Monday, March 26, 2012

Earth Is Not Enough

According to pundits, we humans are rare, perhaps even unique, and that’s why we matter, even if our existence is an accident. 

Far more time lies ahead than has elapsed thus far, its said. The Big Bang occurred a mere 13.7 billion years ago, and the Universe will go on expanding forever. Compared to its meager beginnings, the  future of the Cosmos as we know it seems immense, perhaps infinite.

Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. What’s to become of  the Universe, anyway?  Of us? Do we humans really matter?

What matters most, it would seem, is matter itself because that’s what everything is – us, that beer you’re drinking, the rest of the Universe. Understand matter and you can explain it all, including energy which is interchangeable with matter. Even your thoughts are a form of energy, perhaps even your soul. You could cure indigestion.     

Although basic ideas about matter trace back to Newton and earlier to Aristotle's natural philosophy, a better understanding of matter began to emerge in the early 20th century.  In a sort of ultimate demolition derby, physicists began using particle accelerators to smash bits of matter – electrons, positrons, protons, anti-protons, or bare atomic nuclei – into each other at the highest possible energies in order to investigate their properties under conditions that might have prevailed at the Big Bang.

It turns out that the  more energy you use in such systems, the more you discover. For example, in December, 2011, experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, presently the most powerful collider of them all (it uses so much electricity that it operates only during the summer), revealed yet another new subatomic particle, the so-called  χb (3P) bottomonium state. Already, a still more powerful machine,  the forty kilometer-long International Linear Collider, is planned for construction between 2015-2020.
Gold Beam Collision Events

What if, unbeknownst to us, other civilizations out there were running similar experiments, building more and more powerful colliders, or some such machines, of their own? Suppose that, in the fullness of time, civilizations not yet born were to ask the same questions we ask? What if, after still more billions of years, this high voltage particle pinball went viral? More and more subatomic particles turn up, species of weirdlets far smaller (less than a femtometer) than strangelets, and across the galaxies more and more energy is funneled into exploring their still teenier constituents. 

Its obvious where this is going.  Physicists worry already that in future, if certain predictions of the so-called superstring theory are accurate, black holes may be produced by high energy accelerators. In which case, as Tom Wolf might put it, Earth could disappear up its own essential orifice (yes, a black hole). Worse still, as bankers in nearby Zurich must worry, a run-away particle accelerator might, in a reversal of alchemy, turn their gold bullion into lead!

Imagine the eventual result, a plethora of mini-Big Bangs on a cosmic scale with trillions of fantastically high energy particles whizzing through billions of matter colliders all at once. Could such a singular event tip the balance toward chaos, set in motion a full-scale Big Bang? According to quantum physics, maybe so – and it wouldn’t take Swiss engineers.

For us humans, one bite at the apple is never enough. Perhaps that’s why we matter –  the idea fits well enough with our nature. And if Earthly precedent is any guide, uberparticles stoked up by matter-turned-sentient, creatures like you and me, may one day converge in the ultimate spark show and simply reboot the Universe.

How’s that for a Faustian bargain?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Higgs Boson-free Beer

Folks gain weight for a variety of reasons. They may eat too much and exercise too little. Their metabolism may be influenced by substances known as dietary obesogens. Even viral infection has been implicated in obesity. But what about Higgs bosons? What are they, and how do they make you fat?

The Higgs boson is an elementary particle of matter predicted by the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, a suite of equations that explains how three of the four fundamental forces of nature (remember earth, air, fire, and water?) work. The Higgs particle belongs to a class of particles, bosons, that includes photons, gluons, and mesons (and for my grandkids’ class of tots, you’d think, crayons). Until recently, the Higgs particle was the only one predicted by the Standard Model that had not yet been observed empirically – again, much like my not-yet-born grandkids. (When are they going to have children?)

In theory, the quantum “field” associated with the Higgs boson fills all of space and explains why fundamental particles such as quarks and electrons have mass. This Higgs field can be pictured as a pool of molasses that "sticks" to the otherwise massless particles traveling through it, imbuing them with mass (which allows them to form the components of atoms). 

Fig. 2
Physicists search for elementary particles like the Higgs with colliders or atom smashers, the largest of which is currently the 17-mile-around Large Hadron Collider built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) (Fig. 1). The Hadron can accelerate elementary particles to energies of seven teraelectronvolts (7 x 1012  electronvolts or 7 TeV) and was designed to test the predictions of various theories, particularly that of the Standard Model, for the elusive Higgs boson (Fig. 2).  
Fig. 1

Recently, physicists from CERN announced they may have at last found the long-sought Higgs.

