So What Else is New?
Dateline: 4 July 2012, Geneva, Switzerland at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research)
Dispiriting news from the world of Quantum Physics. Shortly after CERN research scientists confirmed the existence of the so-called “God particle” (aka the Higgs boson), a group of contrarian nuclear physicists calling themselves Doctor’s Without Scruples denounced the finding and proclaimed the so-called “God particle” to be nothing more than Cosmological Dandruff. Although there were many competing theories explaining the particle’s composition, Doctor’s Without Scruples believe their Cosmological Dandruff theory was Head & Shoulders above the rest.
God Particle: A Lightning Rod for Uninformed Criticism
The world has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Free Will that is sometimes exercised in ignorant ways – like resisting irrefutable facts. Still it was surprising that this fringe group of less than stellar physicists (1 leg short of a Periodic Table) would attempt to minimize, trivialize and otherwise discredit the discovery of the long sought after Higgs boson (the Holy Grail of bosons). But they did. The Higgs boson had become conventional wisdom and Doctors Without Scruples were hostile to it, citing: “Questionable scientific procedures, faulty interpretation of data and, more importantly, always being picked last for dodge ball.”
Doctor’s Without Scruples is a crackpot group organized around the principle of “neener-neener-neener” or more descriptively; “He who obscures facts and annoys people the most, wins.” Far from being a robust brick and mortar research institution, their headquarters are nothing more than a Facebook page and an answering machine. That’s it. And somehow they’ve become an alternative source of scientific debate. They support a number of scientific theories that are just plain goofy. For example, although they vehemently denounce Global Warming as a hoax, they warmly embrace Global Brining – a theory that believes everything is getting saltier. When asked how they could reject Global Warming and embrace Global Brining, their spokagandist, Professor Osgood Breitbart of CIU (Cayman Island University), said, “Yup. We reckon its true. Things are saltier. It’s probably in the Bible someplace; and if it’s not, it will be.”
Professor Breitbart, who crossed the Atlantic by ship because he’s still wary of “heavier than air machines” admonished his fellow physicists: “Remember, without the alternative truths we present, there’d be nothing left but rationality.”
These Things Happen in 3’s
A third group of less than stellar nuclear physicists calling themselves We’re Real Doctors. No, Really. You Don’t Have to Check also pooh-poohed the discovery of the Higgs boson by restating their usual default position on anything abstract: Everything in the universe only exists in the dream of a Basset Hound named Fred who is curled up in the family room of a fashionable tract home somewhere near Stamford, Connecticut.
Sure, easy for them to say. Got a problem? Oh, it’s all in the mind of a dreaming dog. What is going on here? Why do we even report such twaddle as a credibly opposable view? This is not a responsibly alternative view. It’s legitimized lunacy. Free Will has run amok. I hope Free Will gets tired and starts walking amok so I can catch up to it and maybe talk it into not being so Free with its Will.
Background to the Discovery
The crown jewel of the CERN Nuclear Research facility is the LHC (Large Hadron Collider). It is the Hubble Telescope of Inner Space. The LHC is sensitively calibrated and able to detect infinitesimally minute sub-atomic particles. As with the detection of the Higgs boson, it appears the LHC has penetrated the vastness of the microcosm to touch the face of God. The experimental process involves smashing hydrogen protons or lead ions into each other and reading the tea leaves (interpreting the data) of the resultant debris field. The goal is to disrupt and examine the atom’s universal binding force until it surrenders its mystery of creation. The facility features an underground 17-mile particle accelerator loop that leaves smashed atoms feeling even loopier. The 17-mile loop is about 300 feet below ground and straddles the French-Swiss border. But since the LHC is located in Europe, it’s actually a 27.3 kilometer loop, 100 meters below ground – it’s the same measurement only different. And just because the metric system is based on 10 instead of our more sensible 12, the Europeans think it’s superior.
The Trump Administration has gone so far as to issue guidelines to the auto industry for improving their gas mileage by requiring them to state their MPG (miles per gallon) in KPG (kilometers per gallon). For example, a vehicle that previously got 20 MPG will now get 32 KPG – a great improvement over the old system. In fact it’s an increase of 12 per gallons and all with the stroke of a pen. See, science is good.
Fun Metric Fact: Did you know that in Europe 12 inches = 30 centimeters and 1 yard = .91 meters? It’s true. It’s like those Europeans have a different measurement for everything.
