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It seems that congratulations are in order. At this point in the universe’s 13.76 billion year trajectory, earthlings have reached a comprehensive understanding of all the laws of physics that make up our everyday reality. That’s quite a claim, isn’t it? But the last few centuries of cooperative scientific research has brought forth the theories and the supportive evidence to make scientists confident that our present knowledge about how the universe works is complete and correct.
At least this is the conclusion of theoretical physicist and natural philosopher, Sean B. Carroll, the author of ‘The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.’ Sean is an articulate communicator, and the first part of his book is a clear historical summation of the fundamental theories explaining the forces of the universe. The second part of his book offers the issues before us that are still unresolved.
Remember, scientific theories are not provable in the same way that mathematical proofs are shown to be true. A theory or hypothesis that explains an aspect of the natural world is determined through the use of mathematics and logical deduction. The accumulated evidence either supports or doesn’t support a theory. A theory may become a physical law if it is accepted universally as a cornerstone of science. For example, Einstein’s renowned equation E=mc^2 is a universal law of physics.
Of course, theories can change and evolve as the evidence necessitates. Scientific knowledge is always provisional and subject to revision based on new insights. For example, classical mechanics, first discovered by Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th century, accurately provided the framework for the theories of the forces of gravity, and later electromagnetism. But then two hundred years later, with the publication of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity in 1916, a new theory broadened our understanding of gravity by showing how mass curves the space-time surrounding it.
Scientific experiments on the subatomic level of physics have provided data that has evolved into the modern comprehensive framework of quantum mechanics. It turns out that the explanation for the deepest level of reality is the concept of quantum fields that give rise to atomic particles along with the forces that hold the nucleus together, and keeps the electron orbiting the nucleus at a steady quantum state. According to quantum field theory, the underlying reality of the universe is the wave function composed of the superposition of quantum fields.
The standard model of particle physics includes all the particles of matter and force-carrying particles – everything except for gravity. The physics of our everyday reality has been superbly described by the comprehensive quantum field theory, dubbed ‘The Core Theory’ by Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek and the author of ‘A Beautiful Question.’ This rather unwieldy mathematical formula has been correctly validated by all the data produced by scientific experiments performed in laboratories worldwide.
Powerful particle accelerators have been verifying quantum field theory by identifying the particles predicted by the fields but are so ephemeral they that are exceedingly difficult to detect. The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland recently confirmed the so-called God particle, the Higgs boson particle. The Super-K Detector in Japan has been verifying and detecting neutrinos and related particles from exploding supernovae. Both facilities are set to be substantially upgraded with even larger facilities to be built. It is money well-spent.
Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity predicted gravitational waves more than a hundred years age. But since the waves are so subtle, they have not been verified until just recent years. Soon after the LIGO Lab, a giant synchronized detector located in two widespread locations, in the states of Washington and Louisiana came online, the first gravitational waves were detected. They were emitted by an occurrence in the distant past of a powerful binary black hole merger from two colliding neutron stars located billions of light-years away. The singularity also revealed the first visible observation of a black hole.
All of these ultra-sensitive detectors have successfully verified the particles and forces that were predicted by theoretical physics. And yet a nagging problem persists – dark matter. How is it that something so necessary to validate Einstein’s general theory of relativity has yet to be revealed? This is the topic of the new documentary Chasing Einstein showing at the Naro on Wed, Nov 6 with speakers and discussion. The subject matter of the film is rather technical and yet it’s quite accessible for those inquiring minds who want to have a peak behind the curtain.
The story is told by the charismatic scientists themselves. We get to know each of them as they interact with their colleagues and students. Chasing Einstein follows these dedicated individuals as they travel to the giant laboratories built to detect particles and dark matter. They include the world’s largest particle accelerator (CERN) in Switzerland, the largest underground labs (XENON), the largest telescope arrays, and the LIGO gravitational wave detector located in both California and Louisiana to document the work of these physicist detectives.
