Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

The search by physicists to understand the way the world works has been going on since the first man wondered why things fall down but they don’t fall up.  In the long history of physics, there have been a few preeminent physicists whose reputations have spanned the centuries.  Isaac Newton made a huge leap in knowledge when he was able to describe the force of gravity mathematically.  Newtons equations very reliably predict the trajectory of a cannonball or the motion of the planets.  However, it is interesting to note that Newton was frustrated by this thing called gravity and admitted that he did not understand how it really worked. In Newton’s own words in his Principia he writes: “I feign no hypothesis… That one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one another, is to me so great an absurdity that, I believe, no man who has in philosophic matters a competent faculty of thinking could ever fall into it.”  In other words, although Newton had an equation that seemed provide the capability to determine the gravitational force of one body upon another, he had absolutely no idea of the mechanism of how the gravitational force was exerted by one body upon another.

Centuries later another of the giants of physics took on the problem of gravity.  Albert Einstein, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect and one of the founders of quantum theory (he actually coined the word “quantum”) would eventually develop his crowning achievement, the General Theory of Relativity, which provided a mathematical description of the gravitational field far more exactly than Newton’s equations.  Today, NASA wouldn’t consider putting a satellite into orbit using Newton’s equations, it is always Einstein’s equations that must be used to account for the relativistic effects of the high speeds of the satellites as they orbit the Earth.

It is therefore curious to the average person that Einstein and his philosophy are often shunned and even ridiculed by modern physicists.  Ever since Einstein published his General Theory other physicists have tried to find an error in its predictions, but to no avail.  Most recently NASA launched a satellite to test a very small, second order effect, that is predicted by the equations of General Relativity. The effect is called frame dragging. Essentially, Einstein’s equations predict that space and time will be affected by the rotation of the Earth in a way similar to how a spoon dipped in molasses will create swirls in the molasses if the spoon is twirled.  The NASA experiment corroborated this very tiny, second order effect of Einstein’s theory. This effect was not something that Einstein was keen on predicting, instead it was the result of the equations he had created in order to predict the major interactions of gravity, space, and time, effects such as the precession of the perihelion of Mercury or the bending of starlight as it passes near the sun.

So what does this have to do with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research? It is all about what causes gravity.  Newton just didn’t have an explanation for how gravity actually worked.  Einstein was able to show that gravity can be interpreted as the geometrical distortion of spacetime.  However, his equations do not specify an agent of the gravitational force between too adjacent objects. This is where the particle physicists come in. They have a theory that a particle called a Higgs boson must exist and it is this particle that confers mass to a body – and it is mass that interacts with or creates gravity.

Einstein spent the latter years of his life in the search for a Grand Unified Theory that would combine gravity, electricity, and magnetism in to a single set of equations. However, he died before he was able to determine what this set of equations must be.  The particle physicists, the quantum theorists, have taken a different approach altogether from Einstein.  While Einstein envisioned fields and warps in space and time as the explanation for gravity and electricity and magnetism, modern quantum theorists prefer particles and the mathematics of randomness and probability, because, for them, the universe at its heart can never be known precisely, as stated in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. This was the source of great debate between quantum physicists and Einstein, and in the end Einstein was marginalized.

CERN is now on the verge of a major test to determine whether the hypothesized Higgs boson, the agent of gravitational mass, exists. The Large Hadron Collider is about to be fired up, generating collisions between high energy particles that, it is hoped, will momentarily create a Higgs boson.  Interestingly, it is also predicted that it might temporarily create a microscopic black hole – and this has some people very concerned. What if it did create a black hole in Switzerland? Would it swallow up the Earth in a split second?  The people at CERN have bent over backwards trying to show that such a black hole would not last long enough to do any damage.  They even point out that Einstein’s theory says that they could not even be produced at the Large Hadron Collider.  It’s sort of interesting that the quantum theorists are quoting Einstein at this time in order to assure the public that the experiment is safe.

At any rate we’ll soon know. The LHC could be fired up as early as this weekend for preliminary testing. It’ll be a while before they get to the real super particle collisions.  I suppose then we might actually have the answers to some questions that have been around for a long time. Will it disprove General Relativity? No.  Will it show that Einstein’s determinism is wrong and the world is really based upon random probability? No. If it shows the existence of a Higgs boson, it is more than likely that it will open up a whole new set of questions, because that has been the history of quantum physics. It is like peeling the layers of an onion. A good example is the search for the Omega Minus particle back in the 1960’s.

Of course, if the calculations of the theoretical physicists at CERN are completely wrong, and if they accidently create a massive black hole that swallows us up in a nanosecond…well, we’ll never know, will we?

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