Friday, July 6, 2012

Keep On Higgsing

The discovery of the Higgs boson is a great achievement for physics.  Whether the discovery is the Higgs boson or a Higgs-like boson is besides the point.  The characteristics of the products of proton-proton collisions at the energy levels in the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva will doubtless expose anomalies that will partly confirm and partly challenge current theory.

Of course, at the layman's level, with its metaphors of "particles" and "zoo," we really don't have a clue what is going on.  After all, we are dealing with a micro world where there are no particles.  There are quanta of energy and some of the quanta have mass, whatever that is.  The whole thing is a morass of mathematics and the particles and fields are just convenient metaphors.  Everything is a question of probabilities until there is an observable event. The Higgs boson is associated with the Higgs field and is supposed to explain why some quanta have mass and others don't.

In my layman's view, all the narrative around physics is the same as Plato conjuring up his cosmology in the Timaeus.  It takes current knowledge and recklessly extends it towards an explanation of the eternal mystery of the meaning of "life, the universe, and everything."

But all science ever seems to do is unfold even deeper mysteries.  Today, as we wrap up the Standard Model of 20th century physics, we already have a mystery waiting in the wings.  As one physicist put it:
"Even if we find out that this is indeed, to the best of our ability to measure, the Standard Model Higgs boson, there are all these other questions that are unanswered. One of the first questions is: What composes the dark matter in the universe? There's no room in the Standard Model of the universe to make up the dark matter, so we have to look at other candidate alternatives."
So we are at the same position as we were over a century ago when the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 revealed that the speed of light always checked out the same.  According to the best physics at the time, it ought to be different, depending on its orientation to the "ether."   If the speed of light is the same in all directions, what does it mean?  A man who was then 8 years old came up with the shocking answer.

Every time we make a big breakthrough in physics, we pretty soon find that there is another mystery confronting us.  That is why philosophy has abandoned "foundationalism."  We don't know the basic building blocks of the universe.  All we know is that we have science that checks out at observable energies.  Knowledge is good until it gets updated with something new and improved.

Meanwhile the physicists need to come up with a rationale to keep their big toys going and maybe come up with a reason for something bigger and better.  I wonder what they will propose.

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