Back to Our Story
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is easily the world’s most powerful collider and the largest single machine in existence – Big Science’s big machine. It’s a byzantine, unfathomable construct of 5000 magnets each weighing 2000 tons and strategically arrayed to accelerate minute atomic masses (usually hydrogen protons). Inside the LHC, superconducting electromagnets chilled in liquid helium to ‑456.3°F propel two high-energy particle beams at close to the speed of light in opposite directions before they are made to collide. The LHC’s chief engineer Steve Myers describes the feat of successfully colliding 2 protons as akin to, “firing two needles across the Atlantic and getting them to hit each other.” Isn’t that how we got into World War II?
More colloquially, the LHC is essentially a 17-mile Demolition Derby for off-road sub-atomic particles where collisions are not only encouraged, they’re required. It’s a mega-sized atom smasher for the wide-eyed physicist out on an all-night Swiss play date. It’s a Monster Truck nuclear venue where the Quarkasaurus collides with the Protonator in a field of dreams match up and the winner is totally revealing destruction. In Geneva, Switzerland, they have built it; and they have come.
A Brief History of Particle Colliders
The earliest colliders were nothing more than watch-it-ooze horseplay: caveguys dropping watermelons off cliff sides just to see them fall down, go plop. They would ooh and aah in grunting amazement and guttural awe at the explosive patterns. This was a gravitationally-challenged time when fireworks were launched down rather than up. Eventually a level of sophistication crept into the process and soon civilized men were dropping things like pumpkins and heretics off cliff sides. They’d then examine the debris field below for “cool gooey stuff.”
Galileo (1564-1642) was an Italian polymath (scholarly in several fields) whose particle collisions took a more scientific tack than frivolously smashing pumpkins (the gourd and not the band). Galileo dropped two balls of different weights from the leaning Tower of Pisa to prove that all objects (in the absence of air resistance) fall at the same rate. When they kerplunked into the ground simultaneously the Italians were amazed (stupito in the local lingo). By any measure this was a dazzling and illustrative experiment. Galileo singularly disproved Aristotle’s quaint, centuries-old notion that heavier objects fell faster than lighter ones. This and other experiments turned Aristotle’s (the original Mr. Earth Wind and Fire) primitive conceptions of the universe on its ear. For not denouncing his contributions to science and for promulgating supposed heliocentric heresies (that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice-versa) Galileo was jailed at the behest of the Catholic Church. The Church, of course, had a mighty interest in being the truth-dispenser of first resort – an Almighty interest. It’s one of the ways they maintained power. I wonder where Galileo would stand today on the issue of Global Warming (or even Global Brining)? Being on the side of provable truth and advanced understanding didn’t help much in the 17th century and maybe it’s no bonus in the 21st century either. The larger point being, if you get on the wrong side of politics perhaps a “gated community” awaits you – the kind of gate where you don’t get your own key.
Eventually advances were made in collider technology. For example during creation of the first atomic bomb (the Manhattan Project), Dr. Robert Oppenheimer fashioned a primitive particle collider he called the Change Maker which he hoped would break down large particles into their constituent components. During its first test in Alamogordo, NM he accelerated a quarter at extremely high-speed into an enclosed steel vault. When he opened the vault he discovered the quarter was gone, but in its place were 2 dimes and a nickel. Amazing! Stupito! It had broken down larger particles into their basic building blocks. It worked with other change too. In another test a smashed-up nickel yielded 5 pennies. This was no parlor trick. The universe understood and manifested the underlying truth in recognizing that 5 pennies = 1 nickel. It didn’t work with coins from Communist nations as their exchange rates were grossly inflated. But generally it could break down an endless amount of change, except for some reason it couldn’t break a $20.
As colliders grew in size and scope, they began probing into the very architecture of God. Our dear Lord grew concerned and issued a cease and desist order to keep his proprietary knowledge secret; or at least hold out until he could negotiate a fat licensing fee. But Dr. Enrico Fermi and friends wouldn’t be intimidated by the Almighty defiantly declaring, “Everyone has a right to know our blueprints. It’s in the public domain, except our great benefactor keeps it all hidden from us. Who does he think he is?”
Next morning Dr. Fermi awoke to find Robert Oppenheimer’s head in his bed. I don’t have to tell you what happened next – Johnny Fontaine got the part.
Colliders were allowing us to penetrate the microcosm of the universe and see into the strobing fluctuations of dimensionality where matter and anti-matter exchanged states. The universe was stripped bare. Not only did the King have no clothes, it had no King. Our perceptions weren’t so much a slippery slope now, as they were an oscillating platform. Order needed to be imposed on the unfathomable expanse of creation – perhaps even tidily shrunk-wrapped and conveniently unit-priced. But how?
