The Large Hadron Collider
“It's called the Large Hadron Collider, and its purpose is simple but ambitious: to crack the code of the physical world; to figure out what the universe is made of; in other words, to get to the very bottom of things.” (Joel Achenbach, National Geographic)
THE ANSWER MACHINE
Ever since man began marveling at the grandeur of the universe, he’s been itching to know what it is made of and what makes it tick. Now, after millennia of wondering and theorizing, there is hope that answers to some of nature’s most tightly held secrets may be just around the corner.
On September 10, researchers cranked up the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and sent a beam of protons racing around a mammoth underground track. It is all in preparation of some “smashing” experiments that will begin on October 21.
Located in Geneva, Switzerland, the LHC is the world’s largest experimental machine. Buried 300 feet down in a 17-mile circular tunnel, the $9 billion apparatus includes thousands of tons of magnets, detectors, cryogenics, and structural steel. The leviathan proportions are needed to accelerate opposing beams of protons to near the speed of light, so that they will crash into each other and recreate the extreme temperatures and energies that existed within the first moments of the big bang.
The hope is that by mimicking the conditions of our newborn universe, the “answer machine” will crack the lid on some vexing riddles of the cosmos, like:
WHAT IS DARK ENERGY AND DARK MATTER?
In 1929 Edwin Hubble discovered the constant expansion of the universe, as revealed by stellar redshift measurements. Nearly 70 years later, light spectra measurements of supernovae indicated that the universe is not only expanding, but accelerating! Scrambling to identify the cosmic power source, physicists dubbed it, “dark energy.” Subsequent measurements revealed that dark energy accounts for 70 percent of all the stuff in the universe.
On top of that, gravitational anomalies observed in stellar objects indicated that there is a sizeable source of invisible (“dark”) matter affecting their movements. When “dark matter” is added to dark energy, it turns out that dark stuff makes up 95 percent of the cosmos.
Prominent physicists Lawrence Krauss, Ed Witten, and Steven Weinberg have all called this cosmic “darkness” the biggest mystery in physics.
DOES THE UNIVERSE CONTAIN EXTRA DIMENSIONS?
The standard model of physics is one of the biggest triumphs of science. Yet for all of its success in describing the building blocks of nature, researchers haven’t a clue as to why those “Legos” have the properties they do—nor how the quantum processes that govern them relate to the large scale structure of the universe shaped by general relativity.
A growing cadre of investigators believes that string theory may hold answers to these questions. One of the more provocative features of that theory is the requirement for at least 10, rather than three, spatial dimensions.
The extra seven or so dimensions are thought to be tightly enfolded into 3-D spacetime, and detectable with probes that are many orders of magnitude more powerful than LHC. Nonetheless, it is hoped that maybe, just maybe, LHC will provide a hint of their existence.
WHERE’S ALL THE ANTIMATTER?
According to sacrosanct laws of conservation, there should be equal amounts of anti-matter and matter; such that for every elemental particle, there should be a corresponding anti-particle. For instance, for the electron, there is the anti-electron (or positron); and for the proton there is the anti-proton. These particle pairs are identical in every way, save for their equal and opposite electronic charges and magnetic spins.
Problem is, the known cosmos appears to be comprised almost solely of matter. What happened to all of the anti-matter? Why is our cosmic home partial towards matter?
But perhaps the most fundamental question that investigators hope to answer is, “What is matter?”
WHAT MAKES MATTER MATERIAL?
Matter is the stuff of everyday common experience. Trees, rocks, flesh, planets and stars are all made of matter. Matter, in turn, is comprised of quarks, electrons and neutrinos—distinguished from other particle types by their mass.
Commonly associated with weight, mass is the measure of an object’s resistance to an applied force. But two questions that have plagued researchers are “What gives an object its mass?” and “Why do some particles (like electrons) have mass, and others (like photons) do not?”
String theorists propose that mass is a byproduct of the tension and vibration patterns of Planck-sized strings. String theory skeptics think otherwise.
In 1964 physicist Peter Higgs conjectured that mass was caused by an invisible field that pervades the entire universe. Comprised of what were later dubbed “Higgs particles,” this field can be thought of as a kind of cosmic molasses that preferentially inhibits the motion of certain particle types. Because of its ubiquity and its importance to the standard model of physics, many pundits refer to Higgs as the “God Particle.”
As it turns out, the energy of the LHC is sufficiently large to detect the Higgs if, indeed, it exists. Thus, of all the mysteries that the LHC is hoped to solve, verification of Higgs is the most promising.
Without question, the LHC is one of the boldest and most expensive scientific ventures ever undertaken. And with all the money and hope riding on it, there is real fear that the “answer machine” could fail to deliver. As writer Joel Achenbach explains:
Such a big machine needs to produce big science, big answers, something that can generate a headline as well as interesting particles. But even an endeavor of this scale isn't going to answer all the important questions of matter and energy. Not a chance. This is because a century of particle physics has given us a fundamental truth: Reality doesn't reveal its secrets easily.
Actually, Mr. Achenbach understates the situation. For the "fundamental truth" is that the recipe of Reality is impenetrable. It's not a matter of accelerator power, experimental design, or data handling; it's a matter of ontology.
Ever since Werner Heisenberg stunned the scientific community with quantum uncertainty, reductionistic materialism—which holds that Reality consists of “things” all the way down—has been “on the ropes.” Physical objects can broken down to a certain point, but beyond the quantum curtain lies “a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things and facts.” The inconvenient truth for reductionists is that what we find in the quantum mysterium depends on how we look, not on what is actually there.
Imagine that there is a mystery object in a black wooden box. Also imagine that you are told to reconstruct the object by firing bullets into it and examining the resulting shrapnel.
Riddling the box with a .22 automatic yields only sparks; strafing it with an uzi produces whiffs of smoke; and blasting it with a 50-caliber machine gun sends chunks of dented, gnarled, and twisted metal flying helter-skelter across the room.
After your “Lucky Luciano” melee, you collect the debris and start piecing it together. But hard as you try, you can’t arrange it into any recognizable object. That’s because the shrapnel—not to mention the sparks and smoke—does not reflect what is actually there; but rather, distorted, deformed artifacts created by your frenetic fusillade.
THE EVER-RECEDING CORRIDOR
The same is true for particle-smashing experiments. If we fire an electron into a target with a certain energy, we produce neutrinos. If we change the energy of the electron, we detect pions. If we change the beam to protons, we see muons. But that does not mean that those particles exist in any objective sense. Instead, they were created out of the quantum foam by the ordnance of our investigation.
Nevertheless, Joel Achenbach expresses towering hopes for the LHC: “By smashing pieces of matter together . . . the LHC could reveal the particles and forces that wrote the rules for everything that followed.”
I have little doubt that the experiments in Geneva will make history with some unexpected and, possibly, groundbreaking discoveries. But even should those experiments rise to the level of Mr. Achenbach’s expectations, investigators will soon find themselves descending the ever-receding corridor of materialism, wondering: Where did those primordial “Legos” come from, and how did they come to “write rules”?
LHC enthusiasts would do well to ponder the words of quantum pioneer, Max Planck:
“All scientists who have any depth to their work will find the hand of God in Nature or else a mystery that they refuse to identify with God.”
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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