Aside from explaining how the Universe works,  the discovery of the Higgs boson could have even more important ramifications: it could lead to a solution for the obesity epidemic! More than one-third of U.S. adults and seventeen percent of children and adolescents in this country are obese. Some of these folks (Fig. 3) might require as much as 7 TeV of energy just to hoist themselves out of bed in the morning – and that’s without accelerating. For them, its as though the Higgs field we slosh about in all day really were made of molasses.

Fig. 3
What if  the chefs at CERN could produce Higgs boson-free matter that would be the building blocks of massless food?  You could eat as much of this food as you like without taking on mass yourself. Higgs boson-free beer, for example, would go to your head but not to your midriff.  Imagine delicious boson-free Boston cream pie so light and fluffy you couldn’t even see it, let alone get fat on it. 

It wouldn’t be the first time physicists used atom smashers to create novel elements that don’t exist in nature. Roentgenium, copernicium, and darmstadtium, all recent additions to the periodic table, were created in collider experiments. 

As a teenager, I attended high school at a parochial boarding academy in Richmond, Virginia, where I took meals in the dining hall. For us boarders, the least favorite dish was “mystery meat,” a ground-up concoction resembling over-cooked hamburger (think Meatwad from [Adult Swim's] Aqua Teen Hunger Force) that seemed to appear and reappear for days on end. It may have contained dysnosmium, an unnatural element like darmstadtium unique to the kitchens of boarding schools where collisions of all kinds abound. I think the cook, a querulous, peevish sort who hated us, may have added it as a preservative. It worked, too. Since no one ever ate mystery meat, it was invariably preserved for the next meal.  

Obesity was less of a problem back then.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Is Earth Circling the Drain?

Figure 1
Figure 2
Do you know what frame dragging is? That depends upon your frame of reference, doesn’t it? Take the late French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson. His idea of frame dragging (or at least frame toting) might be seen in a 1964 photograph he shot in Mexico (Fig. 1). For a (too) lowrider, frame dragging might send off sparks (Fig. 2). To a computer programmer working with Flash, it might be a software matter.

Figure 3

Frame dragging – or the KitchenAid effect to the likes of you and me – is also a concept of quantum physics. According to Einstein’s relativity, large masses like the earth warp space-time much the way a golf ball dimples a stretched sheet of elastic.  If the mass happens to be spinning, then the deformation includes frame dragging – a bunching or twisting of space-time that resembles a cosmic vortex or drain (Fig. 3).

But a drain leading where? Don’t all drains go someplace? If you rotate the perspective in Figure 3 through 180 degrees (along earth’s axis of spin), the perturbances of frame dragging resemble, not just a simple dimple, but a crenelated rhombus, a wrinkled hole in the dark matter – a drain flowing two opposite directions at once, as though earth were guggling through the scuppers from both ends! (Indeed, our very literacy may  be seeping out at the poles, leaving only cable TV and this blog.) 

But getting back down to earth... Compared to the cosmic meringue whipped up by frame dragging, earth-bound vortexes like tornadoes or whirlpools seem rather mundane. They have a top and a bottom, a beginning and an end. If you were sucked up by one, sooner or later you’d spin out the side with the cowshed. And if perchance you sluiced into some earth-bound drain, you’d land in the sewer, just as Samuel Beckett’s earth-bound character, Murphy, imagines it.

As a child, I was kind of afraid of drains. But since I knew so little about them, the idea of being sucked into the sewer by one never occurred to me. My dread, I think, came from having no idea at all where drains led. To me, they sort of adumbrated the void. I was pretty sure those little eddies that form in the bathtub could whirl you down to nothingness. 

A more intrepid kid might have rebelled against this nothingness like a young existentialist, or embraced it like a Young Republican, or perhaps even explored it aboard, say, the tardis of Dr. Who?, the imaginary time machine that looks like a cobalt blue London phone booth and sounds like an old-fashioned steam locomotive on lozenges. But alas, I did none of these. Instead, I impulsively whooshed away the bathtub whirlpools with my hands – like sweeping water under the rug, though at the time, this wouldn’t have been my idea of aqueous humor.

A friend of mine, with his patented brand of back-handed optimism, once quipped, “Now don’t worry, Steve. Nothing ever turns out right, anyway.” He was joking, but he was also serious.  As with drains, you never know where the quantum vortexes we travel might take you, and in the end, it might not be anyplace good. Just in case, be sure you make the most of the trip.  And if you have the space and time, do wave as you whiz by.

Well, time for me to drag my frame outside and go jogging. At my age, exercise is still the best way to stay out of the drain.