India Travel News

Window on India

Story from rags to riches
Sanjay Dutt jailed
Woman Power?
Torrential rains
India wins

Opinion : Floods…a huge warning - By Suvarna Sadhu Banerjee


The Goddamn Particle

Recent announcement from CERN, Geneva of the possible discovery of the Higgs boson has changed, at least temporarily, the public focus from issues of the daily life like petrol price, inflation, food prices, rains, etc. Simply watch talk-shows on TV-channels or read the concerned passages from the print media; and anybody will wonder as to what really has happened in the scientific world to have caused this commotion.

Some say that the mystery underlying the making of the Universe has itself been revealed in this discovery. On the other hand, some say that this discovery is not linked with our theories of the Universe. Some express a view that the new discovery will overthrow some theories of physics. Some others are sceptical over the claim of the discovery. Some are indifferent to all that is happening in the scientific world. Some say that Science has finally discovered The God in this God-particle.

Has Science discovered God, really? A firm answer is no! The possible, keep in mind the word ``possible'', discovery of Higgs boson is not the discovery of The God or his any representative. Just as the discovery of a new island by a seaman aboard a ship sailing in the ocean is not the discovery of The God; the possible science discovery at CERN is also not the discovery of The God by Science. There is no God Particle; there is nothing godly in any goddamn particle. The name, God-particle, is nonsensical.

Today, physics has advanced to the extent that discovering just a boson particle could be as mundane as discovering a member of the zoo of particles in physics.

In 1923, Satyendra Nath Bose had discovered a statistical method of treating (massless) particles leading to Planck's law for radiation. Einstein had been so favourably impressed by this method that he had then, on their meeting in Germany, plied Bose with questions about reasoning or logic which led him to that method. Not only had Einstein arranged to publish Bose's paper in a German scientific journal, but had applied Bose's method also to atoms. While doing so, he had to introduce suitable modifications in the method. This is the Bose-Einstein statistics. Particles of integer spin, like a quantum of radiation, obey the Bose-Einstein statistics, and are called bosons.

Fermi and Dirac then independently discovered that particles can also obey a statistically different method than that given by Bose and Einstein. Particles of half-integer spin, like electrons, obey this Fermi-Dirac statistics, and are called fermions.

Einstein had shown, much earlier, that radiation quanta can be created and destroyed in subatomic processes in definite ways. (Einstein's this research underlies the working of lasers.) This aspect is important to the theory put forth by Peter Higgs and others while suggesting the existence of a zero-spin or a scalar particle, the Higgs boson, in 1964. But, no connection of importance can be made between Bose or Einstein and the Higgs boson, as imagined by the Indian media following the CERN announcement.

Main idea behind Higgs' theory arises as follows. When any body, like electron, absorbs a quantum of radiation, it gains in energy. But, as the quantum of radiation is massless, absorption of the radiation quantum does not increase the rest mass of the absorbing body. Higgs had then asked: Can we think of a particle whose absorption can increase the rest mass of the absorbing body without changing its other characteristics? Depending on how many of such particles get absorbed or get attached to the absorbing body, the rest mass of that body is then obtainable.

We, of course, do not yet know why the known particles; like proton, neutron, electron, etc; possess only specific values for rest mass. For example, no theory is known to tell us why an electron has rest mass of 9.1 x 10-31 kg or proton has rest mass of 1.7 x 10-27 kg. It is still a mystery as to why this is so; why do particles have specific rest mass? This is where Higgs' idea caught on in the circles of particle physics. Many hoped that Higgs' mechanism could be an explanation of these values.

Now, if we do not want known properties, like the spin, of the absorbing body to change on absorption of a Higgs' particle, then this particle must possess a zero spin. It must be a zero spin boson, therefore.

That Higgs particle is a boson is not of interest, but that it is zero-spin or scalar particle is of interest for the above reasons. Any zero-spin particle, its spin being integer, is a boson, and other bosons are known to us. But, a zero-spin boson was not to be found easily. That it is so difficult to detect such a particle sparked a particle physicist to title his book as The Goddamn Particle, but its publisher, it is heard, changed this title to a real catchy one The God Particle! But, there is nothing godly with any particle.

Now, to be able to increase rest mass of a body absorbing it, Higgs' particle must possess non-zero rest mass of its own. But, how the Higgs particle acquires its rest mass is not answerable in Higgs' theory! This problem cannot be resolved in Higgs' theory.

This is the Catch-22 situation; neither the scientists expressing themselves in media nor press-releases from CERN told the public about this. Notice that CERN has claimed only that they ``suspect'' the discovery of ``Higgs-like'' particle. Really very careful wording this, keeping routes to untainted escape opened. CERN cannot, at all, be blamed for their misrepresentation in media! This way of reporting appears to be a modern reincarnation of the infamous Gobel's technique of the Second World War.

A maybe authority of computers but certainly a non-authority of particle physics and of the philosophy of Vedic thoughts claimed that the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN supports the thinking of Indian saints, like Sant Tukaram! Will this person then agree to that the thinking of these great saints stands disproved if CERN were forced to withdraw its claim later, as had happened with the claim of the faster-than-light neutrino at OPERA experiment? Where angels dare not ?

Non-authorities of cosmology claimed that the discovery at CERN has explained how matter got shapes! CERN, Higgs, or cosmologists of the world never claimed this. Claim of the non-authorities is based on misunderstanding of the following.

Supporters of the Big Bang theory had hopes that Higgs' particle could help them solve the problem of the origin of the formation of structures in the homogeneous and isotropic Universe. If Higgs particles were to cling to other particles during an appropriate era in the history of the Universe as is imagined by the Big Bang picture, then they may grow in mass and form lumps of matter. These matter lumps may then seed the formation of large scale structures as are seen in the real Universe. That this hope is plagued by the lack of any explanation for the mass of a Higgs boson is well recognized by cosmologists. This is then why supporters of alternative cosmologies caution us against linking the (possible) discovery at CERN to cosmology.

