Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the October, 2014 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
According to some particle physicists, the answer may be "no." Respected particle physicists are beginning to think a particle's mass and length are really emergent properties displayed only after its interaction with other particles. In fact, they're re-working the master equations which describe particles by eliminating the factors of mass and length to see what difference it makes.
This is a particularly interesting line of investigation considering recent breakthroughs with the Higgs Boson. You may recall that the Higgs is thought to act in just this way — transmitting mass to many of the particle types with which it comes into contact.
Now for a quick detour into the weeds of particle physics. A novel, math-like theory was developed to solve many of the problems encountered with the standard model. Supersymmetry suggests that for every elementary particle a "superpartner" exists. An electron, for example, would have a "selectron," which would be heavier. It was originally thought that the Large Hadron Collider would find these superparticles fairly easily, but that hasn't been the case. So many physicists are now jumping off the Supersymmetry bandwagon.
So what's replacing Supersymmetry among particle zoo theorists? On the macro level it's the multiverse. But most scientists find it unsatisfying to call out this deus ex machine, seeing it as a "magic" solution. And then, as you work through the formulas eliminating Supersymmetry, you end up with, of all things, ghosts. "The basic equations of particle physics need something extra to rein in the Higgs boson... " according to Manfred Lindner, director of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics.
And that "something extra" turns out to be ghost particles. Enter another new theory: agravity. "Agravity weaves the laws of physics at all scales into a single, cohesive picture in which the Higgs mass and the Planck mass both arise... [it also] offers an explanation for why the universe inflated into existence in the first place" [Natalie Wolchover]. This gets us back to the original premise regarding mass and length — these do not appear to be elementary features of the universe, but rather they arise only from particle interactions. So to answer the question in the title—size does seem to matter when particles interact. However, as with so many issues in particle physics, it's not certain just what size is — so the reality of it appears to be what we make of it rather than what the universe dictates.
I realize that we'll never really get out of the weeds on this one. Ironically, that comment might apply to particle physics itself. It takes a deep passion for finding answers to the ultimate questions to stick with the pursuit. It's like one of our famous cornfield mazes in Pennsylvania this time of year — each path seems so promising until we encounter a dead-end. And as long as we're on metaphors, it's also like the plight of Sisyphus pushing that bolder up the mountain. But in our case, it's not even certain there is a top to the mountain. Back in college I was drawn, like so many others, to the concepts of existentialism and nihilism. Jean Paul Sartre; Albert Camus — they seemed to set the stage for philosophy at that time. And, as more and more particle physics theories come and go, I'm constantly reminded of Sartre's premise in Being and Nothingness. Ironically, however, I'm now drawn more and more to the ideas of pantheism, which are much more optimistic.
In the immortal (and I hope inaccurate) words of Umberto Eco, "But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth."
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this page last updated 4 October 2014
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