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Saturday, September 8, 2012
Outer Space ... Science ...

After two political conventions in two weeks, it seems like a good time for a diversion, a look into the world of 21st Century physics. I’d like to share some recent developments of interest (they interest me, anyway!). These papers have not gained as much public attention as the recent confirmation of the Higgs boson or the controversy over possible faster-than-light neutrinos from last year. But I myself believe they have a lot of potential in defining or altering what the physicists will teach future generations about how our Universe works.

The first item regards a recent experiment involving the decay pattern of sub-atomic particles called B mesons. As you probably know, there are only a handful of stable particles which make up the stuff that we experience in our regular lives; i.e., mixtures of top and bottom quarks arranged as protons and neutrons, along with electrons and the ghostly neutrinos. There are many, many other kinds of particles, but they only exist for a tiny fraction of a second and usually only manifest themselves in rare circumstances involving very high energy levels (as are created in research particle accelerators). B mesons are such a particle.

Even though exotic particles like the B meson are not typical, physicists can still learn alot about the underlying laws of the universe by creating these wacky things in their high-energy accelerators and watching them fall apart almost immediately. Recently, a study of the B meson showed that “CPT symmetry” is broken in the B meson decay. Just what is CPT symmetry and why should anyone care? Well, CPT symmetry is a master mixture of three individual types of symmetry: C for particle charge, P for “parity”, i.e. the ability to act in a mirror-like way when proceeding in an opposite direction, and T is for time. Symmetry basically means that there is some regular, predictable pattern that can still be seen even when a particle is observed or measured in a different way, from a different perspective.

I don’t understand all of this enough to explain it here. But the implication of the recent finding that B mesons break CPT symmetry basically means that time DOES amount to something in the quantum world of fundamental particles. Lets step back a minute and think about that minute — let’s think about TIME. The question of “what is time” is a tough question with heavy philosophical implications. In the world in which we live, time seems real to us because of what the scientists call “entropy”.

The concept of entropy is also complex, but it can be roughly summarized by the following line from a children’s story: Humpty Dumpty couldn’t be put back together again. As time passes we gain entropy; i.e., we lose “useful organization” and gain “messiness” relative to available energy. Thus, the passing of time DOES matter to us, as we cannot put things that decay, wear out or are broken back together again without using energy. And the process of gaining and using that energy causes even more breakdown and messiness than it mends (e.g., through pollution, waste products that need to be disposed, wasted light and heat that cannot be made useful because it is too dispersed and degraded, etc.). So, we objectively know that time has gone by because on the whole, things in the big picture have gotten more messy. There’s no going backward with this, not that we know of.

The big question that is still unanswered is whether the laws of entropy, which in effect give time a one-way direction (the proverbial “arrow of time”), are truly fundamental on all levels of the universe — or are they just somewhat of a secondary effect at a certain level of organization? The B meson experiment does NOT answer this question definitively, but it does offer a clue. If CPT symmetry is NOT fundamental and is broken, then time-reversibility (i.e., time symmetry) might not exist in the micro world, the quantum realm. This does hint to us that time really is a fundamental physical factor, and is not just a useful illusion made up by a certain animal species in a tiny little corner of the cosmos (i.e., the human race). Maybe we are not just imagining it!

The SECOND interesting finding regards three high-energy gamma ray photons that a research satellite observed not too long ago, which emanated from a cosmic cataclysm that occurred long, long ago in a place far, far away. It took 7 billion years for these 3 photons to reach the Fermi orbiting gamma ray telescope. That seems somewhat interesting in itself. But what was more interesting is how close together they were, and how their wavelengths were all just slightly different. Most of us think that space is mostly a vacuum, and if you send anything across it — a baseball, an atom, an electron, a photon particle, whatever — it will just sail in a perfectly straight line (unless it gets too close to some gravitational object; but even then, we picture it curving in a perfect arc, not a bumpy, jagged pathway).

However, recent modern science paradigms postulate that even blank, empty space is “pixelated”; it is made up of something like tiny, tiny boxes that represent the smallest thing possible, spaces that cannot be divided up any further. We know that energy and matter particles are “quantized”, i.e. you can’t obtain half a photon or one-fifth of a quark. But now it seems that even space itself has a minimum “quanta” dimension. Or so the theoreticians say. They even know just how small these boxes should be, i.e. the “Planck length“.