Enter Dr. Peter Higgs
Higgs, a 35-year-old theoretical physicist at Edinburgh University, believed that within the mysterious and murky sub-atomic universe there seemed to be a pervasive enabler that was an invisible workhorse for creation. Higgs recognized, as Einstein so eloquently stated, “God does not play dice with the universe.” So Higgs knew wasn’t looking for a sub-atomic craps game. No, he was searching for a proprietary God particle that facilitated the expression of the universe as we know it. He wasn’t looking for much: just the operating system of the Cosmos.
It was the magical year of 1964. Let’s set the scene: The Beatles had been fired across the Atlantic and were a big hit in their collision with American teenagers. Cassius Clay’s fists collided with Sonny Liston’s jaw and he became champ. And the world would still have to wait 11 long years for Mitzi Gaynor’s 1975 TV special Mitzi…and a Hundred Guys. (Probably didn’t need to include that last Mitzi Gaynor reference – see how Free Will is too much of a good thing?)
Dr. Higgs was onto something big that year. No not the World’s Fair in NYC, but a theory. And not a Theory of Everything, but of Something. Something specific. Something that explained how mass is given to particles as they move through a field, so the universe can express itself as we perceive it. Just as we all intuitively know that love is the strongest force in the universe, Higgs intuited that a singular underlying principle explained this mass-exchanging interactions of sub-atomic particles. And he demonstrated it mathematically, but this wasn’t enough to satisfy a scientific community demanding provable, repeatable examples. So while Higgs had caught lightning in a bottle, there was no way to decant it out without making a mess. He could not definitively evidence his theory because the primitive linear accelerators of the day could barely get ketchup out of a bottle. Verification was needed.
The Higgs Boson
To understand the Higgs boson (an impossibility), you first have to understand the Higgs Field (also not gonna happen) in which it exists. A field, like an electric field or a magnetic field, is an underlying force that operates everywhere. The Higgs Field (through the Higgs boson – its agent) conveys mass to particles passing through it. Bear in mind the Higgs Field is operating in the vast expanses of the microcosm within the realm of quantum mechanics. Although it makes no sense, even at this level, these are very large spaces because the particles are very small – like very small-987,000 . If the Higgs Field and its attendant mass-enabling Higgs boson did not exist, particles would have no mass, and gravity would be inoperable. We’d all be purposelessly floating around like aimless jellyfish, instead of purposefully walking around like punch-drunk fools.
This haphazard definition of course is like describing the thinnest onion skin on its outside in hopes you’ll understand the entire elusive bulb inside. And onions despise being described this way precisely because they are so thin-skinned. It brings a tear to my eye. However I doubt you’re looking for anything more than a working definition of a concept so recondite even God wouldn’t understand without his tutor. Put another way, if you’re in France you only really need to know how to say “Où est la salle de bain?” (Where’s the bathroom) and not, “Hey bébé, laissez-moi convertir vos mesures métriques en livres et en pouces.” (“Hey baby, let me convert your metric measurements to pounds and inches.”).
Hallelujah I Love Her So!
The once theorized particle was definitively teased out of its atomic Witness Protection Program by an international team of physicists at the CERN on 4 July 2012. The level of excitation was positively palpable (it was able to be palped) and yet the ceremony lacked something. It was massless. That is until the esteemed and aged Dr. Higgs entered the field and took center stage thereby lending gravitas, nay mass, to the proceedings. Dr. Higgs himself had demonstrated his own theory – a case of life imitating quarks.
The packed amphitheater was a who’s who of tough-guy Quantum Physicists including Professor Stephen “Mumbles” Hawking, the Rosato Brothers and Dr. Irving “Big Pussy” Greenblatt. The announcement of the God particle was met with the frenzied pandemonium of a rock concert. It was compared to the Beatles getting back together: if they were 4 massless muons traveling through a space-time continuum in need of a gradient surge.
The Higgs boson had been confirmed. Hallelujah! Definitive empirical corroboration had pierced the hobgoblin of small minds to touch the face of God. It was that momentous. It turns out the universe was both very complex and very rational. Kinda like Phil Jackson or Matthew McConaughey.
And that would be the end of the story except now that I’m so hyper-aware of the Higgs Field I’ve attracted a mass of ideas I must shed if I’m ever to move on. So thank you all for allowing me to reduce my mass; to lighten my load and get back up to the speed of light where I belong. We belong. ♫We belong. We be-long together ♫.
