Essays - Winter 2010

Strange Matter


The physics and poetics of the search for the God particle

By John Olson


I don’t remember a time of greater insecurity. University of Massachusetts economics professor Richard Wolff argues that government bailouts and stimulus packages will not be enough to address the real causes of the economic crisis or to mend the “seismic failures within the structures of American-style capitalism itself.” While Wall Street has been re-floated with staggering amounts of capital, the rest of the country remains floundering on a dry, mud-caked riverbed. “The bailout package,” observed Joseph Stiglitz in a January 2009 Vanity Fair essay appropriately titled “Capitalist Fools,” “was like a massive transfusion to a patient suffering from internal bleeding—and nothing was being done about the source of the problem, namely all those foreclosures.” Climate change is wreaking havoc on the world’s population; Australia, Argentina, India, Kenya, and war-torn Afghanistan are suffering unprecedented droughts; polar ice caps are melting at a much faster rate than scientists predicted; typhoons, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods have increased in fury and devastation; the UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that 370 million people could be facing famine by 2050 if food production doesn’t rise by at least 70 percent; and a series of wildfires has left California, which is drought stricken and near bankruptcy, as black as a handful of charcoal briquettes. Violence seems to be on the rise across the globe, from militants in Afghanistan spraying acid on the faces of girls walking to school, to the Mumbai attacks, to burning cars in France, to drug-related killings in Mexico, to an increase in domestic violence in the United States.

Planet Earth is in a traumatic turmoil. The combined services of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and the Incredible Hulk could not put a dent in the problem. Anything added to this hellishness would seem to be lost in redundancy, but not so: one more item of astonishing freakishness is causing anxiety from a complex in Switzerland known as CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where something called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has been sputtering into operation. Its purpose is to discover whether a hypothetical particle called the Higgs boson (or the God particle) actually exists. There is a far-fetched yet widespread apprehension that a black hole created there could swallow the planet. Indeed, the entire universe.

At present, the world, including Switzerland, is still here. But that’s because the $9 billion machine located outside Geneva has been riddled with problems and delays. In September 2008, a beam of protons was successfully circulated in stages through the vast ring of superconducting magnets housed in the collider’s 17-mile-long tunnel, three kilometers at a time. A few days later, a quench (an abnormal termination of magnet operation) occurred, causing a loss of approximately six tons of the liquid helium needed to keep the collider cooled. Later analysis revealed the problem to be bad electrical connections. A total of 53 magnets were damaged in the incident. The machine has been beset by problems of a less technical nature as well. In October, in a scenario more redolent of a James Bond spy adventure, French investigators charged a physicist working at the LHC with having links to al-Qaeda. One begins to wonder if all these delays and complications aren’t owing to a more preordained cause. A pair of CERN physicists have somewhat whimsically suggested that the reason for building the collider might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make a Higgs boson. In late October, BBC News announced that engineers working on the LHC had successfully injected beams of particles into two sections of the vast machine. The experiment itself, which will involve a collision of two beams, one running in a clockwise direction, the other running counterclockwise, is scheduled for December 2009. If you happen to be reading this article past that date, it would be safe to assume that a particle with less mass than a second-generation quark has not swallowed our planet.

Not yet, anyway.

So what exactly is all this apprehension about, and how real is it? Predictions that the collision of subatomic particles at the LHC might create a black hole and consume our planet, if not the entire universe, owe more to hysteria than to science. Black holes are created by the gravitational collapse of supermassive stars, which are rare and trillions of times the mass of Earth. If a black hole were created at CERN, it would be so tiny that it would eradicate itself instantly.

