When my grandfather was a young man, atoms were the basic building blocks of matter. In fact, the very term was derived from the Greek word atomos, which means indivisible. By the time I was a young man, that basic unit of matter had been divided into protons, neutrons and electrons, which were then believed to be the basic units of matter. Since then, new discoveries revealed that those three once basic units are in fact made up of several sub-particles generically classified as Fermions (named after the nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi) and shown in the attached chart. For some time, these particles, or units of matter, were thought to be the basic ones of which all larger particles are composed. Recently, however, new evidence has surfaced that “imply that they (the particles shown in the chart) are instead built of still smaller components.” *
The quoted article highlights, albeit unintentionally, an underlying problem we face as we strive to understand the universe, both on the micro and macro level. It seems that no matter what we discover, the more we know, the less we know. Each layer of knowledge that we peel off the onion of the universe simply reveals another layer beneath it. And paradoxically, that layer always seems larger and more complex than the one that covered it. So the amount to be known keeps growing, while our ability to comprehend this new information remains the same. The problem is much the same in the macro universe of stars and galaxies, but I will discuss that in future post.
Some years ago I saw a presentation by Arthur C. Clarke, the scientist and science fiction writer, on the subject of fractals. Fractals are mathematical expressions that create identical or similar patterns that repeat no matter how closely viewed. You have no doubt seen visual representations of fractals on the web and in some modern art. These would just be neat parlor tricks of interest only to mathematicians except for one salient fact as pointed out by Clarke: while the mathematically generated fractals are infinite, they have many finite analogies in the natural world. River networks, blood vessels, DNA molecules, crystals, snowflakes, and broccoli are just a few examples of finite fractal patterns. But if finite fractal patterns clearly exist in nature, and infinite patterns exist in math, what prohibits infinite patterns in nature?
Infinity is not a term embraced by many scientists except mathematicians. Physicists and other practical investigators into the micro-world want no part of infinity. Hence the notion that there may be an infinite number of ever smaller sub-particles, similar to fractals, or at least so many as to be effectively infinite, is an unacceptable concept. In their minds, there must be a final particle or set of particles. I believe the reasons for this conviction are psychological rather scientific. After all, everything in our normal lives is finite and these are the experiences that condition our assumptions and beliefs. We are born, we live and we die. As individuals, our part of the life cycle is finite, and this fact carries over into how we look at the natural world. Scientists are human and are not immune to the bias toward finiteness that is hard wired into all of us. In addition, the notion if infinity has religious connotations attached to it that many scientists find repellant and associate with superstition.
However, being neither a scientist or a theologian, as a science fiction writer I am free to speculate. It is quite possible that we will never find that “god particle,” the most basic of the basic, the building block of matter and therefore the universe. Instead, we may be faced with an ever more complex micro-world that truly is a world without end.
*The quote and the chart were taken from an article entitled “The Inner Life of Quarks,” in this month’s (November, 2012) issue of Scientific American by Don Lincoln, a senior physicist at Fermilab.