The problem with the three gamma ray photons is that they acted as though those little boxes were NOT there, and that space was smooth, or at least a lot smoother than the Planck length theory would imply. Under some theories regarding “space boxes”, three photons starting off in about the same location at the same time and traveling at light speed should spread out a bit over 7 billion years, just because the “space boxes” thru which they pass make the pathway a bit “bumpy” (and Heisenberg uncertainty makes the effect of these bumps somewhat random, i.e. you get thrown around in all directions without any bias).

There is a slight chance that all three particles COULD have taken all the bumps in such a way that after 7 billion years they would still be right next to each other — but given their differences in wavelength (affecting how much the bumps throw them), the chances of this are extremely, extremely minute. So, it seems very likely that something is wrong with the theory of “digital space boxes”. Maybe space is infinitely smooth after all? Or our derivation of the minimum “Planck length” is based on an incomplete understanding of the quantum world, despite all the various particle experiments that showed all the other aspects of our theories and models to be accurate???

Well, not every quantum physicist is ready to concede that point. Various experts have already come up with alternate reasons why the digital space boxes might still exist but did not kick these three photons around enough to spread them out. There is some sort of effect called birefringence that depends on the polarization of the light particles; to rule this problem out, the satellite is going to need to see another set of photons from some other big event from across the universe, and compare the polarization with the original 3 photons.

The boffins are still right in saying that the “real reality” of the cosmos and the quantum world are quite different from the reality that we create in our heads based on our daily lives. For now, it looks like the layman’s notion that time is real and space is smooth (“timespace”, as Einstein taught us) might still mean something. But this could change yet. That’s modern science for you. No easy answers, lots of ‘maybes’. In that way, physics seems more and more like what we commoners call “real life”; and maybe our “real life” won’t turn out to be so terribly different from the reality that modern physics ultimately settles on. Stay tuned!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:16 pm      

  1. Jim, I have mixed reactions to all this “new physics”, if I understand the topic correctly here. The most I can do is make a few appropriate or, more likely, inappropriate responses. So, here goes. I feel I’m out of my element here; so take this for what it’s worth.

    First of all, I simply find it impossible to say a “yes” to the side comment you made, “As you probably know”. I’m not even sure I even understand what the topic of the whole thing was; yet in some strange way I *do* understand it. I feel I understand it in the same way that I felt I understood Carl Jung’s writings when I first read them back in the 1970s. I felt then that, on the one hand, yes I did understand them; but on the other hand, I had no clue of what was being discussed. That’s how I feel about this topic.

    That being said, obviously I will have little to comment. However, a couple of things do come to mind.

    One initial reaction was to say to myself that if we are talking about 3 photons that took 7 billion years to actually “reach” us, it would seem to me that we are talking in terms of other dimensions. Seven billion years is a number that, as far as we as humans are concerned is an incomprehensible number-¬¬¬unless one is speaking purely theoretically. And I guess the physicists would say, of course, we are talking purely theoretically.

    But then I find myself wondering, if physicists are talking purely theoretically, then might they not be conceiving something in their minds and through that thought bringing into being that for which they are searching. Perhaps that is how physicists are looking at things when they say, “there is no God”. They really want to say, I/we am/are God but don’t want to put it so bluntly.

    Then again, I could not help myself from becoming irreverent. So I will preface this by saying, “with all due respect” I had this tho’t also. Might this be a case of “Sheldon Cooper all over again”? (And as we all know,) Sheldon Cooper is the theoretical physicists from “Big Bang Theory”, a TV program, who thinks he is so far above the average human as to be gracing this planet with his presence. Then in one episode on which Stephen Hawking actually appeared, Sheldon gets Hawking to read a paper of his; only to have Hawking say, “you made an arithmetic mistake on p.2”. I wondered if Hawking himself saw the undercover humor in this.

    In the end I find myself coming back to my original tho’t that theoretical physicists will think and think about something until they actually find it; somewhat similar to individuals who seriously want something in their life, think about it often, and end up bringing into their lives exactly what they have been thinking about. The old “be careful what you wish for” idea.

    I really think that your topic deserves a more serious comment than what I can offer. On the other hand I sometimes think that the theoretical physicists “pull a Sheldon Cooper” too often too. Thus, I’m stuck between 2 positions and do not know which might be right or if both could be righ. Now who’s cat was involved in that idea? I can’t remember. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 9, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

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