The award of the Nobel Prize in physics generally creates a mental blur for most people, since no one can comprehend the current state of physics without training in advanced mathematics. This year was somewhat different, thanks to a nickname.
As the world learned on October 3, the British physicist Peter Higgs and the Belgian physicist Francois Englert shared the Nobel, as was widely expected in the profession. The award was given for a theory involving a missing particle in the so-called Standard Model of particle physics. The particle had come to be known as the Higgs boson when it was postulated or more popularly as “the God particle” from a 1993 book by Leon Lederman, another Nobel laureate who also served as the director of the prestigious Fermilab.
The discovery last year at CERN in Switzerland of the Higgs boson was a triumph for the Standard Model theory. Higgs and Englert, along with Robert Brout, Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen, and Tom Kibble, had hypothesized the existence of a field filling the entire vacuum of space. If it hadn't been dubbed the God particle, physicists wouldn't be saddled with an embarrassing, catchy name. Meant initially as a joke, the enduring moniker suggests that in some way science has reached an ultimate destination. Creation has surrendered its final secret, even if there is no God. But in reality particle physics keeps moving forward, and after the celebration at finding a Higgs boson dies down, new frontiers will open up. Meanwhile, every physicist who is asked about the God particle takes pains to distance himself from the label, including Higgs himself.
Now that God has been invoked in the discussion, however, it’s worth asking if we are getting closer to understanding Him/Her/It in a way that matters beyond the arcane of quantum physics.
Certainly a step was taken in our understanding of the finest fabric of the cosmos. In technical language, the ubiquitous Higgs field allows all particles in the universe to acquire mass through interactions with it, as the particles move through space, via a kind of dragging effect analogous to chunks of matter moving through molasses (elementary particles being the equivalent of the chunks and the Higgs field the molasses). High energy proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN revealed the elusive Higgs boson. The Higgs, unlike the photon, which is also a boson, has a mass, expected to be in the approximate range of 125 (or more) times the mass of the proton. Bosons are particles in quantum theory that carry forces - for example, the photon is the carrier of the electromagnetic force. They can be packed together in unlimited amounts. The Higgs boson is very unstable, instantly decaying after its creation into other particles prescribed by quantum field theory.
What’s also clear is that particle physicists were willing to go to almost any lengths to provide evidence for this missing link. It took many billions of colliding protons in the huge LHC CERN accelerator, backed up by multitudes of computers around the world to painstakingly analyze the data, before the discovery of the God particle seemed real. Most physicists by now, although guarded, believe that some form of Higgs boson was in fact observed last summer. And the rapid award of the Nobel is a testament of that commonly-held belief. The difficulty of this achievement was underlined by the fact that the Higgs boson is so mysterious and fleeting that it took from 1964, when its existence was first proposed, until last March to verify that such a particle actually exists.
Being irritated by a nickname doesn't dispel the widespread belief that science is somehow getting very, very close to understanding the fundamental nature of reality. Some take an optimistic view of the road ahead. There is hope that the Higgs field may help bring together general relativity and quantum theory. Currently cosmologists believe that dark energy permeates the universe, evolving according to general relativity, and is responsible for an accelerating expansion of the universe. Although a standard Higgs particle would say little about dark energy, more exotic versions could provide theoretical understanding of it. Scientists will have to look at the LHC results on how the Higgs decays into other particles after it is produced in high energy collisions. The “dark” side of the universe poses both a new frontier and a stumbling block. Cosmologists seem to agree that all the luminous matter in the universe makes up only 4% of whatever exists. All the hundreds of billions of galaxies, composed of many billions of stars, make up just 4% of everything. The rest may be in the form of dark matter and even the more exotic (but unknown) dark energy. So if the "Higgs-like" particle discovered at CERN turns out to be the more exotic form, it could help us understand dark energy.
As Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director of the LHC project, stated in a 2011 talk, "The Higgs is neither matter nor force. The Higgs is just different.” We won’t go into the differences here, except to say that there is reason to assume that the Higgs isn’t one of a kind but the opening wedge to an entire class of so-called scalar particles. One optimistic view of the results observed so far holds that the discovery will lead to new developments in particle physics. These would open up a finer level of the quantum domain and thus bring physics closer to its holy grail, a Theory of Everything, a grandiose-sounding, particle-based view of the cosmos.
The more pessimistic overview,( but as its proponents claim more realistic,) states that the LHC results have not given any evidence of the existence of other particles that would be needed to continue our understanding of the physics beyond the Higgs, to what is expected to be the next theoretical development, dubbed supersymmetry. As such, there’s a major snag in attempts to ultimately develop a Theory of Everything. Even leaving arguments related to theories of physics aside, such a theory, as envisaged, doesn’t say anything and in fact cannot say anything about life, evolution and the phenomena of mind and awareness. It is not even clear how gravity, the last of the four forces of nature described by general relativity, will fit into the Standard Model – at this point, a great deal of current theory, including the widely touted superstring theory, is interesting speculation.
It is inescapable that two worldviews, one scientific and technical, the other human and experiential, must either collide or converge. That is, the universe must make room for how human beings evolved in order to investigate the creation that gave rise to us. Any Theory of Everything that leaves the human dimension out – as particle physics tries overwhelmingly to do – cannot reach its goal. The Higgs boson, as viewed from the world we all experience every day, isn’t simply arcane. It leads toward a collision of worldviews rather than a convergence. We will discuss what this means in the next post.
