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Thursday, January 21, 2016
Science ...

Ever since June, 2013 I’ve been discussing a possible new kind of fundamental particle that helps make to make up the universe, something that physicists call the “axion”. In a way, I am trying to anticipate the next big break-through in particle physics, something that you could perhaps look at as the next “Higgs particle” in terms of its impact on science and cosmology — and public understanding of all that stuff.

As you recall, the Higgs boson became a ’cause celebre’ in science a few years ago after the Large Hadron Collider in Europe had finally assembled conclusive proof that the little things actually exist. Many scientists had suspected that Higgs actually existed for many years before they were finally discovered (especially by the scientist who the particle was named after, i.e. Peter Higgs). The function by which they are most widely remembered by the public is the capacity to give certain kinds of particle the quality of having mass, i.e. that which causes them to accelerate gradually and resist sudden impulse when subjected to a mechanical force. Mass also allows a particle to be greatly influenced by gravity (although any particle with some sort of energy, be it mass or non-mass energy, will be affected by gravity). But they solve other problems too involving the force carrying-particles for the weak force.

The Higgs thus wound up being called “the God Particle” in honor of all the good things that it does. It was so named by physicist Leon Lederman some years ago, because “This boson is so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter”.

The Higgs was anticipated long before it was finally uncovered experimentally, just because it solved a lot of problems in the world of theoretical particle physics. Today, the axion occupies a similar spot. It solves a problem regarding the weak and strong force interactions within the atomic nucleus. And it might also help to solve the problem of the “missing cold dark mass” in the universe, the fact that 23% of the overall energy and about 77% of all matter (stuff with mass) in the universe cannot currently be seen or detected (other than through shadowy gravitational side-effects — which is how we know that dark matter is there in the first place).

And now I read that the axion would help to solve another physics conundrum — one regarding time. Physicists really like the idea that their laws guarantee that time can work backwards just as well as it works forward. No reason that a cracked egg can’t just come up out of the pan and re-form into a cool whole egg right in your hand. Well, except for one pesky thing — the universe as we know it started in a low entropy condition, which tends to bias higher-level things like galaxies and stars and planets and ecosystems and living beings in the direction of entropy gain. I.e., eggs and bones and supernovas that break or decay and don’t spontaneously come back together. But on the tiny level of quantum physics and elementary particles, time reversibility (called time symmetry) is still in play.

Well, for the most part. There are these pesky particles called K mesons or kaons that continuously go back and forth between their normal particle and anti-particle state in an instant; it’s just what they do. Scientists see this has the equivalent of going back and forth in time, for their own good reasons. If the fundamental laws governing particles were 100% symmetrical, they should go back and forth in exactly the same manner, taking the same amount of elapsed time. But guess what? They don’t. Not exactly, anyway. By some tiny fraction, they favor one time direction over the other. This doesn’t influence the big-scale march of time that we experience, but it does show that even in the micro-world, there are some events where you can’t quite go back home again, at least not by the same route.

After all this was discovered, another physicist (Gerard t’Hooft) calculated that whatever was causing this tiny little effect should also be causing much bigger time differences in a lot of particles, affecting even the neutrons that make up every atom in our body. But for some reason, they just don’t. The big mis-timings are being stopped by something else, limiting them to the esoteric K meson situation. But what could that be?

Well, it turns out that the mighty (but as yet still undiscovered) axion would do the job just fine. Like the Higgs, the axion is really just a manifestation of a specific type of universal field. And if axions have the characteristics that they are thought to have, this field would be just right for keeping our atomic world running in synch, with almost 100% time symmetry on the particle level.

So, another good reason why the axion might be the next “big little thing”. If only they can find the little bugger! But the search goes on; there are a variety of ways that physicists are looking for the things. There have been some interesting leads, involving X-rays from the Sun. But there’s nothing conclusive yet.

Oh well, the wait goes on. Good ideas in physics don’t always come true. Mother Nature doesn’t always follow our playbook. Still, this is the kind of stuff that makes me proud to be a human being. Our politics and economic systems and personal lives may often be in a state of chaos and confusion, if not downright conflict or collapse. And scientists themselves aren’t immune to that stuff. But the work they do . . . is quite beautiful. Too bad that it sometimes winds up being used for vulgar and destructive purposes, even though much of it helps humankind to become more humane.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:03 am      

  1. Jim, This is a most intriguing post. On the one hand I end up thinking (and saying) what I have tho’t (and said) before so many times: I think that the work of scientists (I’ll specify at the level at which you are discussing Axions and K mesons [kaons] here) *is* “quite beautiful”. The fact that their work is beautiful does not take away from the fact that I always come back to the point that in the end it’s humans who are the creators. I think scientists think of something that “should be there”, go looking for it, and eventually find it. My tho’t is that the very act of the search is creation, much like the journey of life teaches an individual; the individual grows and develops, and thus a being grows, develops, and is created.

    Maybe I misunderstand it, but it seems to me that if kaons go back and forth in time with some slight deviation in elapsed time, it would also mean that we ourselves must live our lives “going back and forth”, doing the same thing, over and over again, with only some slight deviation in what we do. Maybe I’m totally off the mark here and just don’t understand the concept; but this is the idea I get.

    I’ve got to say I am not all that happy thinking that at some time (in what we call our “present”) we will have to relive our lives over again (in what we call our “future”) – but with some “slight deviation” in what or how we live that life. That’s a “no thank you” to me.

    Perhaps I’m extrapolating too much and too far with this idea, applying it in a situation that is inappropriate. Maybe the “clue” is in the concept that we “can’t quite go back home again, at least not by the same route”; thus life the next time around will be different.

    To be honest, I’d say most people try their best to live their lives as well as possible; and I’d say that even applies to me. However, I do not think that I’d like a “do over” on this life; once is enough I’d say for the life I’ve lived. I know I do not want a “re-do” on a difficult life which I think most honest people would admit holds for almost all people.

    So, somewhere in this concept of kaons going back and forth in time, regardless of the slight deviation that exists, regardless of how intriguing the idea is, a better explanation is needed to keep people, let’s say, interested in life as it’s lived – a real, different journey that is a search and a work regarding the development of the individual over who knows how many lives.

    Might that be one explanation for this concept? Or do scientists hope to keep this concept on some theoretical, non- tangential level? I doubt they will be able to keep the concept on a non-tangential level as they are starting out on a non-tangential level; it would be a “step down” to revert to the tangential. But then again, perhaps I am missing the point that living a life on planet earth is likely a “step down” in becoming human. So maybe I’ve answered my own question: In taking a step down, one can eventually achieve a “step up”. Do the kaons in their “slight deviation” gradually “move up”, so to say?

    Once again, I am likely completely off track on this. But this concept of kaons and their going back and forth in time takes me to this very idea. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 22, 2016 @ 7:31 pm

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