There’s nothing to put one’s daily concerns into perspective like reading about a black hole at the centre of the universe that’s about the size of four million suns and in the process of swallowing an enormous gas cloud with three times the mass of our planet.
As reported by Nature magazine, researchers using the European Southern Observatory’s “Very Large Telescope” have calculated the path and speed – about 2,350 kilometres per second – of the cloud as it spirals toward the black hole. They estimate it will disappear in 2013.
Talk about a game changer. At least our neighbourhood of the universe is free of such big celestial bullies.
Here on our humble little planet, however, we’re looking at a game changer of a different kind. Some of you might have scoffed at recent news stories about the so-called “God particle” that observers say is on the verge of being identified after decades of research by hundreds of scientists around the globe.
It’s real, however. It’s called the Higgs boson, which theoretical physicists call the missing link to understanding how the universe operates. It has the potential to, eventually, completely change the way we interact with matter in our world. As they say here in Quebec, ce n’est pas de la petite bière.
I’m blessed (and occasionally cursed) to have some very smart friends. One of them is a stout fellow from the sticks near Moose Creek, Ontario, whose insatiable curiosity about the world and the universe led him to a doctorate in astrophysics from McGill University. His name is Claude Théoret. I attended his PhD defence at McGill a decade or so ago and, besides being gobsmacked by his brilliance, was reminded why I chose to study the social sciences.
I asked Claude to explain for me, in layman’s terms, how it works and what this could mean for us. I may torture his answer, but essentially it goes like this: the Higgs boson is a magnetic field, and what gives mass to any particle, or matter, is defined by how it couples with the Higgs field. Photons, for instance, have no mass because they do not couple with the Higgs field.
Essentially, it’s the force that gives heft to matter, the stuff. The more mass an object has, the more energy is required to move it because of the greater resistance it encounters from the Higgs field. Now researchers using the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva feel they are close to finding the Higgs particle after years of smashing protons together at close to the speed of light in the facility’s 27-kilometre-long circular track.
I know: it’s hard to wrap one’s head around the concept. It sounds like the plot of a bad Dan Brown novel. So, like a good student, I put the smartest question I could to my friend Claude: “So what?”
Well, he said, imagine driving a tractor-trailer full of freight around the world on a drop of gasoline. In other words, if we could manipulate the Higgs particle and reduce its sticky, molasses-like resistance to mass, we would only need infinitely small amounts of energy to do boundless things. Like visiting other galaxies, for example.
That’s why this discovery is a game changer. An ability to understand what the smart folks call the “essential fabric” of the universe, and therefore, to be able to manipulate it, is why the Higgs boson has been dubbed the God particle.
Change of this magnitude can be unsettling, to be sure. But my friend Claude is bubbling over with excitement. As an analogy, he pointed to Albert Einstein’s revolutionary explanation of how the photoelectric effect actually works in 1905, for which he later won the Nobel Prize.
This knowledge was the foundation for the technological revolution that completely changed mankind’s way of life during the 20th century. But it didn’t happen right away, Claude cautioned. While Einstein’s discovery allowed for the development of semiconductor electronics, which really accelerated our relationship with technology, this great leap forward only began a half-century later, in the 1950s.
Likewise, Claude said, even if the scientists are right about the Higgs boson it’s not going to change the game immediately. His prediction is that practical applications of this knowledge wouldn’t appear for 30 or 40 years.
Even then, this scientific advance is still dependent on social factors, he added. The political choices we make now will largely determine whether we are still leading society with a high standard of living a half-century from now, or stagnating as a laggard while others implement this knowledge and reap its potentially boundless rewards.
Frankly, the outlook on this score here in Canada is far from promising. The Conservative government has proudly and aggressively struck an anti-science and anti-knowledge stance on a score of issues, from climate change to demographics to, tellingly, evolution.
A new brain drain of Canada’s top researchers is beginning anew as the Harper government squeezes funding for science, especially in alternative energy fields. The pugnacious rejection of the Kyoto accord is a sad statement in this regard.
But there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Even Harper can’t turn back the clock – much as his know-nothing disciples would like to pretend the modern world doesn’t exist. The question we need to face is whether we are going to use this knowledge for our benefit, or whether we will be left behind in the race for understanding, fearful of being buffeted by change like so much dust in the wind.