Tag Archive for particle

The Standard Model and the Big Bang

I am old enough to remember when the the Big Bang was not the accepted model of the universe. In the 1950’s there were two major theories: George Gamow’s Big Bang Universe and Fred Hoyle’s Steady State Universe. After evidence of the residual noise of the Big Bang discovered by Penzias and Wilson in 1964 appeared to confirm a single creation event, the Steady State Universe fell into disrepute. In the Big Bang Universe, everything that exists was created in the first few seconds of its 13.7 billion year history. On the other hand, the Steady State Universe is eternal. It has always existed and will always exist. As it expands, new matter is continuously created to keep the Universe in balance and in a “steady state.”

The Big Bang theory has much physical evidence to support it. The outward motion of the the galaxies seems to suggest an expanding universe, which would logically follow if everything originated at a single point. The idea that the four elemental forces, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, the electromagnetic force and the gravitational force were all created at the very beginning and thus were essential in defining the rules of the new universe fits nicely with some of the evidence produced by studies of subatomic particles (see previous blog). The Big Bang also has a psychological and social appeal: it is consistent with most of the creation myths posited by the religions of the world, and it is psychologically consistent with our own life cycle: birth, life, decay and eventual death. These appeals make it attractive to scientists, whether they choose to admit it or not, and probably explains their resistance to accepting data that seems to suggest flaws in the theory.

The measured rate of expansion of the universe, sometimes known as the Hubble constant, has been shown to be inconsistent with the estimated amount of matter and energy in the universe. Therefore, the proponents of the Big Bang have postulated that there is a large amount of matter and energy, known as dark matter, that exists, but is undetectable other than by inference from the prevailing theory. This explanation bears a close resemblance to those put forth by pre-Copernican scientists to explain retrograde motion and other measurements being made that seemed to suggest that an Earth centered, Ptolomeic universe was a flawed model. They postulated that the planets moved around the Earth and then also moved in mini-orbits called epicycles. Of course, within a few years this elaborate explanation came unraveled and a new version of the solar system emerged, along with a new way of looking at creation. Similarly, if the Big Bang was brand new and being suggested as a model with dark matter and energy built into that proposed model, I am certain it would be dismissed as ridiculous and overly elaborate. But because it is the conventional wisdom that the prevailing theory is the true model of creation and scientists are psychologically comfortable with this model, the postulated undetectable matter and energy is accepted.

Because the actors in history are people and people do not change, while scientific discoveries and fads may come and go, history cycles on repeating the same patterns. The Big Bang is getting long in the tooth as scientific theories go in the modern era and I suspect it will be coming unraveled soon. What replaces it will be interesting to see. Possibly some modified version of Hoyle’s eternal and infinite universe will re-emerge to explain the seemingly contradictory observations.


The Standard Model

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.

A Review of FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD by Robert A. Heinlein

Farnham’s Freehold was copyrighted in 1964 by Robert A. Heinlein and published that same year by G. P. Putnam’s Sons of New York. Initially set in the time in which it was written, at the height of the Cold War, in typical Heinlein fashion, this book starts off with a bang as the main character, Hugh Farnham and his family were blasted 2000 years into the future by a Russian atomic bomb. They survived the event because Hugh had the foresight to build a bomb shelter under his home. How the family adapted to this strange new world of the future constitutes the bulk of the novel.

Staying alive was their first priority and Hugh packed the shelter with everything he thought they would need to live after a nuclear war. But once in the event, it turned out that they needed to improvise-and some of their improvisations were quite ingenious. For example, Heinlein described how they constructed an irrigation canal using a homemade transit of the type employed by the ancient Egyptians to ensure the proper slope; and, how they lined it with clay tiles similar to what the Romans used in their aqueducts. Their 250 ton steel re-enforced concrete bomb shelter had been tilted on an angle by the bomb blast. Using tools and techniques first developed by the ancient Egyptians to erect their monuments, the Farnhams were able to re-level the heavy structure without any power equipment.

Compounding the practical problems, Hugh had to deal with conflicts within the family. In addition to his wife, Grace, Hugh had two children: Duke, his grown son and Karen his college age daughter. There were also two others who were not actually blood relatives: Barbara, a friend of Karen who happened to be staying with them at the time of the attack, and Joe, their African American hired man. Early on, Grace and Duke attempted to gang up on Hugh in a struggle for power. However, everyone else had confidence in Hugh’s leadership, sided with him, and Hugh prevailed. But the conflict remained barely beneath the surface for the rest of the story, erupting on several occasions.

