Hunting the Primal Spark

The Large Hadron Collider was powered up in Geneva, Switzerland on September 10, 2008. During the decade it took CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) to build it, the LHC attracted a range of fingers-crossed superlatives — the world’s largest machine, the biggest (and most expensive) scientific experiment in history, the largest multinational computing grid in the world, and more. In just a decade of operation the LHC’s scientific success has made it “the crown jewel of experimental physics,” and it has become a model for international scientific effort.

That jewel’s most dazzling achievement to date came in 2012 with the experimental confirmation of the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle predicted by the Standard Model theory of the existence of matter, and perhaps “the spark that caused the Big Bang” (Michio Kaku). The existence of the Higgs boson was long-expected — “Like Omar Sharif materializing out of the shimmering desert as a man on a camel in Lawrence of Arabia, the elusive boson has been coming slowly into view,” wrote Dennis Overbye in the New York Times two days after the CERN announcement — but its confirmation was an eureka-level moment nonetheless. In Most Wanted Particle, the British physicist Jon Butterworth, a member of CERN’s LHC team, tells the inside story of the Higgs discovery and argues its centrality to the future of physics — important experiments in dark matter, for example, requiring even bigger particle colliders and even more money than the $9 billion required for the LHC.

The issue of funding looms over most books on the Higgs boson, as does a head-on cultural collision between theoretical science and religious belief. While Darwin’s theory of evolution was also greeted with shock and outrage when it was published 150 years ago, many believers found ways to reconcile the new biology with their traditional faith. Some theoretical physicists see no conflict between their work on “the God particle” and a belief in God (see for example Peter Bussey’s Signposts to God), but most recent books by those working in the field argue otherwise. In his concluding paragraphs to The Greatest Story Ever Told — So Far: Why Are We Here? Lawrence Krauss urges us to face the facts that physics and cosmology tell us — that our one-of-a-billion galaxies belongs to a universe which in a few trillion years will have expanded and flattened into the same sort of nothingness whence it came — with both “cosmic humility” and fearless adventure. “A future that might bring about our end does not negate the majesty of the journey we are still taking,” Krauss asserts.

In his award-winning The Particle at the End of the Universe and his more recent best seller The Big Picture, Sean Carroll endorses the view that the LHC is “the gothic cathedral of the twenty-first century” and challenges us to understand, accept, and live according to the recent discoveries of theoretical physics. To help make those discoveries accessible, Carroll uses the analogy of “The Universe in a Cup of Coffee” (a chapter in the second book), which likens the beginning and end of the universe as we now understand it to a relatively smooth and uncomplicated nothingness — black coffee, into which the Big Bang injected swirls of cream:

The initially smooth configuration has become increasingly lumpy over the last several billion years as tiny perturbations in the density of matter have grown into planets, stars, and galaxies. They won’t last forever; …eventually all the stars will burn out, black holes will swallow them up, and then even the black holes will evaporate away. The era of complex behavior that our universe is currently enjoying is, alas, a temporary one.

Carroll’s later chapters, titled “Three Million Heartbeats,” “Constructing Goodness,” “Existential Therapy” and the like, offer his thoughts on living collectively, productively and happily in the cosmic morning we have been gifted:

Those swirls in the cream mixing into the coffee? That’s us. Ephemeral patterns of complexity, riding a wave of increasing entropy from simple beginning to a simple end. We should enjoy the ride.