And today! Wednesday 10 September 2008! It is a golden day in the annals of physics. It marks the beginning of a new set of experiments planned on a scale that never happened in the long and troubled days of mankind. Their findings are expected to throw light on the commencement and evolution of the universe in which we live. If matter is the foundation of this vast enterprise, then it becomes our natural curiosity also to know what really is there in matter that makes it so attractive, so potentially rich to give rise to this marvel of creation. That also means, possibly, the wonders that are locked in its bosom will be slowly disclosed to us, in the unfolding course of time. Could matter give away its secrets to us? Would it? Perhaps the Large Hadron Collider is but one small step in that mighty direction. It is built into the spirit of man that looks at its own depths and wonders how he arrived on the scene when nothing of the kind exists anywhere else.
The Collider is a huge circular machine, of 9 kilometer diameter, and is housed in a 100-meter deep underground tunnel. Located at CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, near Geneva, it straddles France and Switzerland.
The building of the Collider spread over a period of 14 years with its cost building into $8 billion. At its full power trillions of protons will whiz around the 27 kilometer circumference, 11 245 times a second. The machine will have superconducting magnets operated at 2 K; it will need 10 000 tons of liquid nitrogen and 60 tons of liquid helium. The beams of protons will travel through ultra-high vacuum, emptier than the interplanetary space. The collision of the two proton beams coming from opposite directions will produce temperatures of the order of 100 000 times larger than the temperature in the interior of the sun. Four eyes suitably located will observe the products of the collision. 15 million gigabytes of data will be generated every year. 80,000 computers set all over the world will get busy in processing them. Some 10,000 physicists and engineers from 100 countries are occupied in this super-massive enterprise. It is expected to mark the beginning of a new era of discovery in physics, with the full power of the machine coming into play probably less than a year away.
Collision of the two proton beams will recreate conditions that existed a trillionth of a second after the big bang moment. It is thus hoped to provide clues about the factors that dominated at the time of the birth of the universe. The machine has captured public imagination,—and rightly so. This is wonderful; yet there are quite a few also who are worried about “The X Factor”.
There are others who naively ask in what way the information coming from the scientific investigations is going to serve the cause of humanity. Using so many scientists and putting so much of material into the experiment is a waste—they think. The money spent on it could be used to alleviate the poverty of fellow human beings. The $8 billion spent on the LHC could have been used on feeding or sheltering the people in poor countries. Luckily this instant emotionalism does not touch us in the larger perspective of things. Such statements are not at all new to science, and one just moves on. Science demands experimentation—and the prince is willing to open the treasury. That itself is the great march of civilization, perhaps happening for the first time after the House of Wisdom established by the Abbasids about 1200 years ago. But the sheer magnitude and concentration of effort that are present in our age are absolutely phenomenal. We owe all this greatly to the liberal atmosphere and the free spirit of inquiry that is prevalent today.
Two things that bolster our faith in science are the comprehensibility of the universe and the well-understood laws of nature that will not dupe us on the way, will not betray us mid-stream. Einstein famously said that "the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible". The universe isn't chaotic but is full of patterns and structures, coherences and relationships. It is to discover these patterns and structures, these coherences and relationships that we are willing to hold out a mighty bit of us. That is the search for truth prompting the scientist as a truth-seeker; that is the search for beauty persuading the scientist as a beauty-admirer. And the beautiful truth is, society is willing to give him that exceptional privilege—and that indeed is the truthful beauty of man.
Yet one could be screaming about the kind of costs involved in these truth-beauty pursuits which can no longer be private, not even single or national pursuits. But there is really no paradox. The inherent fuzziness of the Quantum world governed by the Uncertainty Principle means that to the finer and more subtle depths you go the more you pay for things. We have to sharpen our tools. But these are fructuous in more than one way. Witness for instance the Internet that came from such occupations. CERN itself had the privilege of giving us the World Wide Web.
But what are the scientific issues that are associated with the Large Hadron Collider? Could it be that we live in a world other than the simple four dimensional space-time configuration glorified by Relativity? The 10-dimensional manifold as suggested by some theories is summoning us to look into the future. And then are there universes apart from our own universe? that we are not the only in this creation? But more intriguing, and of direct consequence, is the question about the substantiality of matter. The question is: What is it that gives mass to particles? The theory answers it in terms of what is called Higgs boson. It is the Higgs boson that gives mass to particles. This demands not Aristotelian logic but experimental verification. Therefore it is the Hadron Collider that must pass the verdict. The machine has been designed and built, the startup operations have begun and within a few months answers should be forthcoming. We await them with bated breath. There are a few more things also to be settled. In this complexity of the universe what we see is only a small fraction of its totality, the remaining being hidden from our view. The mystery of the dark matter will always keep us ill at ease, lest we get gobbled up by it. The so-called Standard Model that is there with us over the last several years has kept many of these questions open and the experiment has become imperative. So there is that entire anxiety about the results coming from the Large Hadron Collider.
But connected with this praiseworthy gigantic effort there are also a few spurious and dubious aspects and these aspects must be at once dismissed from our minds. We must first realize that the beginning of the universe from the big bang is a scientific theory and it is science which is going to judge it in terms of scientific criteria and parameters. Whether it is going to be upheld or is going to collapse,—well, it is science which will have the say in the matter and nothing else.
There is a hurried tendency of the Vedantic mind connecting the big bang with the bursting of the cosmic egg, brahmāņda. But they are not on a par in several respects. For instance, brahmāņda is not going to collapse if Hadron Collider is going to dismiss the big bang. And then, and more importantly, one is a theory and the other an occult-spiritual experience. They belong to different categories and we must not mix them up. But this mixing-up game was started in a rather bad manner some thirty years ago by Fritjof Capra when his Tao of Physics intriguingly mesmerized both communities, the scientific and the Vedantic...
This is good,—as far as it goes. But never should either of them lose sight of the fundamentals, their fundamentals, of the spiritual and the material. If one is the breathing in and breathing out of the physical in the cosmic process of objectification, the other is the rhythm of the timeless set into the great movements of time. One is mental conceptualization and the other the truth-dynamism set into motion by the Spirit itself. Here our interest is not in mysticism but in physics proper, professional physics. So, as far as the Large Hadron Collider is concerned, let us applaud the startup operation and eagerly wait for the arrival of the Higgs Boson. It is a definite pointer towards what will give materiality to matter, substantiality to substance.
Refer also the article Higgs Boson—A Matter of Physics Posted to: Main Page