Thus, fears of creating a black hole are easily dismissed. But fear has a way of expanding and exacerbating worst-case scenarios. Anxiety is exponential. Problems interact to compound into an ever-broadening chain of unlooked-for consequences. There has also been some speculation that a peculiar set of entities called strangelets could turn our world inside out and make it look like a fun house gone completely mad. A strangelet is a hypothetical object composed of a finite number of roughly equal “up, down, and strange quarks.” This anxiety, however improbable, is not entirely void of validity or charm. A strangelet, coming into contact with the familiar world, could convert ordinary matter into strange matter. As much as the current political milieu feels like some form of bizarre, parallel dimension where very little makes sense, the familiar world of nasturtiums, yo-yos, and lifeguards is still emphatically present. What would a world composed of “up, down, and strange quarks” gone awry be like? Would everything be neatly reversed? Would up be down and down be up? Would backward go forward and forward go backward? Would tomorrow happen yesterday and yesterday happen tomorrow?

This is heady stuff. My understanding of quarks and relativity is pretty limited. My preferred domain is that of poetry, not physics. Physicists tend to get irritated when poets attempt to turn mathematical formulations into metaphors. Nevertheless, the two domains share a similar appetite for knowledge: Why are we here? How does something come from nothing? How did the universe begin? Is there a supreme intelligence behind creation?

Physicists may be ill at ease when writers distort their precise mathematical constructions to illustrate a facet of metaphysical thought, but physicists themselves borrow heavily from literature. Murray Gell-Mann borrowed the word quark from James Joyce to name an elementary particle (the quark is one of two basic constituents of matter, the other being the lepton). But the poetry doesn’t stop there. There are six different types of quarks, and physicists have chosen to describe them as flavors: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom. This isn’t just poetry; this is enchantment.

What intrigues me the most about the current state of physics isn’t this strange sortie into the realm of literature to find language for its formulations, but the quest itself for the fundamental nature of reality. How does one go about finding a solution to a metaphysical problem using empirical methods and expensive machinery? Wouldn’t such methods be inherently flawed, doomed to flail about in blind alleys and dead ends, another huge waste of public funds and other resources? Did the universe pop out of a proton? Can God be discovered in a quark?

The Large Hadron Collider consists of 38,000 tons of equipment located approximately 300 feet below the earth. The complex lies about 10 miles west of Geneva. Portions of the tunnel pass under the Jura Mountains of France. This is some of the most beautiful country in the world, filled with luxurious wildflower meadows, craggy cascades, pine forests, and mossy rock walls dripping with delicate ferns. It was near here in the rainy summer of 1816 that Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron watched electric storms rage above the rocky summits and discussed Erasmus Darwin’s galvanism experiments. Mary Shelley participated in these discussions, and she was especially intrigued by the prospect of reanimation. “Darwin . . . preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case,” she wrote, “till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. . . . Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.” These speculations, of course, culminated in her novel Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, one of the world’s first cautionary tales about the dangers of science unchecked by judicious or ethical concerns.

The goal of the Large Hadron Collider is no less Promethean than the ambitions of Victor Frankenstein: to find the God particle, a “massive scalar elementary particle” predicted to exist by the Standard Model of particle physics. Its discovery would help to explain how otherwise massless elementary particles cause matter to have mass. That is to say, the Higgs boson is a noun with a long string of adjectives. Adjectives, it must be said, that contradict one another. How can a particle be massive? If a particle is elementary, how can it also be hypothetical? One feels as disoriented as if one were in the realm of surrealist poetry or the Zen koan.

Mass is not what it seems. This is because we inhabit a world of weight, density, texture, and tangibility. The realities produced by calculus and differential equations make no sense to us, literally. Our perceptions are keyed to specific sensations. Roughness, weightiness, smoothness, sharpness, dullness. Foods are sweet or bitter or a combination of the two. Some things are warm and dry, others cold and wet. We cannot conceive of a reality not immersed in such responses. Not without faith in numbers. Trajectories and orbital mechanics. Energy and force. Momentum and inertia. Some of these are available to our senses. We all know what velocity feels like. But when someone tells us that there is more space in an ingot of steel than there is steel, we balk at the truthfulness of such a statement. We might readily agree, based on what we have learned in science. But it still seems beyond the reach of imagining. Because if there is more space than steel in an ingot of steel, what does that say about us? Are we ghosts? Clouds of atoms? Symphonies of molecules? Waves of light and radiant heat? All improbable, all incredible revelations. But the fact remains: a three-ton ingot of steel is mostly space. If an atom were the size of a 14-story building, the nucleus would be a grain of salt in the middle of the seventh floor.

