Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Physics, God and Me: Part 1

Yesterday, physicists and science enthusiasts worldwide tuned in to the live webcast at CERN awaiting news about the Higgs Boson, known by some as 'the God particle'. So what's it all about, who are these people and why are scientists looking for 'God'? 



CERN


CERN is the European Organisation for Nuclear Research based on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva. CERN is concerned with finding out what the universe is made of and how it works. The scientists at CERN do this using particle accelerators (instruments that make particles collide with each other and with stationary targets) and detectors (instruments that observe and record the results of these collisions). 10,000 scientists of 113 different nationalities come to CERN to conduct their research (that's half of the world's particle physicists). This is the top end of scientific research. 


CERN scientists invented the World Wide Web so that particle physicists around the world could easily share information on their research and could work together from their home countries, therefore collaborating in their investigations into fundamental science. Fundamental science is important to all of us because its research leads to developments such as the electric lightbulb and the Web, and because it furthers our knowledge of how everything we know about works. Throughout history, fundamental science has answered questions like 'What is lightening?', 'Why is the sky blue?', 'Why don't we fall off the earth and float into space?' and it continues to look for answers to the questions we still have, such as 'How did everything begin?', 'Are there other universes?' and 'Is time travel possible?'.


Particle physics for dummies


Matter


Every living thing is made up of cells. Cells are made of molecules, as are non-living things (like rocks, air and water). Molecules are made up of atoms. Everything we have ever seen is made of atoms, as well as some things we can't see (like air). Atoms are made up of electrons, protons and neutrons. 


All matter around us is made up of matter particles. There are two types of matter particles: leptons and quarks. An electron (that goes to make up part of an atom) is a type of lepton. Because it is a matter particle, it is one of the most fundamental things known to man. Matter particles, as far as we know, cannot be broken down into smaller components. Protons and neutrons (the other bits that make up an atom along with electrons) are made up of quarks. Again, quarks are matter particles, and as far as we know, cannot be broken down into smaller components. 


So, in answer to the question 'What is all matter made of?' we know that all matter is made up of leptons and quarks.


Force


If 'leptons and quarks' is the answer to the question 'What is all matter made of?', then 'force' is the answer to the question 'HOW is all matter made?'. There are four forces in the known universe: the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force and the gravitational force. Three of these forces result from the exchange of force carrier particles, part of a wider group called 'bosons'. Scientists believe that there are six elementary bosons: 

  1. Photons - the forcer carrier particles of electromagnetic force.
  2. W and 
  3. Z bosons - both force carrier particles of the weak force.
  4. Gluons - the force carriers of the strong force.
  5. the Graviton - not yet observed, but believed to be the force carrier particle of gravitational force
  6. Higgs boson - not yet observed, but believed to be responsible for explaining why other particles have mass.

Search for the Higgs boson


Four of the above bosons have been detected and observed already. We do not (yet?) have the physical capability of detecting the graviton, but the hadron collider at CERN is in the process of helping to find the Higgs boson. To find it, scientists need to know its mass. They are using the hadron collider to systematically narrow down the possibilities of what this mass could be, and scientists will continue in this way until they have pinpointed the mass of the Higgs boson, thus enabling them to detect and observe it.


The Standard Model: the reason for finding the Higgs boson


The Standard Model is a theory developed in the 1970s which is probably the best description we have of subatomic physics - in other words the most likely explanation we have so far of how our universe began, grew and exists today. Experiments since then have confirmed that the things set out in The Standard Model are true, as far as they can be proved so far. The detection of the Higgs boson will further prove this theory to be true. However, it is also possible (although with each experiment at CERN, becoming increasingly unlikely) that scientists will end up finding that the Higgs boson does not exist, in which case The Standard Model will be proved UNtrue and they will then start testing other alternative theories.


'The God particle'


If the Higgs boson is discovered and observed, it will give us answers to our questions about the universe, but it won't answer them all. The Standard Model still does not explain gravity, one of the four fundamental forces of the universe. Furthermore, astrophysical and cosmological observations have shown us that 26% of our universe is made up of 'dark matter', 70% of it is made up of 'dark energy' and only the remaining 4% is the bit that The Standard Model accounts for. And so even if The Standard Model is proved, we still won't know about most of the universe. For these reasons, I cannot agree that the Higgs boson is correctly named 'the God particle'. 


If it is found and observed, the Higgs boson will go some way towards explaining just how the universe as we know it developed into what it is today; a huge collection of particles that came together to make up atoms, that made gases and planets and galaxies and solar systems and organisms and US! One step closer perhaps to understanding 'God' and our 'why' questions and possibly one reason why it has been given the nickname 'God particle'. This article from The Daily Mash might go some way to explaining the nickname too. 


My search for 'God'


It is through the (informal) study of physics that I came to realise that I am Pagan. I was looking to science to answer my questions like 'What, in scientific terms, is that part of me that I believe to exist separately from my physical make-up; my 'spirit' (or whatever you might call it)?', and 'If I have a spirit, why do dogs, monkeys, trees and rocks not have one?' 


Initially I looked to conventional religion for these answers, but I kept coming to the same sort of answers: 'Because we say so/it is written...or... you must have faith and faith is simply a belief that needs no proof..'. Since these were NOT answers to my questions I turned to science, especially physics. With a better understanding of the science of matter, energy, forces and the universe in general, I developed my own theory; a theory that fitted in with what we know and understand scientifically, whilst at the same time agreeing with my belief in all things spiritual and of a 'supernatural' nature. 


Ever since then (and it's been over 20 years) I have kept a close eye on scientific developments in this field, waiting for proof or disproof of my theory and beliefs. So far, so good. I do believe we are getting closer and closer to an understanding of the supernatural world that so many of us believe in. And I believe that a better understanding of fundamental science on both a micro and a macro level will bring us towards a deeper consciousness; a scientific explanation of how things like 'spirits', will, 'good' Vs 'evil' and 'life after death' work. 





3 comments:

  1. Wow, I didn't quite understand all of that but as far as I can understand it I find it absolutely fascinating! Thank you :)

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  2. Thanks so much for explaining this . Still don't quite understand why its thought of as the god particle when it is believed to be responsible for explaining why other particles have mass. Is there other things this higgs boson thing can do?

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  3. Assuming it does exist, it was there in the very beginning, before even atoms existed. It is an essential part of all the other things we know about (including atoms), and makes everything we know of exist in the way that it does.

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