Monday, March 11, 2013

The Higgs Apocalypse (And I Feel Fine)

I thought this article was about the search for the Higgs boson, when in fact it's about the apocalypse. Funny how that happens. The connection between the two seemingly disparate things is that the currently measured mass of the Higgs boson implies that the universe is metastable. Lest this sound like a good thing it's important to remember that, since scientists think of energy the same way they think of gravity, becoming more stable = going "down" in energy, so that being "meta"/above the most stable level is a recipe for potential collapse.

If the Higgs field drops to a lower value, then everything that has mass is affected, and the delicate balance of forces that sustains matter itself reorganizes. No wonder they call the universe's current state a "critical" state!

My favorite quote from the end:

It’s a puzzle, he said, why the universe exists in such a critical state. In an e-mail, Dr. Giudice wrote, “Why do we happen to live at the edge of collapse?”
He went on, “In my view, the message about near-criticality of the universe is the most important thing we have learned from the discovery of the Higgs boson so far.”
Guido Tonelli of CERN and the University of Pisa, said, “If true, it is somehow magic.” We wouldn’t be having this discussion, he said, if there hadn’t been enough time already for this universe to produce galaxies, stars, planets and “human beings who are attempting to produce a vision of the world,” he said.
“So, in some sense, we are here, because we have been lucky, because for this particular universe the lottery produced a certain set of numbers, which allow the universe to have an evolution, which is very long.”
So the 13.7 billion years of constant physical constants (including Higgs boson mass not collpsing from its metastable state) is something to be grateful for. We're sitting on a bubble.

A couple of connections to be made here: First, this is reminiscent of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything in which he describes how the Yellowstone caldera is a gigantic volcano that could erupt and take this whole corner of the continential US with it. The metastable Higgs boson is the same kind of thing at a universal level. History had a beginning, and we're told it has an ending. The end is near.

Second, I realized over this weekend that two of my favorite movies (not objectively best but subjectively favorite, mind you) are Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys and Disney's animated Hunchback of Notre Dame. Both came out within about a year of each other and both are apocalyptic in several senses of the word. The idea of feeling on the verge of collapse is a familiar one and it makes for worthy art that resonates with, say, a college senior in 1995-1996.

But what should we do with this feeling? The answer is not to a personal collapse, or a bunker mentality. The answer is to realize that, one way or another, the kingdom of God is truly "at hand." It's sometime to wait for and anticipate, constructively. In the meantime, read Jeremiah 29, plant roots and work for the good of all around -- but don't worship the form of things that are, even now, passing away.

And be grateful for 13.7 billion years of constant,dependable physical laws. We may not get another 13.7 billion.

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