logic or intuition alone will get us out of this mess, we'll need some evidence.

Just intuitively, I have to say I've no idea what this sort of nothingness could be like and I doubt it makes sense. What do you think it means?

Steve Salerno said...

Adrian, don't you agree that before anything exists...the necessary condition is...nothing? A total perfect vacuum (sp)?

Adrian said...

A perfect vacuum doesn't mean what it used to mean :) Once physicists discovered that empty space has properties and that particles can arise from it, the goalposts shifted and now many people tell me that "nothing" really refers to an absence of space and time and maybe of physical laws as well. That's a very different beast! I think we can talk about a perfect vacuum in space, but not an absence of space.

But yes, once we look at about 10^-44sec after the BB, space was empty by default in the sense that there wasn't some pre-existing pool of primordial matter which filled our universe. Everything that we see and touch came from "nothing" (for some definitions of nothing ;) )

RevRon's Rants said...

Bottom line, IMO, is that if we don't have quantifiable answers, we proceed from a perspective of belief, whether that belief be an outgrowth of other research (an educated guess), something that intuitively makes sense to us, or hopefully, a combination of the two.

I personally get a kick out of folks who declare others' beliefs to be categorically wrong, when their own conclusions are based in great degree in their own, well... beliefs.

I don't profess to know the source of the original "something," but neither does anyone else, so I don't feel too bad. And if someone wants to declare their belief that it was an outgrowth of some as-yet unexplained process that falls beyond the realm of physics as we understand it, I say more power to them. Same applies to someone who declares that the whole something from nothing was the original expression of divine mind (Being), whose sole objective was to experience be-ing. So long as neither tries to lay claim to irrefutable Truth, to the exclusion of other perspectives, and acknowledges the possible limitations of their own perspective, I can't see that there's a real problem. Of course, if grasshoppers carried .45s, mockingbirds wouldn't screw with them. Welcome back, Steve. :-)

Anonymous said...

'before anything exists...the necessary condition is...nothing'

Logically speaking, 'before anything exists' would also be before any 'necessary conditions' or conditions of any kind for that matter; therefore precluding those 'necessary conditions' also.

Good luck, Adrian. I enjoy reading your explanations but you are unlikely to enlighten our deterministic host any time soon. Discussions mentioning chaos theory trend towards belligerence on this blog, maybe due to that dogged determinism?

Hail Eris! and chuck another golden apple into the mix while you're at it.

Steven Sashen said...

a) It was originally "The Goddamn Particle" because they couldn't find it (seriously)

b) The beginning of the big bang was not nothingness or a void. One version of what was there is "a singularity." In other words: EVERYTHING (but it was just one thing).

The singularity didn't exist IN a void... there was nothing other than the singularity.

There are numerous other cosmological theories that massively mess with our puny human cognition that, I'm sure you know, evolved in a time/place/situation where beginnings and ends were seemingly how the world worked (and, therefore, that's what we understand).

That is, what we're able to conceive is constrained by the development of our brain/cognition/senses (Lakoff makes a great analogy: we conceive of objects being in front of or behind others... because we have two eyes on one side of our head. Had we one eye on each "side", we would never have come up with this idea).

So, one theory that competes with "void," is that there was NEVER a "beginning," but that the Universe always was (again, IMPOSSIBLE to conceive). On the other side of the big bang was another universe.

Another idea, that is more consistent with beginnings/endings and voids, but is still crazily hard to fathom, is that the entire universe is a quantum fluctuation. A quantum fluctuation is the idea that subatomic particles appear and disappear, spontaneously and instantly (or a particle and anti-particle do the same) so that there's no "empty" space (these QFs happen in the middle of non-empty space, too, like your hand or the keyboard in front of you). If you take "instantly" out of the idea of a QF, the whole universe could be a temporary "blip" of appearance that, at some point, will "un-blip."

Now, it's just as freakishly possible that at the same moment, another blip will occur... producing another universe...

In short, the notion that the opposite of something is "nothing" is a construct of language, but not of physics. AND, no physicist ever says (other than colloquially) that everything came from nothing.

Anonymous said...

Since you are primarily a wordsmith and not a physicist, Steve, you might enjoy the aforementioned Lakoff and Johnson: 'Metaphors We Live By' which delves into the (theoretical)construction of language and its consequent limitations with regard to our thinking, descriptive and communication capacities.

Its fascinating stuff and can lead to a bit more indulgence of our own and other peoples wacky worldviews.

Steve Salerno said...

Geez, Anon 6:26, no need to be so snide. But I've been taken to task on this before: "Hey writer, just stick to writing (if that), OK? Don't try to think too much about this cosmic stuff..."

RevRon's Rants said...

I personally get a kick out of our assorted Anonymi. Especially the part where Steve's alleged lack of comprehension is supposedly rooted in his fondness for determinism.

I happen to believe that there is order to the universe, but not to the point where alternative behaviors are disallowed, yet I still find myself revisiting old Fred Occam quite frequently, and using his razor to shave away the BS we grow in our attempts to make us feel more clever than our (shudder!) peers.

Anonymous said...

No such intention to be snide, Steve, just a personal observation that all worldviews, by nature of being products of our limited brain capacities, contain some degree of wackiness.

Why so defensive? All that is being batted about here are ideas.

Steve Salerno said...

So then...do physicists eat boson-burgers? (Or am I getting too far afield, ha ha...

RevRon's Rants said...

Perhaps when physicists discover the counterpart that drives the Higgs particle... the boson's mate...

Adrian said...

Eating bosons sounds like a good weight-loss plan. I'll leave that to the Indian mystics.

Reminds me of the joke: a Higgs Boson walks into a catholic church. The priest says "you aren't welcome in here." The Higgs protests "but without me, how can you have mass?"

Steve Salerno said...

That's pretty freakin' good, Ron.

Steve Salerno said...

I'm diggin' this quantum comedy.