After six months of carving out a homestead, planting and irrigating a garden and successfully working out a division of labor; despite their differences, the extended Farnham household seemed destined to prosper. Heinlein had a surprise for them, however. Unfortunately, their homestead was located in the private game preserve of a heretofore unseen landlord. This landlord was a member of The Chosen, the people who had inherited the Earth after the European and Asian races had all but wiped each other out in the nuclear war, and they were descendents of Black Africans. The Chosen now held the remaining light skinned people of North America in slavery. The landlord, whose nickname was Ponse, had the homestead destroyed and the Farnham clan was carried off into bondage. How this was resolved, I’ll allow readers to discover for themselves.

Heinlein uses irony with great skill in this story. The reversal of the relative status of the black and white races is only the most obvious. There are numerous subtle ironies within this over arching one. The Chosen, who in this story were Moslems, proved to be just as ruthless as the white Christian slave owners were in their time and equally hypocritical in their religious justifications. Joe, who in his own time was a second class citizen, suddenly found himself one of The Chosen, while Hugh, his former employer, became a slave. There are many more such ironies for the reader to discover: some are funny and some are not so funny.

As social commentary, this book is a Heinlein tour de force. He addresses racism, a dysfunctional family, sexual liberation, adultery, property rights, religion, intellectual freedom, methods of leadership in a crisis, the Cold War, and human rights in general. And, despite the doomsday backdrop of the story, he does all of this in a way that leaves the reader feeling optimistic about the future of the Farnhams and of the human race.

Star Trek, Star Wars, or Zardoz?

What is humanities’ future in space if any?

On another list, the question was raised about the future of humans in space and several movie versions were suggested. My thoughts on these follow. If anyone wants to argue, take offense or agree, please feel free to comment.

I think the Star Trek vision is still too Earth bound, too reflective of our own forms and biases. The aliens in Star Trek, Whatever Generation are simply reflections of ourselves. They are not aliens. The Vulcans are simply the logical and rational sides of ourselves; the Klingons are our greedy and rapacious side, while all of the other aliens are simply character actors in morality plays.  It is a great series, but it is not particularly visionary.

Star Wars tries to be big, but ends up being small. It is Shogun in space.  Jedi-Samurai, endless intrigues with double and triple crosses, good guys become bad guys become good guys and so on. It is great fun but visionary about human space flight it is not.

Zardoz is a total downer. This is science fiction at its worst. It is The Sun Also Rises without the happy ending.

I see human space flight, exploration and colonization as the dawn of a new age. Those who go will be optimists. The kind of people who looked at the New World as an opportunity to be grasped rather than a mystery to be feared. We will take all of our faults and foibles with us, of course, but the tip of the spear will be sharp and we will embark on a great adventure. Those new folks, the lunar and Mars colonists, the ones born and raised there, will see the universe through different eyes. Where we see limits, they will see opportunities. I am quite optimistic. The only movie I can think of that captures this spirit isn’t science fiction at all, it is Centennial, a mini-series about the settling of a town in Colorado that begins with the Native Americans who settled there first, to the trappers and mountain men, the cattlemen, farmers and follows through to the present day. That is our future in colonizing the solar system.

Big Bang

#CMS: “we have observed a new boson with a mass of 125.3 ± 0.6 GeV at 4.9 sigma significance.” Thunderous applause. #Higgs #ICHEP2012

Those guys at Cern are on a mission. They are true believers in the big Bang theory and they will prove it no matter what, just like those guys that go over to Turkey looking for Noah’s Ark. What almost no scientist will own up to is that the Big Bang is popular because it is psychologically comfortable. It fits our own biographies which have a beginning, middle and end, and is consistent with every major creation myth of every religion on the planet. As humans with limited capacities to conceptualize beyond our physical experience, a steady state or eternal universe, such as Fred Hoyle proposed, is incomprehensible. Therefore all efforts of modern physics are driven toward proving the validity of what is essentially an irrational belief. Every few years, yet another event is trotted out, like this one, that proves yet again that the Big Bang is THE universal model. For being such a good model, it sure seems to need an awful  lot of propping up. But don’t tell any of my scientist friends I said that: you will have to pry the Big Bang Theory out of their cold dead fingers.