Two instances come to mind: Dr. Samuel Johnson dismissing George Berkeley’s ideas of immaterialism with his famous “I refute Berkeley thus,” and then kicking a rock; and Jack Kerouac’s address to an audience at the Hunter College Playhouse on November 6, 1958, during a symposium titled “Is There a Beat Generation?” It was there that Kerouac said, “We should be wondering tonight, ‘Is there a world?’ But I could go and talk on 5, 10, 20 minutes about is there a world, because there is really no world, cause sometimes I’m walkin’ on the ground and I see right through the ground. And there is no world. And you’ll find out.”

Kerouac and Berkeley were right. Johnson’s rock was essentially phantasmal, a cloud of subatomic particles. He was kicking a dream.

Quarks and leptons are considered to be the fundamental particles that constitute all matter. A quark is an elementary fermion particle that interacts via the strong force. Leptons are a family of fundamental subatomic particles, comprised of the electron, the muon, and the tauon (or tau particle), as well as their associated neutrinos (electron neutrino, muon neutrino, and tau neutrino). Leptons are spin-½ particles, and as such are fermions. In contrast to quarks, Leptons do not strongly interact.

The problem with these definitions, which I wicked from Wikipedia, is their circularity: one definition leads to another question and then to another definition. It is good that Wikipedia’s definitions are hyperlinked, because the process of discovering what goes on in high-energy particle physics is unending. The result of these quests is a little knowledge, a tiny bit of insight, and a whole lot of dizziness and confusion.

All this becomes even more intriguing when one begins to question what is meant by particle. It is apparent that physicists are not referring to dust motes or grains of sand. Dust motes and sand do not have spin, probability waves, or flavors like up and down.

Or do they?

In the realm of particle physics, the word particle is a misnomer. What is actually being referred to is a probability pattern, an abstract mathematical quantity that is related to the probabilities of finding particles in various places and with various properties. A particle is never present at a definite place, nor is it absent. It occupies a realm of transcended opposites mathematically sandwiched between existence and nonexistence. One must learn to think outside the framework of classical logic.

Poets do this all the time. Charles Olson once referred to the poem as a “high energy construct.” Words, feathered and smashed together, produce piquant contradictions: black light, civil disobedience, urban cowboy, act naturally, crash landing, jumbo shrimp, hollow point. One can easily imagine a poem as a word accelerator. A broth of verbal hardware bouncing through metaphysical problems like thunderous hues of afternoon reverie.

However charming this tangent might be, the fact is the Large Hadron Collider is neither a quatrain nor a sonnet. It is 38,000 tons of superconducting dipole magnets, blow valves, sleeper screws, bellow chambers, control racks, helium pipes, gauges, bus bars, flow meters, pumps, storage tanks, electrical sensors, and cryogenic fluids. All to answer the question: How does energy acquire mass?

Physicists hope that this perplexing problem will be answered by the Higgs boson—by smashing protons together at a velocity within a millionth of a percent of the speed of light. In essence, they will be re-creating conditions as they existed at the beginning of time, when the universe was an undifferentiated soup of matter and radiation, particles colliding rapidly with one another in a temperature of inconceivable strength, 100,000 million degrees Kelvin, too hot to sip from a tablespoon. Which doesn’t really matter, as you would not be able to lift the spoon to your mouth: the mass density of the universe would be in the neighborhood of 3.8 thousand million kilograms per liter, or 3.8 thousand million times the density of water under normal terrestrial conditions.

