Thursday, April 24, 2014

Hawking Radiation – Should we be buying what physics is selling?

                        “There is no nothingness, only the somethingness you can’t see.” 
                                                                           Swami Deepsheesh Rajathustra

These days, things are moving amazingly fast in particle physics – almost like the Big Bang all over again!  

During the nearly interminable (we’re talking relativity here) trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second right after the Big Bang – when anti-gravitational swelling began to inflate the cosmos like a boiled balloon, when hens laid fried eggs sunny side up, when roses bloomed with time-lapse alacrity, and gravity pulled you up, down, and crossways – many things appeared and vanished all at once.

The One Force that had ruled all others like Tolkien's magic ring differentiated into the four forces of the quantum apocalypse: gravity (carried by gravitons), electromagnetism (photons), the strong force (gluons) and the weak forces (W & Z bosons). 

Also emerging amidst the melee was the so-called “god particle,” the Higgs boson, that imbues other elementary particles with mass, making possible the physical world as we know it, such as organic tomatoes.

Until recently only the Higgs boson and the graviton remained predicted (by the Standard Model) but not proven, maddeningly elusive to researchers and their particle accelerators. Similarly, scientists were still largely clueless about dark energy and the rate at which the universe was expanding – bloating outward like a trencherman fat guy who's stubbornly avoiding the scales.

Then everything changed.

In October, 2011, three scientists received the Nobel Prize in physics for showing that the expansion of the universe, propelled by dark energy, is actually accelerating and that dark energy is the most abundant stuff out there.

In July, 2012, amidst great celebration, physicists at CERN announced the discovery of the Higgs boson.

“For me, it’s really an incredible thing that’s happened in my lifetime,” deadpanned Peter Higgs.

Well, for me, too.

Now comes scientific evidence of gravity waves, presumably confirming within a provisional certainty the existence of gravitons.

Its as though everything in nature has suddenly become tangible, as though the delectable affliction of nothingness is being swept away, leaving behind a somethingness unsettlingly akin to being – bearable, perhaps, but certainly not light. No longer can you peer into the void and rail against meaninglessness, rebel against even the trendiest despair, and write about it in French cafes. Physicists, it seems, are progressively reducing everything out there to concrete quantum expressions, perhaps one-day including carbon-based life itself.

Want to make a baby? Integrate your equations, plug in the variables, and out comes your little solution! Time for baby's feeding? There's a formula for the formula. Does God exist? Do the math. Or if you're bad at arithmetic, consult the high priest, a mathematician who can help you run numbers convincingly and come up with the standard deviations.

Over the top? Perhaps, but it’s still enough to make you frantic, seek comfort in the uncertainty of, say, creation science – just as a matter of principle.

Meanwhile, like a congenial dial tone, that scallywag Steven Hawking has been laughing all the way to the bank. He’s peddled over ten million copies of A Brief History of Time, nine million so far of The Grand Design. What he hawks may be radioactive but lots of folks are buying it.

Hawking, amongst others, even claims that nature doesn’t require a divine creator, that the laws of physics make it inevitable that the universe would have popped into being with no help at all.

Hawking radiation
Not since Jimmy Swaggart!

Yet its to Hawking that we owe the theory (still unproven) of “Hawking radiation” that establishes the novel possibility of exodus from the universe’s ultimate gravity pit, the black hole, a gaping maw in the fabric of space/time from which not even light can escape. According to Hawking, there’re certain adroit absconders from black holes – the Hawking radiation – each bit of which is one half of a particle-antiparticle pair produced by the black hole's gargantuan gravitational energy. In order for the quantum math to add up, though, it turns out that the escaping half of the duo must rely upon superposition – being both inside and outside the black hole at once.

Fine, but how much of this quantum slight of hand can you take on faith?  I know that…

…but superposition is a stretch even for me!

As if all that weren’t enough, the credibility of scientists (to be sure, not physicists) has been called into question of late.  A study by the National Academy of Sciences found that of 2,000 scientific papers published and subsequently retracted, misconduct was the reason for three-quarters of the retractions (for which a cause could be determined). Academia's publish or perish culture likely has something to do with this, and to publish you have to have grants.

Physicists, of course, are only human and survive on research grants, too. What if the folks at CERN, for the sake of their funding, say, weren't above squirting a little Red Bull into a proton beam to jazz up the results?

Before I buy any more newfangled ideas from physics, I’m getting my guru, Swami Deepsheesh Rajathustra, to validate everything up ‘til now. Raj, as we like to call him, is in tantric harmony with the Manava Dharma Shastra and knows about protons. I’ll be relying on him to make sure I don’t fall victim to some cosmic con.

While I’m at it, I think I'll ask him about this, too.

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