Thursday, March 11, 2004

mass speculation

Scientists using the large electron positron collider (LEP) at CERN in Geneva Switzerland may have detected the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle that is believed to be responsible for the mass of all particles.

The Standard model of fundamental particles and interactions includes 16 'particles' that have been observed in supercollider experiments. Different combinations of these subatomic particles result in larger particles that differ in charge, spin, or even mass. The problem that researchers have faced is that when they do the math on these combinations, the resultant particles have all the right properties... except for mass. Mass is something we take for granted on our scale... everything we interact with (or even just detect) has mass of some sort, so it's understandable that having mass missing from the resultant particles is a bit unnerving to the scientists. The Standard Model was therefore revised to include the Higgs boson in the late 1960s. Think about that... we feel soooo advanced, and it's only been in the last 40 years that we've been able to come up with an as yet unverified mechanism for particles to have mass.

The current theory is that all particles acquire their mass through interactions with an omnipresent intrinsic field called the Higgs field, which is carried by the Higgs boson. This being quantum physics, we mere mortals can be forgiven for our lack of understanding of how a property like mass, which seems so fundamental to everything in our experience, can first off be missing from our subatomic bestiary and second off come into being by throwing this little theoretical ball back and forth. Of course, this being quantum physics, wave-particle duality has already screwed up the very idea of a 'particle' to the point that no definitions make sense, so the reality is we have no frickin idea what the hell is going on.

Part of me hopes that the new collider being built at CERN, the Large Hadron Collider, will be able to shed more light on this subject, but I am also pretty skeptical about our theories... the wave-particle thing seems to imply that subatomic entities aren't waves or particles - they are some other thing, something that can seem to be a wave or a particle depending on how you look at it, like that old 'elephant and then blind men' story. And it's no wonder that we don't understand gravitation (as evidenced by all of the 'dark matter' theories) if we don't even understand mass. The only thing I do understand completely is that the day will come when people will look back on our current theories and wonder how we could be so nearsighted, just as we now look back on the quaint science of the past. It is useful to remember that the people who believed the earth was flat (or that it was the center of the universe), or those that believed that a pendulum made of a stone and string swings because the spirit of the stone is upset about it's captivity, had as much 'logical' proof of the truth of their beliefs as we do of our own, and they believed as strongly in the truth of their deductions as we do, because 'logic' says nothing about truth... it merely shows that something is internally consistent with the rest of what is believed.

[via SEB]