In further show of ignorance of physical science, non-authorities of physics had claimed that Bose's theory became famous in quantum theory as the Bose-Einstein condensate. In applying Bose's statistical method to atoms having integer spin, Einstein had shown that such atoms can collect or condensate together at extremely low temperatures. Such a phenomenon was called, much later on, as that of the Bose-Einstein condensation and the collecting atoms were called to be forming a Bose-Einstein condensate. BE-condensates are, only now, being made in the laboratory and their properties studied. This is not at all Bose's theory in quantum mechanics!

Historically, Bose had taken too long to travel to Einstein, stopping to visit de Broglie in Paris for a while. By the time Bose reached Berlin, Einstein had moved too far ahead for Bose to be able to meaningfully contribute to Einstein's thoughts. The "Bose-Einstein" condensation is then entirely Einstein's contribution, although Einstein had also thanked his mathematical assistant for working the calculation.

Einstein had also committed a conceptual error then, by considering that the process may apply to electrons in a metal, if cooled sufficiently. But, Fermi and Dirac corrected it very soon; by pointing out that electrons are not bosons.

As history, courteous Einstein had also translated Bose's second paper and had arranged to publish it in a German scientific journal. This is the last that Bose contributed to the "bosons", as far as anyone knows.

An editor of a Marathi daily crassly wrote that protons in atoms are ``not'' identical; and that the radiation emitted by such ``protons'' is also not identical! In further show of insensitivity, this discovery was attributed by the editor to Satyendra Nath Bose! Truly, you were fortunate Professor Bose that, in your times, no one dared quote wrong things in your authority. If a particle is not seen to be identical to a proton, then we will not refer to it as proton! Niels Bohr, the father of the theory of the atom, had always wondered as to how particles maintain their identity in different environments. A proton in hydrogen atom is identical to a proton in plutonium atom.

Interesting study in sociology is foreseeable in this incidence of CERN discovery. Firstly, non-committal statement from CERN, then these false claims by non-experts, and then ? Is not this example of how rumours can be spread, all officially!

Many of the important ideas in particle physics, like symmetry considerations, do not rely on whether a Higgs particle exists. The existence of a zero-spin particle may then remain elusive for some more time; until time that such a particle is discovered in experiment or it is theoretically understood as to why it cannot exist.

The concept of experiment at the Large Hadronic Collider, the LHC, was that of making highly energetic protons collide, so that the Higgs bosons, if any, attached to the colliding protons get released or detached in collision. Protons are positively charged particles, and charges emit radiation when undergoing acceleration or deceleration. Really ingenious strategies were then needed in this experiment to accelerate protons to very high energies. That protons could be accelerated to the required very high energies is a technological achievement of the CERN team.

Now, when protons collide, they get decelerated rapidly; and their energy is released in many ways, then. They emit high energy radiation as well as other types of particles. Each is called an emission event, and more than a trillion such events were expected to occur in the LHC experiment. CERN team therefore needed to analyze these events to separate those events involving Higgs bosons, if any, from those events involving other particles. This analysis is, of course, statistical.

An event is to be compared with a known type; and if found similar to the known one, it is to be discarded from the data analysis. A known event is the one which is theoretically well understood, is seen in other separate experiments and nature of its occurrence is well understood. Such an event then gets easily identified in simulation software; and it is a simulated event that is compared with the observed event. Questions about the possible discovery of any unknown event arise only when an event is not found to be similar to any of the known events. The nature of the discovery of a new species of particles has, in current times, these inevitable characteristics.

Theory-based inputs to the simulation software involve various kinds of approximations. Values of theoretical parameters used in the simulation software involve uncertainties. Theoretical basis of the events appearing in simulation software may be questionable as well. Particularly at very high energies of their collision our knowledge of interactions of particles is not well established.

Any of the above features can cause the occurrence of an ``unusual'' event in simulation of particle interactions. Unless and until such factors are firmly ruled out, the discovery of a new species of particles cannot be considered as certain. We can then imagine all the reasons as to why the announcement from CERN is glibly worded!

Just for straightening of the records here, four independent experiments suspect discovery of a new particle, its nature being unknown yet. We may also recollect what Heisenberg had to say about the development of experiments in particle physics. In essence, he said that a new particle will always be found if we go at higher and higher energies of collision. But, the question is whether the existence of that particle is of significance to our understanding of the physical world. What he meant by this is, perhaps, that finding a new individual or a new human being on the Earth may not add to our biological understanding of human beings. Our knowledge or understanding of the biological working of human body need not change with the finding of any additional human beings on the Earth.

Discovery of a new particle may not necessarily add anything to our understanding of the physical world. Have we already reached that stage in our understanding of the physical world? Many physicists may perceive this situation; and may also be inclined to say that yes, we have. Then, we need not keep smashing higher and higher energy protons to keep discovering some new particles!

An accomplished physicist, a professor emeritus in Nagpur, who is guiding young school students, told on the condition of anonymity that his students were questioning him about The God and The God Particle. Finally, he had to say to them that: Let there be The God for those who want Him for their publicity; and let there be The God Particle for the team at CERN who want money for their research survival. That may or may not be serious Science. But, as far as we are concerned, let us get back to some serious study of serious Science!

Let us then get back to ``doing'' some serious Science.

By - Dr Sanjay M Wagh

The author is the Director of the Central India Research Institute at Nagpur. He did his early research while at TIFR, Mumbai; at Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, Cambridge, USA; at IUCAA, Pune.

You may Contact the author at: