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Monday, December 27, 2010
Science ...

I recently read an article in Scientific American about particle physics (A Geometric Theory of Everything by Garrett Lisi and James Owen Weatherall). I’ve been vaguely aware of the “Standard Particle Model” for a few years now, and how it was a big scientific advance back in the 1970’s and 80’s. But I really didn’t know much about it.

This article helped to bring me up to speed. The big thing about the SPM is that is shows a lot of interesting relationships between the many different elementary particles that scientists have detected in their particle colliders over the past 50 years, including the standard atomic components electron, proton and neutron, the well-known photon which makes up light and magnetic attraction, and the spooky “anti-particles” that propel the Starship Enterprise (on Star Trek). There are plenty more particles than those, and the new CERN super-collider in Switzerland will soon find even more.

The Standard Model has shown its power by successfully predicting what the particle colliders will find. But there are still plenty of problems and gaps with it. It says nothing about gravity, for instance, and it still does not find common ground between the strong force (which keeps atom nuclei from flying apart) and electromagnetism and the weak force (responsible for radioactivity).

The fascinating thing about the Standard Model is that is makes prodigious use of geometry; it comes up with complex mixes of basic shapes, like rings and donuts, to describe how the various matter and force particles relate to each other. But these relationships are still very strange, in many ways. The physicists who understand all of this scratch their heads about stuff like “mixing angles” and particular shapes (why rings and triangles, why not squares and star-patterns) and why does one set of fermion particles (e.g. electrons and quarks and neutrinos) have two “cousin sets” that are much fatter, i.e. much bigger in mass? And what is the Higgs boson doing in this mix, anyway? Is it really a “mass intermediator”?

Well, the authors talk about a possible solution to all of these mysteries, based around a complicated geometric structure called “Spin(11,3) embedded in an E8 Lie group”. The E8 theory might be the long-sought Theory of Everything, but it makes some predictions about particles and forces that are currently unknown. If the new CERN collider finds particles and effects that are consistent with E8, then the E8 theorists can break out the champagne. If not, back to the drawing board.

But I still wonder – even if E8 turns out to explain gravity and dark matter and dark energy, along with all of the other stuff that we already know, will that really be “the final answer”? Will physicists then be satisfied to rest, saying “we have explained it all”? Is no one going to ask, “why E8”?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:07 pm      

  1. Jim, I am not in the same league as you when it comes to all this physics stuff. So can’t really comment on that–not even a little bit.

    But I can comment about the general ideas in a kind of “tangential” way. So, how about the following?

    First of all, you are 100% right about the “final question”: Someone surely will ask, Why E8?

    Then, as I’ve said elsewhere in some of my comments: My own secret question comes popping to the surface when I read something like the above. Seems I remember a basic rule that says something like: The observer influences the observed. So I ask: Could it be that when people go looking for something, they find it because they bring it into being by looking for it? So as physicists look to prove this model or that model, maybe the very looking for it is what brings what they are looking for into existence. One of the reasons I find myself asking this question is this: All these are THEORIES. Basically, that means here (codrrect me if I’m wrong) some guy/gal (but likely the women are few and far between) gets an idea, likes it, thinks it’s a really good idea, and then goes looking to find evidence that maybe his idea is right. Eventually, he finds he is right.

    Then in that case, wouldn’t the answer to the question of God’s existence or non-existence be that man is the creator? (Ooops, that will make Stephen Hawking even more sure of himself than he is already.)

    As must be obvious, my lack of knowledge of physics is most serious. Yet, in my heart I can’t help but wonder…: Couldl man be the creator of this world?

    A second thought: A little mysticism certainly wouldn’t hurt in this world of theories. Actually, a little mysticism might just give the physicists the answers they are looking for.

    I realize that likely my comment has only proved I no nothing about physics; it has passed me by. But I’ll just have to live with that. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 28, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

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