The CERN experiment, Einstein and we humans; (Updated- Read more comments)
Posted on November 29th, 2011
by Bodhi Dhanapala
An atom-smashing experiment conducted at CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research) to test the behaviour of matter at high energies and very short impact distancesÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â has reported a surprising outcome. It claims that some neutrinos (these are electrically uncharged particles with almost zero weight) had been detected that seemed to move with velocities faster than light!
Now, according to Einstein nothing can move faster than light, as every object increases its mass as you increase its speed, and ultimately becomes infinitely heavy at the speed of light. Light has zero mass and so it alone can go at the top allowed speed. Neutrinos are very difficult to detect, and most experiments with neutrinos are open to large errors. So this claim may be a ‘red herring’. However, it has raised lots of interest and much speculation.
In the course of a discussion regarding matter and the mind, the question arose as to whether there isÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â hard-science evidence to show that the mind can move matter. All the physiological (neuro-science etc) evidence we have is that the brain moves the body, and the mind isÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â an intermediateÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â giving room for further physiological adjustment of the outcomes. Writers like Daniel Dennette (author of the book ‘The mind’s I, Fantasies and reflections of self and soul) have discussed these matters in popular books.
Professor Ladduwahetty, previously at the University of Colombo suggested that even if there is as yet no hard-science evidence beyond physiological precesses, we should allow for the possibility that such evidence may come in the future, and indicated thatÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â With more understanding as to how Neutrinos behave, we can expect some interesting stuff to emerge on the mind/energy connection.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Right now it is perhaps more in the realm of conjecture and Sci-Fi though!
Indeed, as Prof. Ladduwahetty points out, this is at the edge of science fiction. However we thought it would be worth while following this up with people who have expert knowledge in physics. Hence we wrote to three well known Sri Lankan Physicists, namely, Professor Chandre Dharmawardana, a past Vice-Chancellor of Vidyodaya University,ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â (currently a Physicist working on the quantum theory and attached to the National Research Council of Canada and the University of Montreal), Prof. Keerthi Tennakoon, who was the Head of the Institute of Fundamental Studies in Kandy, as well as Prof. P. W. Epasinghe, an Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and a student of the world famous Nobel Physicist Abdus Salam. Further more, Prof. Dharmawardana was our Vice-Chancellor at Vidyodaya in the mid 1970s when we were student there, while Prof. Epasinghe was the Professor of mathematics. Dr. Tennakoon was a lecturer in Physics. So they were all our teachers and they have kindly responded to my call.
I include below the triggering remarks of Prof. Ladduwahetty, and the responses of the three physicists.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Our thanks are directed to Prof. Ladduwahetty for her inspiring initiating remarks, and toÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Professors Epasinghe, Dharmawardana and Tennakoon for their explanations.
ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â I believe that their responses are of great interest to the general reader who can make their own judgments, remembering that science is ‘a doubt system’, and notÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â ‘a belief system’.
Professor Dharmawardana’s reply:
Our job when teaching science to university students is to teach them how to think, and how to see the wood for the trees. We can’tÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â teach them the last word in science, as there is NONE. But there are basic things that help people to navigate themselves. So I will write around the topic at first so that people can figure out the answers themselves.
Indeed, it is true that scientists in each subject tend to specialize. Most of us physicists do not know enough biology, and most biologists do not know enough physics.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Edward O. Wilson in his famous book “Consilience” wrote “it is not surprising to find physicists who do not know what a gene is, and biologists who guess that string theory has something to do with violins”. So it is important for scientists of different disciplines to get together.
But the situation is worse between scientists and non-scientists. We live in a world where the division is no longer between black and white, or rich and poor, but increasingly between those who are scientifically literate and some-what able to understand what is going on, and the vast majority of “those who are captive within a wall of scientific illiteracy”ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â (in the words of Wilson); and yet the latter control our media and public policy. So, before we discuss CERN we need to get the background to modern physics in the context of human knowledge.
The first things you need to know are what is known as energy and length scales. The very high energies are associated with large forces, and with very short lengths (remember,ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â work W is energy, and Energy = force times length)
So very large energies and very short length scales go together. Elementary particles (i.e., subatomic particles) like electrons, positrons,ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â neutrinos, and the heavier protons, neutrons,ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â and their constituents (quarks) correspond to higher energies andÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â shorter length scales.
Next we have the atomic length scales, and atomic energy scales. These are also very high energies and very short lengths compared to bread and butter. Thus we need about a million-billion atoms placed in one line to make one hair-width.
ThenÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â we have the molecular energy scales and molecular length scales. This is our everyday world of food digestion, fermentation, cooking etc. That is where human biochemistry, the brain and biology works. Here we talk of energies in calories and lengths in centimeters or microns.
Next we have macroscopic energy scales, where the engineers take over, and use kilograms and tonsÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â (Kilowatts as the energy scales), and kilometers as the length scale. Then we have astronomical length scales and weak forces like gravitation (which arises in general relativity from the curvature of space-time which makes objects to go in curved paths rather than straight lines).
We will stop here in this discussion and return to the neutrinos.
Before that, we need a bit of physics theory.
Physics says that all phenomena obey the very simple-looking laws of the quantum theory (Heisenberg-Schrodinger-Dirac theory) and the very compact field equations of Einstein which deal with space-time. These two theories are combined side by side (but not unified) in what is called the “standard model”. The standard model was developed by Abdus Salam (Pakistani-English physicist), Weinberg, and Glashow who jointly won the Nobel priceÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â for it. This theory PREDICTS exactly what type of elementary particles (i.e., electrons, quarks, neutrinos etc) should exist. These predictions have all been confirmed, not just qualitatively, but quantitatively (that is why they got the prize); except for a number of NEW particles that have not been seen yet. They are the Higgs Boson, and other special particles. The theory PREDICTS that they will be seen at some yet to be reachedÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â higher energies. The effort of CERN is to reach such energies, which may have prevailed just after the big bang.
