A scientific discovery can change the world many years from now

Dear Editor,

I must confess that I saw the title of your Saturday editorial (December 17), ‘Quantum leap into the future,‘ and never suspected that you would actually be talking about physics, accustomed as I am to the overuse of the term ‘quantum leap‘ for other purposes. So I did not read it, and probably might not have, had not John Cromwell commented on the, as it turned out, aptly titled editorial.

Finding the Higgs boson would justify continuing with the Standard Model of particle physics, which attempts to unify the four fundamental forces of nature: the Strong Force, which holds positively charged protons in the atomic nucleus; Electromagnetism, which holds ordinary (chemical) matter together; the Weak Force, which holds radioactive decay; and Gravity which holds massive bodies together (in orbit, etc).

Theory has so far acceptably unified the first three. Gravity is the maverick, not least because it requires instruments trillions of times more accurate than we have now, but also because it is trillions of times weaker than even the Weak Force. Physicists operating the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN try to achieve this by brute force. The machine accelerates hadrons (like protons, neutrons and mesons) into one another at very high energies in the hope they break up into fundamental particles, antiparticles and fields (like quarks, leptons and gauge bosons), in the further hope that certain combinations of these in space exist long enough in time to collide and produce the Higgs boson, which then has to be detected before it disappears.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of Guyanese who recently talked to me of the search for the Higgs and of the origin of mass. Your editorial recognised that discoveries in fundamental science can change the world many years from now, in the same way that quantum electrodynamics (QED) from the 1930s led to the information technology of cell phones and nano-computers of today. We now use QED to create and project quite complex images via computer graphics and animations.

Just imagine what could be the result of injecting mass into these computer creations which are already so appealing in the latest 3-D movies: we would be able to feel their texture; a labour force could eventually be created on demand; life will be different, but we will still need lawyers to argue which creations are permissible, and money to pay them and to afford the apparatus and energy required for creation.

Back in our present version of reality, the prospect of success is not as clear as some may make out. Eleven years ago CERN also hosted a media event on potential sightings of the Higgs boson from the forerunner of the LHC, the Large Electron-Positron Collider (LEP). There was at least as much enthusiasm then as now. However, all they were able to achieve was to narrow the search range. This time around the search range in the particular area has been further narrowed, but there is no guarantee that when the entire range becomes searched that the boson will be in that area.

Detecting the Higgs boson with present resolution is therefore like searching a portion of a vast desert for sand dunes with certain surface features. The instruments can pick out only well-developed dunes, but long and many observations are necessary to establish whether the features are permanent or only formed by the wind. Worse, the role of the wind in the life of the desired features is unknown. Results have to be announced as statistics with confidence levels.

It is well known to be a very expensive undertaking. So there are others (like me) who think that the more fundamental question that should be addressed is the relation between gravitational mass (the mass measured as a result of Newton’s law of gravity) and inertial mass (the mass measured as a result of Newton’s 2nd law of motion). They happen to be equal as far as can be measured, but the reason is not known. Could it be, for example, that mass is an effect of the motion of the rest of the (distant) universe? If so then there might be no Higgs boson to be found.

But that is science; we use what we are able to acquire to get what we do not have, as systematically reproducable as possible; if it doesn’t work, try something else, where and when the money is available.

Yours faithfully,
Alfred Bhulai

Around the Web

Comments