Ideas I’m Surrendering Back to the Humor Field, So I May Reassume the Speed of Light
Large Hadron Collider Slowed to a Crawl
With great fanfare the LHC commenced operation on 10 September 2008. It was almost immediately derailed when one of the graveyard shift janitors (a soon to be unemployed Mr. Hans Müller) decided to euthanize his ailing pet turtle Lindy by running him through the accelerator thereby bestowing upon him a proper send off. That evening Hans removed his beloved pet turtle from the Geneva Reptile Hospice where he was suffering from End Stage Boredom. He snuck Lindy into the CERN Facility in a vintage Hogan’s Heroes lunch box he recently purchased on eBay for €30. When all the scientists had hung up their lab coats for the evening and no one was observing (that’s science talk for watching), Hans loaded Lindy into the particle accelerator for a one way trip to tortoise heaven. After strapping the little guy in, he set the collider to “Smithereens” and sent the suffering reptile on a one way trip to Mitch McConnell land.
But something went wrong. Very wrong. The great collider detected the deliberative chemistry of the turtle’s DNA and incorporated it into its software. This gummed-up the accelerator’s works. Instead of rocketing through at the speed of light, Lindy inched through at velocities approaching a speed bump. When Mr. Müller removed him at the 23 kilometer mark, all of Lindy’s soft parts were missing. He had become a shell of his former self, but at least he no longer suffered from Terminal Boredom.
In repairing the accelerator it took weeks to expunge the poor turtle’s DNA from the LHC’s software. Meanwhile collider became stuck on one speed: Slow and Steady. Eventually all was restored and, except for an attempted Zurich University fraternity hazing in 2009, no living creature was ever again placed in the accelerator.
Oh Yeah and BTW
The World Wide Web (The Internet) was born at CERN 28 years ago (that is if you’re reading this in 2017, otherwise you do the math). Birth of WWW at CERN.
An Abstract Aside
In recognition that future discoveries in Quantum Physics would grow doubly outrageous every 18 months (kinda like Moore’s Law, only with sub-atomic particles) the gathered nuclear physicists agreed to be “pre-spun” before entering their graves. In this way when a sub-atomic discovery of seismic proportion was made, the living physicists would not have to muse, “Oh I bet ol’Professor Hepple is be spinning in his grave right now because of this time machine we’ve just invented.” No they wouldn’t have to muse about their dearly departed professor’s revolutionary reaction because they already knew ol’Professor Hepple had been pre-spun.
You might ask, “So what does this discovery have to do with the price of tea in China?” Not a lot actually. The price of tea in China is decidedly unrelated to nuclear physics. However, its discovery is expanding the known universe so now there’s so much more to know. We can no longer feel cozy in our observable, cause and effect Newtonian universe. Discoveries like these are righteous leakages or lawful distortions at once unsettling and awesomely reassuring – would God be so prosaic that we could understand it with our minds? Clearly another sense or field (Higgs) must be at play here.
To those who retreat to the familiarity of observable phenomenon where understandable, linear activities like eating soup or satisfying gnawing desires comprises a life; I’m with you. Who wants to consider extra-dimensional phenomena when there’s pizza to eat? Who wants to hurt their brain extrapolating the significance of a nuclear collision’s effects dispersed on graph paper when your Netflix queue is 20 deep? No you’ve got work to do and the remote is sometimes your last best hope for satisfaction.
To those who pursue breaking into God’s registry and penetrating its exquisite operating system – the unimaginable clarity, the indescribable awareness and the ability to predict the Kentucky Derby winner – I’m with you too. By considering the consequences and ramifications of the God particle you can be everywhere at once. When it comes to nuclear physics I’m kind of a camp follower so which ever camp you’re in, I’ll support you. I’m not judgmental that way. I just try to get on with people.
Of course the truth (between unseen forces and observable reality) usually lies somewhere in between where, like virgin dilettantes, we keep one foot firmly planted in worldly matters and the other lightly stepping around for a purchase in the nether worlds. And I’m with you on that one too. Talk about your Theory of Relativity: relative to those previous 3 paragraphs I’m in 3 places at once. Thanks a lot Higgs boson – for lending mass to everything that passes through your field.
And while the upcoming sentence in this essay may be OT (off topic), I think there’s a great truth there somewhere. I’m reminded of what the restaurant critic said upon visiting a bistro where she despised the noise, but adored the food: “Hate the din. Love the dinner.”