If it exists, the Higgs boson will prove itself to be an essential and universal component of the material world. Hence, its nickname, God particle. The Higgs boson gives mass to other particles by causing them to cluster around it in much the same way a group of people may cluster around one another to hear a rumor or a bit of important news. Peter Higgs, for whom the particle is named, created a model in which particle masses arise from “fields” spread over space and time. In order to give particles mass, a background field (a Higgs field) is invented; it becomes locally distorted whenever a particle moves through it. The distortion—the clustering of the field around the particle—generates the particle’s mass. Once the particle has mass, it interacts with other elementary particles, slowing them down and giving them mass as well. On the other hand, the Higgs boson may turn out to be a neat mathematical trick, a form of quantum legerdemain, in which the rabbit and hat are nothing more than a vertiginous mass of numbers, much like the numbers that appear in the movie The Matrix when Neo finally penetrates the illusory nature of his world.

But what about that black hole? When the LHC does fire up again, is there still a chance we may all disappear into a black hole? Will a diluted public healthcare op­tion and a hyperinflated American dollar really matter? The answer may not be a flat-out absolute no (nothing in this universe is ever that certain), but it is ex­tremely unlikely. For an LHC-style black hole, estimated to be only a billionth of a billionth of a meter across, the black hole would exist for a bit more than a few billion-billion-billionths of a second. I think I’d rather be witness to those strangelets, rogue fragments of strange matter converting Earth to miracles of gold and beatitude, the dream of the alchemists proclaimed in ingots of joy. But this isn’t physics. It’s just simple effervescence.

If the Higgs boson is confirmed, it will explain how, but not why, things exist. What is left out is our creative response to the things of this world, this universe, this dimension. Aristotle referred to matter as “stuff.” Potential without actuality. It is essence that gives the potentiality of matter its ultimate design and purpose, its declamation and aspiration. Its character and value. Its genius, its gesture. The agitations that give it life. The intention behind it. Chopin, after all, is not just notes. Chopin is the glamour of yearning.

Each creative act we perform is a God particle. We are complicit in the creation of the universe. Matter without consciousness is raw ore. It is consciousness that smelts that ore into beams and bridges, enduring alloys that shine with an inner light.

What sort of laboratory would we need to fathom the mysteries of consciousness? How do we make sense of sense? Matter without thought is random matter, but thought without matter is as empty as a parking lot on Christmas Day. Our perceptions and memories give meaning to words, but the words themselves are representative of a higher order of being. They are the strange quarks of a giant quirk called Being.

Essence is an indissoluble kernel of inner principle, an inner grammar that gives shape and meaning to things. Anything in general, anything material, anything spiritual, anything living, is the product of a creative act on our part, our participation in its being. The discovery of a particle that allows energy to acquire mass is intrinsically exciting, but what it implies is staggering. What it implies is process. What it implies is a universe that is in a continuous state of becoming. Not just expanding, but flowering, blossoming, revealing its mysteries to the pollination of our curiosity. Our involvement with it is immense; we stand at the end of a wharf gazing at the immensity of the horizon, knowing, in our deepest self, that the horizon is within as well as without.

It is more than a little coincidental that the fall of our financial institutions and the illusory nature of our wealth were revealed at approximately the same time as the Large Hadron Collider came online. Money, like language, like up, down, top, bottom, strange, and charmed flavors of quark, is a result of interactions, not fully realized realities. As long as we deepen and honor our experiences in this world with an audacious creativity and push our language to its utmost limits of possibility, we will keep those black holes and bankruptcies at bay. Language extends our ability to exist not merely because it envelops us, but because it is always in a state of potentiality. Reality may prove to be a probability pattern, but without anyone to perceive and give it value, it remains a pattern. It does not become a ship, an avocado, or a hand. It does not awaken. It does not shine.

An object that is visible to us is there with or without us. It does not require our eyes and ears, the touch of our hands, the warmth of our bodies. But without these things, without this involvement, it remains what it is in its barest sense: space, time, and probability patterns. A tendency to exist. It isn’t so much that our involvement completes or fulfills its existence, but that we reciprocate its tendencies and so become more fully alive ourselves. And if that isn’t a particle of godliness, I don’t know what is.

John Olson is the author of Backscatter: New and Selected Poems and Souls of Wind, a novel.

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