I had no idea, but this is apparently what it looks like when an airplane breaks the sound barrier. More pictures here.
Posts Tagged ‘physics’
The biggest scientific project of our age – the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) run by CERN in Geneva – is expected to reveal breakthrough outputs today. These concern the Higgs field, the field that provides mass to particles, which is part of the Standard Model of particle physics that currently informs understandings of the universe. The one particle that the LHC was set up to find, the Higgs boson (up till now only theoretical), provides evidence of this field, and may or may not have been found. Or so.
That’s to say, scientists may have narrowed down the plausibility of observing the boson. Or not, which in a way would be more interesting as it would disprove the Standard Model. Contrary to media reports about a ‘God particle’, however, discovery of the Higgs boson will not be the last word in particle physics, as there is a lot more that will then require explaining.
So stay tuned for CERN’s special seminar today.
The Guardian has the most understandable article about this completely ununderstandable (but cool) stuff I’ve read so far:
The Higgs boson is a subatomic particle that was predicted to exist nearly 50 years ago. Scientists have been searching for the particle for decades, but so far have no solid proof that it is real.
Although the Higgs boson grabs headlines – unsurprising, given its nickname, the god particle – it is important only because its discovery would prove there is an invisible energy field that fills the vacuum throughout the observable universe. Without the field, or something like it, we would not be here.
Scientists have no hope of seeing the field itself, so they search instead for its signature particle, the Higgs boson, which is essentially a ripple in the Higgs field.
According to theory, the Higgs field switched on a trillionth of a second after the big bang blasted the universe into existence. Before this moment, all of the particles in the cosmos weighed nothing at all and zipped around chaotically at the speed of light.
When the Higgs field switched on, some particles began to feel a “drag” as they moved around, as though caught in cosmic glue. By clinging to the particles, the field gave them mass, making them move around more slowly. This was a crucial moment in the formation of the universe, because it allowed particles to come together and form all the atoms and molecules around today.
But the Higgs field is selective. Particles of light, or photons, move through the Higgs field as if it wasn’t there. Because the field does not cling top them, they remain weightless and destined to move around at the speed of light forever. Other particles, like quarks and electrons – the smallest constituents of atoms – get caught in the field and gain mass in the process.
The field has enormous implications. Without it, the smallest building blocks of matter, from which all else is made, would forever rush around at the speed of light. They would never come together to make stars, planets, or life as we know it.
In his new book Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, Nicholas Humphrey, a distinguished evolutionary psychologist and philosopher, claims to have solved two fairly large intellectual conundrums. One is something of a technical matter, about which you may have thought little or not at all, unless you happen to be a philosopher. This is the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. The problem is how an entity which is apparently immaterial like the human consciousness – it exists, but you can’t locate it, much less measure it – can have arisen from something purely physical, like the arrangement of cells that make up the human body. The second problem Humphrey claims he has solved is a rather more everyday one, about which you may well have puzzled yourself. This is the problem of the soul. Does it exist? What sort of a thing might it be? Does everyone have one, even atheists?
His solution to both these problems is the same, because for him the strange properties of consciousness, the fact that for those of us that have it the world of dull matter is suffused with meaning, beauty, relevance and awe – means that it makes sense to think that we are permanent inhabitants of a “soul-niche” or “soul-world”. As the jacket blurb of his book has it, “consciousness paves the way for spirituality”, by creating a “self-made show” that “lights up the world for us, making us feel special and transcendent.” Consciousness and the soul are one and the same.
If this all sounds a little bit metaphysical or New Agey, too much like one of those tiresome attempts to bring religion and science into cosy alignment, hold fast. For what, on the face of it, looks like an attempt to validate spirituality using the language of science turns out to be a way to expand the domain of science by accounting for spirituality, and the soul, alongside consciousness in a fully materialist account. Soul Dust is nothing less than Humphrey’s attempt to sketch out a materialist theory of consciousness, and write a “natural history” of the soul.
With this I highly agree though:
The second half – less technical, more poetic and, as Humphrey admits, pretty speculative – is devoted to the question of why? What is it about consciousness, this “magical” ability to perceive and exult in beauty, meaning and a sense of awe, that confers an evolutionary advantage? His answer is simply that this magical show in our own heads which enchants the world is what makes life worth living: “For a phenomenally conscious creature, simply being there is a cause for celebration.” Consciousness infuses us with the belief that we are more than mere flesh, that we matter, that we might have a life after death, that we have a “soul”. All of these are illusions – the magic of his title – but they have real effects, by making us want to live. As for religion? In his book he argues, “Long before religion could begin to get a foothold in human culture human beings must already have been living in soul land.” “Yes,” he tells me, “I suggest that organised religion is parasitic on spirituality, and in fact acts as a restraint on it.”
While the book received a lot of positive reviews, some negative ones have also appeared. Here’s one from The Guardian, for example.