The ‘big bang’ is not just an emptyÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â theory but an actual event. Its after-glow can be actually observed by looking out into the night sky with a radio telescope, andÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â what is seen is exactly what is predicted. So it fits perfectly.
The “big-bang” is not the ‘moment of creation’, but just one “bang” out of thousands of other ‘explosions” that are occurring all the time in space-time; but we can only know about what is happening within our ‘information horizon’ limited by the speed of light.
So the CERN experiment is virtually trying to get close to the earliest big-bang state of the universe. It has to go a long way. But on its way, it should meet these PREDICTEDÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â particles, and possibly, unexpected new effects. It should also bring out new theories BEYOND this standard model which contains Einstein’s model and the Quantum theory. The theory that has been put forward to surpass them is known as “String Theory”. According to Einstein the world has four dimensions. But according to one version of the new ‘String Theory’ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â the world really has 11 dimensions, with 7 of them folded in (compacted) so that we see only four dimensions. These four dimensions are length, breath, height, and time.
The ‘distance’ measured in four dimensions is the valid, ‘invariant’ way to measure ‘separations’ between events in the world, and this is known as “Lorentz invariance”. Now, when we go to these high energies, and very short length scales, we may begin to see some of this folded dimensions.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Are we seeing such dimensions in the CERN experiment? In my view this is very unlikely, and the most likely explanation is experimental error. It is very hard to do accurate experiments with neutrinos.
The NEWSPAPER BLURBS meant to sensationalize the CERN news is partly HYPE.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â If the neutrinos have exposed some new compacted dimension and seen to propagate in a manner which is not according to naive relativity, that is sensational but may be consistent with the expectation of string theory. The question is, is it in agreement with some theory? It is more likely that this is a bit of “noise” coming from doing experiments in a range where no one has any experience.
It need not contradict EINSTEIN’s theory as said in the newspaper reports.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â It may extend Einsteins theory (In technical language, we say that aÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â multi-dimensional space-time metric is used in string theory, instead of the 4-dimensional manifold). Some writers, surely not physicists,ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â have said that ‘we may have to return to Newton’. That is completely wrong. In fact, Einstein’s theory is verified every day at our (Newtonian)ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â length scales, each time you use a GPS to verify your location when travelling. The velocity of light is accurately known and I doubt if that would need any revision.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Even neutrino velocities have been measured using neutrinos emitted from Supernova explosions. The new extensions of Einstein’s theory, if actually needed, probably occur only at very short length scales very very different from human energy and length scales.
Now, when we think about life forms and brains, all this is irrelevant to biology because our biological energy scales and length scales are trillions and trillions and trillions and quadrillions of times different from the energy scales created with enormous difficulty inside the CERN accelerator. The latterÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â are comparable to what is happening inside a thermonuclear explosion.
Since evolution is now an extremely well established theory, it can guide us. We know that the human body, its organs, the hand, the eye, the digestion, the brain, sight, hearing and thought all evolved to cope with daily life and its struggle. They don’t occur at neutrino length scales or inside compacted dimensions at Plank scales, nor are they mediated by Higgs Bosons or high-energy neutrinos that exist in nuclear explosions. Evolution keeps only stuff that it needs to adapt the organism for its life process, and sheds unnecessary appendages. So all aspects of our body are intimately adapted to normal energy and length scales, i.e., calories (and not Giga Watts), and centimeters (and not units measured in the Plank length which is some trillion trillion times smaller than an atomic nucleus. The Plank length is the smallest ‘quantum’ of length possible).
Hence I agree with Prof. Ladduwahetty that the possibility of this experiment having and impact on mind-matter issues is mostly in the area of science fiction and speculation. However, although most physicists preferÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â terra firma, there are aÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â veryÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â small number of physicists, e.g., Roger Penrose of Oxford, and Eugene Wigner, who always felt that the mind wasÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â ultimately necessary to solve the problem of observation in the quantum theory.
The reason for building the Hadron collider in CERN is to generate those extreme high energies, of the sort found in the center of the sun or close to the big bang, where particles interact at extremely short length scales.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Of courseÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â journalists have to put a slant to the news to make the scientifically unconcerned public sit up and take note.
Closing remarks from Prof. Dharmawardana.:
I know from a message I got from Anada Wijesinghe that this discussion is not just about neutrinos and relativity, but also about this question of whether the “mind is supreme or the brain is supreme”. One of the best answers to this was given by the Buddha long ago when he suggested that this is ‘a metaphysical question that ordinary people cannot decide’, and indicated how we should go about our daily lives while leaving metaphysics aside.
Of course today we have more scientific tools than long ago, and some well-trained scientists in well-equipped neuro-science laboratories can look at some such questions. Some metaphysical questions have become physics questions.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â But most of us are mere ring-side on-lookers, even if we have students and colleagues working in such labs.
These modern tools have on the whole shown that mental functions can be understood using physiology, in somewhat the same way that we understand that a lotus is made up of the atoms that are found in the mud. However, although the processes occurring in a lotus can be treated at the microscopic level by physiology, the lotus is the “Emergent Reality”, and it has an undeniable distinct reality different from its origins. In that sense, while the mind can be related to the brain by physiology, there is good reason to treat the mind as a “quasi-new emergent system” on its own right. Its behaviour can be ultimately reduced to physics; but an extremely long causal chain is required to connect it to molecular physics and then this connection usually becomes “irrelevant” at human length scales. So we don’t discuss our daily lives in terms of biochemistry (unless some pathology is involved). When it comes toÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â ethics, biochemistry is probably quite irrelevant.