A little more than 100 years ago, there were a lot of physics guys who thought human intelligence had just about wrapped up the mysteries of the universe. There were just a couple of things yet to explain—the orbit of Mercury didn’t quite follow the math, for instance. Still, that was an edge case and for the most part we Knew How Nature Worked.
It turns out, we didn’t know squat. Newton did a damn fine job, but we started finding more and more places where his math didn’t work out, in the realms of the very fast and the very small. Once we got to subatomic particles things went completely wonky.
Newton! A hell of a smart guy. Was he wrong?
Short answer, yes, but let’s cut him some slack. He provided the mathematical framework needed to show that in extreme conditions he was wrong. He just didn’t have the extreme conditions to observe. It was not until centuries had passed that there came to be what I call the ‘Einstein fudge factor’, a little addition to Newton’s equations to take into account that pesky speed of light, and that helped a lot. With extremely small particles, however, the fudge factor was not enough.
Which brings us to the apparently-always-capitalized Standard Model. The Standard Model is mankind’s (current) leading attempt to bring order to the chaos we discovered when the universe refused to tie itself up in a neat bow way back when. It’s about particles — tiny dots of… ??? It’s not even stuff. Tiny dots of math. There’s a particle for everything.
NOTE: I’m Saganizing this article; simplifying to the point where it’s technically wrong, hoping to express the flavor of the mystery.
If there’s not a particle for everything, that’s a problem for the Standard Model. Out on the physics playground, the other theories are getting up in Standard Model’s grill. “Where’s your gravity particle, big shot?” they’re saying. “You math looks pretty but where’s the damn gravity particle?
Gravity, the first force to be measured (apples on heads, weights out of towers), is still a bitch to explain. Our elusive Higgs boson does some of the work.
Standard Model guys say, “The Higgs boson is real, but it’s going to take a crap-ton of energy to beak one loose to observe it running free. We need to build a ridiculously expensive piece of hardware to slam protons together at a minimum of 1.4 TeV (those protons are boogyin’) or better to bust one of these guys loose so we can measure it.”
So then we built one of those pieces of hardware. Probably the last hurrah of Big Physics for the next century, as biological sciences takes the fore. Bang-for-buck, I have to side with biology. But now we have this machine, delicate enough to be knocked out by a sandwich, powerful enough to explore the conditions of the universe when it was only a fraction of a second old. But mainly it was made to smack things into each other so hard that wacky shit comes out.
Let’s pause for perspective. The boys in charge say they want to find the Higgs Boson. While that’s not a lie, what they really want is to smash shit together so hard that the devil himself squirts out. They want to see some crazy particle coming out at energies we’ve only imagined before, that has some property that makes no sense at all.
Even the proponents of the Standard Model would like to be the ones to break it. Science is about breaking things. In any branch of science, not just physics, when an experiment comes up with an unexpected result, there is excitement. (Remember that next time you hear about a renegade scientist who is being suppressed by the Establishment, but who has something to sell you. That is simply bullshit. Rebels are welcome as long as they show their math.)
Word on the street is that there’s good evidence now of the Higgs Boson. We will not be treated to the compelling pictures of the trace of a particle through a bubble chamber this time around; there will be no curlycue in black and white that somehow makes the particle real.
The Higgs boson has been called “The God Particle” by shameless motherkissers out to cash in on shit like this. The people who say things like that are like the ones who a century ago thought we were about finished with physics. Even if we do nail this particle down, there are a few loose ends to tie up. Loose ends have been mighty squirrely in the past.
Is there a limit? Can we reach an energy so high that we get to the very bottom of the universe? Newton made sense until we got to higher energies.
But now perhaps we can see the floor. We have math that brings us the smallest distance, the smallest mass, even the shortest tick of time. Will that math break under extreme circumstances, the way Newton’s math has? Personally I’m rooting for something completely unexpected flying out of a direct hit between protons going ridiculously fast.
The translation I found of Galileo says “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” That was a political statement, but in that spirit I’d like to say, I hope to God we’re not done so soon.