Thursday, July 26, 2012

Denial Among Astrophysicists

There was an op-ed article in the NY Times yesterday titled "Alone in the Void." It was by Adam Frank, a well-credentialed professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester. In it, he articulated his (apparently recent) realization that we humans have no hope of ever getting outside our solar system (to escape our own planet or to seed any number of others). What Frank is coming to terms with is the (rather obvious) fact that the technologies that make crossing vast distances of space--in the plethora of television and movie series like Star Trek and Star Wars--are fiction and that the limitations to such travel are not technological or intellectual (and thus susceptible to overcoming) but established by the laws of physics (and thus intractable).

Then today in the local newspaper (The Bend Bulletin), expert solar observer and amateur astronomer Bill Logan writes an article entitled "Why we haven't heard back from Andromeda (or anywhere else)." He, too interacts with the straightforward, intractable physical limitations--this time with communications in mind--imposed by the vast distances between stars and galaxies. Logan's article also mentions such problems as the ephemeral nature of human language and the tendency of intelligent civilizations to self-destruct:
Languages rarely last more than 4,000 years on Earth, so will we understand their [the Andromedans'] message if they answer? Likewise, if we heard an intelligent signal from Andromeda, could we send a message back? Would the civilization in Andromeda still be there?
I should applaud each of these experts for their willingness to temper the fictional conclusions shared by many moderns about life elsewhere in the universe and our future ability to interact with such life. But my overarching reaction is continued amazement at the collective inability or unwillingness (even of astronomers and physicists) to acknowledge the simpler, straightforward explanation that has for decades now garnered all of the empirical support.

Attempting to travel to other parts of space is a futile enterprise, and listening for signals from extraterrestrial intelligent life is a waste of time, for the same, well-supported reason: Earth is likely the only place in the universe capable of supporting intelligent life.

One is likely to get little argument about the claim that the single most significant scientific discovery of the last hundred years is general relativity and the realization that all of the matter, energy, space, and time of the universe had a beginning a finite time ago. But for many, the next most significant advance of that century is the anthropic principle, the discovery that the universe itself (its laws and physical constants) and our more local environment (galaxy system, galaxy, solar system, sun, Earth, moon, other planets, etc.) exhibit hundreds of characteristics that fall within very narrow ranges with the apparent goal of providing for human life on Earth. Even the vastness of the universe--the existence of 100 million trillion stars--is, as it turns out, necessary for the existence of life on Earth (rather than the 'waste of space' postulated by the characters in Carl Sagan's Contact).

The following acknowledgements of the design of the universe for life are now quite dated, which makes me wonder all the more that so many folks opining today seem blissfully unaware of this discovery.
There is for me powerful evidence that there is something going on behind it all... It seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature's numbers to make the universe... The impression of design is overwhelming. (Astrophysicist Paul Davies, 1988)

One would have to conclude either that the features of the universe invoked in support of the Anthropic Principle are only coincidences or that the universe was indeed tailor-made for life. I will leave it to the theologians to ascertain the identity of the tailor. (Cosmologist Bernard Carr, 1979)

It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us. (Stephen Hawking, 1988)

As we survey all the evidence, the thought insistently arises that some supernatural agency--or rather, Agency--must be involved. Is it possible that suddenly, without intending to, we have stumbled upon scientific proof of the existence of a Supreme Being? Was it God who stepped in and so providentially crafted the cosmos for our benefit? (Astronomer George Greenstein, 1988)

Astronomy leads to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say "supernatural") plan. (Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arno Penzias, 1992)
Now, while these men danced around the theological implications of these discoveries (and some, like Hawking, dedicated the rest of their careers to seeking explanations that would avoid those implications), what they each acknowledged unambiguously is that the evidence suggests that the universe itself and the Earth in particular exhibit characteristics for life support that are unimaginably improbable.

Today, attempts to get around the theological implications of the anthropic principle focus on postulating an infinite number of other universes (each with different physical laws and constants), with the inhabitants of our universe having won the cosmic (actually, trans-cosmic) lottery. But even these explanations do not address the environmental anthropic parameters--the characteristics of our galaxy, solar system, etc. that make life on Earth possible.

While I understand the a-theological motivation to explain away the implications of the anthropic principle, what I can't understand is how so many physicists and astronomers can carry on as though the anthropic discovery had never been made.

Monday, July 9, 2012

What to make of the Higgs Boson

[I've had more than one person ask me what they should make of the news (from last week) about the discovery of the Higgs boson. Here's my response to one of them.]

Hi J_____:

Well, yes, this is pretty exciting stuff. Ever since physicists realized that there were particles smaller--and more fundamental--than protons, neutrons, and electrons, the race has been on to identify the different kinds of these particles. The discovery of them is largely theoretical (they cannot be directly seen), but predictions are made that can be tested in huge particle accelerators (like the Large Hadron Collider, which figures prominently in the recent discoveries).

Successful predictions and classification of a number of these fundamental particles has led to a working model (usually referred to as the standard particle theory), and this model predicts (indeed, seems to depend upon) the existence of a superparticle called the Higgs boson (boson being a class of such particles and Peter Higgs being a leading theoretical physicist who first predicted this particle's existence). It is 'super' because it plays a central role in determining the mass and other characteristics of many of the other particles. The Higgs boson is predicted to be free of either electrical or color charge, and its mass has previously been narrowed down to a relatively small range. It is within this range that the recent particle-bombardment tests have been occurring.

I believe that a news release with a research update was all along scheduled for July 4 (irrespective of what the update would be). As that date neared, rumors flew that the announcement would be that evidence for the HB had been found. (Remember, up until now, its existence was only theoretical.) Evidence would have been very positive, but physicists were doubtful that discovery would be claimed (discovery requiring a greater level of conformity to predictions). However, both sets of researchers obtained the necessary level of conformity to predictions, and the announcement was, in fact, of the tentative discovery of the HB.

All this means is that the standard particle model has gained a much greater level of support. Had the HB eluded physicists (had predictive tests not yielded positive results), then eventually a different model would have been required. Yesterday's news means that physicists have probably been on the right track all along.

Theologically/metaphysically, this discovery doesn't really have much bearing. The Higgs boson--like all of the other fundamental particles, like all matter, energy, time, and space--is a created part of this universe, and functions according to physical laws put in place by the Creator. One nickname for the HB--the 'God particle'--is potentially misleading (giving naturalists/atheists the misunderstanding that discovery of this particle might somehow explain away the need for God). The HB is indeed of central importance (according to the standard model) to the workings of the other fundamental particles, and thus--like God--lies behind everything else. Additionally--again, like God--the HB is difficult to detect; it had (rightfully) attained a sort of 'holy grail' status, its discovery being the virtual proof of the accuracy of the model. But where God is necessary and uncreated, the HB is definitely contingent and created; indeed its contingency is part of its elusiveness.

So again, pretty heady stuff, but without much implication for the larger conclusions of the past 100 years of astronomy/physics... that the universe is the creation of a good, personal, necessary, self-existent, transcendent, superintelligent, superpowerful Creator. With the discovery of the Higgs boson and the further validation of standard particle theory, the cosmological and teleological arguments for God's existence are as strong as ever.

Hope you're well.