Some people geek out on celebrities, rock stars, politicians. I’m much sicker than all of those people. My fall down on the sidewalk slobbering idols are particle physicists.
The current holy grail of particle physics, the Higgs boson, is (maybe) within our grasp. Perhaps even today, at a place called the Large Hadron Collider, the signature of a Higgs was captured. We won’t know for a while, but think about it: today might be the day when we finally find out why things have mass.
I started a new book today by one of those superhuman particle physicists. It’s called “The Lightness of Being” and the author is Frank Wilczek. I start a lot more books than I finish, and it’s not rare for a book that begins promisingly to end up returned to the library long before it’s done. But one passage in the early part of the book absolutely captured my imagination, and I want to share it.
“In Galileo’s time, professors of philosophy and theology – the subjects were inseparable – produced grand discourses on the nature of reality, the structure of the universe, and the way the world works, all based on sophisticated metaphysical arguments. Meanwhile, Galileo measured how fast balls roll down inclined planes. How mundane! . . . Galileo too cared about the big questions, but he realized that getting genuine answers required patience and humility before the facts.” – The Lightness of Being, pages 7-8.
One of the most beautiful ideas I can imagine is this . . . you can trace a continuous path of discovery, from Galileo and his rolling balls and inclined planes, through Newton and his laws of motion, to the great electrical investigations of Volta, Ampere, Faraday, and Maxwell, to Einstein and Planck and Curie and Bohr and Heisenberg and Meitner and Wheeler and Feynman and Gell-Mann and now to the scientists at the LHC. Maybe their equipment is a little more complicated than Galileo’s ramps and balls, but it’s still the same game. And what a game it is!
Here’s just one example of where Galileo and his intellectual descendents have taken us, while the metaphysicians keep on debating about whether there’s any such thing as knowledge or even reality. Imagine one metaphysician talking to another, about how all we know is provisional and subjective and riddled with invisible assumptions. Within her throat, her vocal cords vibrate, setting into motion nearby molecules of air. Those molecules, already in frantic motion all about, nevertheless faithfully carry the pattern of her vibration to their neighbors, who inform their neighbors, and so on as the sound of her voice spreads throughout the room.
But the air molecules themselves don’t go across the room! Instead, a wave is moving, a pulse of – what? something, energy, information – carried not by the moving molecules themselves, but by their interactions with one another.
And why do they interact? Because on their outskirts are electrons, each identical, each repelled equally by every other electron in the universe, each just trying to possess its own little bit of space. When another electron comes too near, it reacts, pushes as it is pushed, and the wave moves on.
Finally the wave reaches the ear of the second philosopher, and the molecules of his eardrum, the electrons in his own outer shells, react to the outer shells of the air molecules right up against his ear. The eardrum vibrates, duplicating in a very distinct way that vocal cord vibration that started it all. And he hears her. Sound, ultimately, is electrical!
And yet the questions remain. Why do electrons have the charge they have? Why do atoms have mass, the mass tha allows them to move in just the right reactionary way to carry a sound wave? What are mass and electric charge, anyway? The answer is, we just don’t know. But maybe, just maybe, we’re getting close.
And yet the point isn’t that the investigation ends, so far, ultimately, in mystery. The point is that we’ve broken down the problem, shown that it is really another problem, a more common, basic, fundamental problem. Many, many such investigations – how does a car work, why is water wet, and yes, even, what is life? – end in just this way. And so we’ve swept our pile of ignorance, which once covered the floors of metaphysical universities, into a much smaller, yet profoundly worthy, heap. And now, at the LHC, by rolling ever more energetic balls down ever steeper inclined planes, my heroes the particle physicists are diving into even that profound pile of mystery.
And I get to watch!