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Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A Crisis for Science?

I wonder how many see the irony in the various artists, internet bullies calling themselves atheists, secularists, and so on attacking the ‘fantasy’ of ‘religion’ while holding up ‘science’ as the model of rationalism and perfection? The fact that many don't understand either ‘science’ (except in the broadest sense of its supposed methodology) or religion (except in the 'Sunday School' simplicities) or the fact that science is seldom ‘settled’ on anything often makes me smile. The best example of this is the present dilemma in the field of Physics. For the last 45 years at least, physicists have searched for proof of the ‘Supersymmetry’ Hypothesis (It’s not a ‘Theory’ until all the evidence is found that confirms it), and hoped, with the Large Hadron Collider and the recent much trumpeted discovery of the ‘God Particle’, otherwise known as the Higgs Boson, to have it. 

What the LHC and Higgs Boson have produced so far is far more questions than answers. Some physicists are now privately saying that if the next run of the LHC doesn’t provide the proof they are looking for, the whole hypothesis may have to be binned. That will leave the entire science of Physics looking for a new explanation of a whole range of things, not least being why things have the Mass they do. This is one of the reasons I love science and the search for scientific understanding of the universe - though in this case they are looking at the sub-atomic universe of Quantum Physics. For a true scientist, each new ‘discovery’ is simply cresting the latest ridge and catching a glimpse of the next valley, the next range of mountains, or the next ridge. Sometimes, of course, it means acknowledging that the current route is impassable, that it is a dead-end leading to nothing but a void, and that it will be necessary to retrace one’s steps and find a new route.

An article in the latest edition of Scientific American to reach me, spells this out rather well. In “Supersymmetry and the Crisis in Physics” (page 24), the authors, both themselves physicists, explain that the supersymmetry hypothesis makes it possible to explain a number of things in quantum mechanics when we try to extend our understanding of it. Chief among these is the concept of ‘mass’ and what gives a particle the mass it has. Wrapped up in all of this is the concept of ‘dark matter’ - which we can’t see, and can’t find either. The hypothesis suggests that every particle has a hidden ‘superpartner’ which balances the equation. The hope was that the Large Hadron Collider would provide evidence of this ‘supersymmetry’ as well as proof of the existence of ‘Bosons’. It hasn’t.

At least, it hasn’t done so to date. It has, however, raised a whole crop of new and exciting questions, and provided plenty of new insights. Space, in quantum terms, is a very busy place. The next run is scheduled for 2015 and will be run at a higher power than the previous series, so there are high hopes it will deliver the goods. As the authors of the article put it - 
“If super partners are discovered in the next run of the LHC, the current angst of particle physicists will be replaced by enormous excitement over finally breaching the threshold of the super world. A wild intellectual adventure will begin. 
Yet if super partners are not found, we face a paradigm rupture in our basic grasp of quantum physics. Already this prospect is inspiring a radical rethinking of basic phenomena that underlie the fabric of the universe. A better understanding of the Higgs Boson will be central to building a new paradigm. Experimental signals of dark matter, that lonely but persistent outlier of particle physics, may ultimately be a beacon showing the way forward.”
In short, if one hypothesis fails, we will need another in order to understand what we currently think we understand. I find that exciting, and obviously so do a number of the people involved in this. One of the criticisms of the ‘supersymmetry’ model is that it is ‘too neat’ and that suggests, to some, that it may be wrong. It will be interesting to see how this develops. There are several other hypotheses on the table already, these include a ‘multiverse’, ‘Extra Dimensions’ having a warped geometry, and Dimensional Transmutation. 

All of which leaves me (a non-physicist) wondering about a whole range of scientific ‘proofs’ based on assumed values, and assumed behaviours. My favourite at the moment is the serious submission by a group of mathematicians, that the entire universe is, in effect, a hologram. They arrive at this conclusion through some very complex mathematics (way beyond my understanding of mathematics at any rate) which is based on what we know about the fact that everything, animate and inanimate, is made up of vast numbers of sub-atomic particles. In other words, if we ‘lost’ the ability for all the billions of atoms to hold themselves together in the patterns and groups they currently hold (think a Star Trek ‘Transporter’ beam) we would simply fly apart into our component atoms. The problem is that no matter how much we learn about the sub-atomic level of everything, we still need to understand why it takes the form and shape it does. Why does one combination of particles produce atoms that produce living things, and another combination produces rocks. As one scifi writer put it many years ago - All Flesh is Brass. 

So, I suppose the next BIG question for the Japanese team is, who is operating the program that operates the holographic projector that assembles everything into the form and shape it is? Oops, perhaps that’s now wandering back into ‘religion’ …

For me, science provides insights and explanations to many, many things, and that is good. It opens doors, and fuels the search for answers to many things, but the key scientific principle I have learned over the years to accept is a simple one. Nothing is ever ‘set in stone’. In science there is no ‘never’ - at least not when it is being done by real scientists. Those I know, argue and question everything regularly, they test hypotheses to destruction, then try again. They have taught me that nothing is ‘impossible’ and no one can ever say something will ‘never’ be achievable or happen. To them the failure of one system simply means they have to look in another direction - perhaps even admit they were wrong and try something they once rejected.

This is why I love science and don’t find in it any conflict with my faith. Science often provides answers to questions faith cannot answer, and at other times it makes me take a fresh look at things I had never before considered. I may have only the most basic grasp of quantum physics, but I can’t wait to see what the next run of the LHC produces. Whatever it is, it will be an exciting time for science and for each and every one of us whether we realise it or not.

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