Physicists were all giddy today, anticipating an announcement that, over forty-five years since its existence was first speculated, the Higgs particle had been finally proved to exist. The announcement from teams working at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) disappointed. The Higgs particle was not proved to exist, but neither was its existence disproved. Thankfully, there is still something for the LHC left to do, i.e., it can continue searching for this most elusive of the particles postulated by the Standard Model of particle physics. The implications of finding the particle would be huge, as scientists interviewed for an article on livescience.com attest:
The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest particle accelerator. It was built for around $10 billion by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to probe higher energies than had ever been reached on Earth. Finding the Higgs boson was touted as one of the machine’s biggest goals.
The discovery of the Higgs would offer major validation for the LHC and for the scientists who’ve worked on the search for many years.
“If the Higgs eventually gets discovered it would be a very big step,” said Guimaraes da Costa. “You have to invest lots of years, and getting to see it is quite exciting. It’s quite good for the field because to build these machines [it] costs a lot of money, and you need to justify why we build these machines. If we make such an important discovery about the universe, it’s a justification for why we should be investing in these things.”
The discovery of the Higgs would also have major implications for scientist Peter Higgs and his colleagues who first proposed the Higgs mechanism in 1964.
“If it is found there are several people who are going to get a Nobel prize,” said Vivek Sharma, a physicist at the University of California, San Diego, and the leader of the Higgs search at LHC’s CMS experiment.
In other words, finding the Higgs particle would justify the massive funding required of the LHC, while also providing some scientists with Nobel prizes. Seems to be a very important particle, so far as the giddy scientists are concerned. But is finding the particle important to mankind? Perhaps less so than it is for the scientists.
The Higgs particle, also unfortunately referred to as the “God particle” (after a book of the same name was written about its search, although the author of the book reputedly wished to name it the “goddamned particle”), is not necessary to our functional, i.e., useful, understanding of quantum theory and particle physics. There are alternative theories that complete the Standard Model without requiring its existence. Which means that maybe it really is, at least for scientific materialists, something of a God particle–the universe as we know it not at all depending on its existence.
The God particle, if it is found to exist, will get us no closer to reconciling Quantum Theory with General Relativity. Each will still have separate and limited domains for their explicatory powers, that never the twain it seems, no matter how many imaginary universes are conjured by string theorists, will meet. And, as Relativity Theory now requires, the universe will still consist of some 96% or so of Dark Matter and Energy, that is by definition, undetectable in any direct way. In other words, if the God particle is proved to exist, then we know it comprises part of the four percent of the universe that we are able to detect according to Relativity Theory. Or at least we know this if Relativity Theory actually has predictive powers as extensive as is presently supposed.
But the search for the God particle is of a piece with the contortions attendant to trying to fit Einstein’s Relativity Theory to a universe that simply refuses to behave as the physicists would prefer. Just as Einstein developed Relativity Theory as an abstraction of the mind, Quantum Theory developed a veritable particle zoo from the minds of its practitioners. In both cases, mental abstraction proved remarkably capable in predicting how the universe should, and ultimately did, look and behave. Einstein’s Relativity Theory accounting for the gravitational pull of space/time was experimentally proved when a solar eclipse revealed the curving of light by the gravity of the sun. The particles of the Standard Model have been proved again and again to exist in the reality of particle colliders just as they were conjured by mental abstraction. The power of man’s mind to imagine and anticipate the structure of the universe has seemed limitless.
Yet less than a hundred years since a solar eclipse purportedly proved Einstein’s theories, it appears mental abstraction may be reaching the limits of its power. Special and General Relativity depend absolutely on the notion that there is nothing in the universe faster than light. Yet we have known almost since Einstein’s theories gained acceptance that entangled particles can transmit information instantaneously to each other across vast expanses, presumably the whole of the universe. Isn’t information a “something” that negates the nothing required of the theories? Even were it not, it now appears that light might be slower than one (perhaps more?) of the particles in the Standard Model, if recent experimental observations can be duplicated. And don’t forget, for all their abstract brilliance, Einstein’s theories are now requiring, after decades of accumulating experimental and observational evidence, only 4% of the universe to be detectable. If the goal is to understand the nature of reality, what use is there in clinging to a theory that requires 96% of reality to be hidden from view?
That physicists have pursued evidence of the God particle’s existence so doggedly for over forty-five years speaks to the near religious fervor with which the power of mental abstraction is regarded within the physics community. You can almost hear them muttering as they attempt to tease out proof of the particle’s existence, “goddamned particle, I know you’re there. All my equations say you’re there, so why don’t you reveal yourself!” They need proof of the particle’s existence because its existence is a tenet of their catechism that all things are decipherable and understandable and predictable through the power of man’s mind. But what if it doesn’t exist? What if the abstracted prediction of its existence proves false? As a practical matter, nothing. As a theoretical and philosophical matter, the lonely world of theoretical physicists would be upended and overturned. Imagine the lamentations. And all this coming hot on the heels of evidence that Einstein was perhaps wrong about the speed of light. Whither goes the mind of man now?
Hubris needs no LHC to prove its existence. It ranks among the more predictably present attributes of mankind’s character. It is the essence of hubris, for example, to imagine that man might be capable of designing a computer that exceeds the power of his own mind, when he doesn’t even understand how his own mind works. It is the essence of hubris to imagine that man’s mind can be employed to simplify the marvelous complexity that nature presents–the very nature that created and nurtures him and by logical necessity is fantastically more complex than any of its subparts, such as are humans–into a few (or for that matter, a great many) equations on a blackboard. The God particle indeed. It would take the mind of God, not man, to explain it all.