The “God particle” seems to be well and truly with us. The award on October 3 of the Nobel Prize in physics that focused on the Higgs boson – the technical term for the God particle – capped a decades-long search that has cost billions of dollars. In the first post we discussed why the discovery of the elusive, fleeting Higgs boson is two-edged. It represents a triumph in human curiosity and our drive to understand the universe. At the same time, however, a huge stumbling block hasn’t been overcome. In fact, the Higgs boson may indicate that creation (whether God exists or not) is becoming ever more mysterious.
The mammoth collider at CERN Switzerland blasted the Higgs boson out of the invisible quantum field so that it could be observed, at the faintest level of measurement and then only for precious milliseconds. But this was enough to disclose the finest level of the subatomic realm so far known to be real. The problem with getting this close to the source of creation is that space, time, gravity, matter, and energy have become more and more ambiguous, as if the quantum revolution hadn't already done enough in that department. With the probability that so-called "dark" matter and energy may account for 96% of the universe - along with another probability, that "dark" stuff doesn't obey the same laws as visible mater and energy - the picture of creation is undergoing radical revision.
Stephen Hawking added to the ambiguity, in his last book, The Grand Design, by siding with those who have basically given up on a Theory of Everything and are settling for a piecemeal patchwork or mosaic of theories, each pertaining to distinct regions of creation while never being synthesized into one grand design. If God exists, the deity must be smiling. For behind the high fives and hoopla over the Higgs boson, there's a growing doubt that we are anywhere near to understanding the nature of reality. These doubts arise from two major sources.
First, there’s broad agreement that science doesn't comprehensively describe reality to begin with. Over a century ago the pioneers of quantum theory dismantled the common-sense notion that the world "out there" consists of hard, solid, tangible things. As one of the greatest of these pioneers, Werner Heisenberg, noted, “The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” No one has ever refuted this claim, and when you add into the mixture the Uncertainty Principle, which says that quantum objects can be located only by the probability that they will appear at a certain place (only after it is observed does a particle actually settle into a measurable position), the solid, tangible world is radically undermined.
The result is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in science: How does the shadowy, invisible quantum domain transition into the familiar, reassuring world we perceive through the five senses? Something almost inconceivable is taking place, and to parallel this mystery, there is a second one. How did atoms and molecules give rise (if they did) to the thinking brain? The glucose that feeds your brain isn't very different from the sucrose in a sugar cube, but a sugar cube can't read this sentence, while your brain can. The starting point for solving these two mysteries was neatly summarized by the illustrious British neurologist Sir John Eccles: "I want you to realize that there exists no color in the natural world, and no sound – nothing of this kind; no textures, no patterns, no beauty, no scent."
Until very recently the two mysteries we've described (leaving out others that are more technical, such as the debate over Einstein’s cosmological constant) were essentially shrugged off by working physicists, who are content to accept the ordinary, common-sense world when they drive their cars, and who delve into the quantum domain as if it were a separate reality, which it isn't.
The second reason that physics might be very far from understanding creation can be traced to the failure, now decades old, to mesh the two greatest achievements of twentieth-century physics - Einstein's General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. It's highly embarrassing that two such spectacular intellectual discoveries don't agree with each other. We won't go into the technical reasons for the disagreement. It's enough to say that trying to make them mesh has led theorists to the very brink of creation, to the boundary in spacetime where space and time emerge from a pre-created state. (One reason for celebrating the Higgs boson is that it represents a minuscule but vital step toward the pre-created state).
So the popular sentiment that we are near the big answers to big questions is hardly shared by many theoretical physicists who know more about their own theories. There is certainly a camp that believes the only way forward is to build more powerful particle accelerators to probe finer and finer fabrics of Nature, while another camp sees a way forward beyond the Standard Model and supersymmetry, through string theory, which offers a possible mathematical mode for the pre-created state (mathematics becomes the only guide left, since imagining the quantum vacuum, which precedes time and space, is mentally impossible).
Speaking for ourselves, we side with a small but farseeing group who turn for answers to consciousness, working from an unassailable fact: Reality, as far as humans are concerned, consists of the things we experience. Even the most arcane activity of physicists - and the Higgs boson is extremely arcane - are experiences; so is mathematics - if the laws of mathematics exist outside our experience, we will never know that or be able to prove it. For decades consciousness has been dismissed by "real" scientists as simply a given. But Max Planck, the founder of quantum physics, was as real a scientist as you can get, and he said this: "I regard consciousness as fundamental. We cannot get behind consciousness. "
This belief that mind is inescapable, that so-called "objective" science must one day come to grips with subjectivity, was shared by any number of quantum pioneers but got put on the shelf while the thrust of physics remained physical. The vast majority of physicists continue to work and think as if mind shouldn't be part of their equations. As long as such a belief persists, despite its self-contradiction (can the mind really ignore the mind?) there will be more elementary particles for expensive machines to blast out of the vacuum state. At the same time, God will rest comfortably that creation's greatest mysteries haven't been revealed. At some point, perhaps in the near future, science will finally accept, and awards will soon follow, that the mind cannot be left out of the picture that the mind studies.