The facilities shown in the film are awe-inspiring in their design and complexity, and the whole endeavor instills for me a sense of pride in the noble human quest for pure knowledge, irrespective of the profit motive and of self-interest. I began to appreciate the monumental task of raising the funds, and of the concerted effort to organize a cooperative international team of researchers. The inspiration of their shared mission gives me hope that perhaps, at the 11th hour, the citizens of earth might overcome our selfish fears and destructive bloodlust, and redirect our bloated military budgets toward creating a sustainable future.
Physicist and Eminent Scholar at ODU, Sebastian Kuhn, will speak following the showing of Chasing Einstein. He explains “About 84% of all the inferred matter mass in the universe is dark matter – i.e. it cannot be directly observed, but deduced from the motion of galaxies. So only 16% of all matter is the stuff we (think we) know and understand – quarks and leptons and their composites.”
He goes on to define the hypothetical force, dark energy, a related cousin. “Dark energy is perhaps even more mysterious than dark matter – while the latter creates more gravity and hence more clumping, the former drives the universe apart at an accelerating pace. If we count all the matter in the universe as energy (because of E= mc^2), it makes up only 32% of the total energy content – hence dark energy must account for the remaining 68%.”
In the next decade, two new telescopes – the Euclid Satellite and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope – along with the WFIRST infrared telescope, will go online and contribute an immense amount of data towards the search for dark matter and dark energy. Although the astrophysical evidence for both are convincing, they have yet to be produced in particle colliders, nor confirmed by ultra-sensitive detectors, nor directly observed in the cosmos. Physics is now at a crossroads and something must show itself – or not.
One competing theory proposes that dark matter is part of a so-called ‘hidden sector’ – a part of the universe that doesn’t interact with our material universe. But it could still interact via the ‘heavy photon’, a hidden sector version of our regular photon, the quanta that are the force carriers of electromagnetism. But unlike normal matter, dark matter does not interact with the electromagnetic force. Meaning it does not absorb, reflect, or emit light – and so it has yet to be detected.
But there is innovative new research attempting to find dark matter. The Heavy Photon Search (HPS) project is now up-and-running at our own Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News. This is a long-running experiment that will generate a massive amount of data in an attempt to discover a hidden-sector photon, called a dark photon or heavy photon. In the discussion following Chasing Einstein, we will hear about results from the project from Jefferson Lab researcher Sebastian Kuhn as well as project director Stepan Stepanyan.
Ever since my engineering studies pursued at Georgia Tech, I’ve been fascinated with the hidden order of the subatomic world and the scientists who have tried to clarify this reality for the general public. Their research and descriptions of the universe have grown ever larger to go beyond the traditional role of science, and have expanded into the realm of natural philosophy. I have been reading several books by brilliant physicists and authors who have tackled the big ontological questions of our day.
In his ‘The Big Picture’, Sean Carroll is fair beyond a fault in presenting the various theories and philosophies that have competed for public attention and dominance. For this reason, I highly recommend his book for the inquisitive and open minded reader. But the reader does not have to concur with the conclusions that Carroll hypothesizes, especially his assertion that there are no fundamental properties in the world except those defined by elementary particle physics.
The consensus of most scientific naturalists today is that there is no need for a Creator or for a supernatural presence who intervenes in the natural order of the world. But Carroll takes his naturalism further. He argues that consciousness, values, sensations, purpose, free will, and meaning – are all emergent narratives that Carroll labels collectively as ‘poetic naturalism’, contingent upon the underlying reality of the subatomic laws of physics.
Carroll goes on in his text to lay out his justifications for a rationalistic atheism that corroborates the work of other popular modern atheists like evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett. They concur that the universe is a giant machine composed of mindless matter. Life and consciousness are an evolutionary byproduct. They are confident that the gaps in scientific understanding about the origin of life, and the hard question of how the biochemical functions of the brain have given rise to a mind – will be answered with further scientific study.
I have ascertained that much of the professed atheism by scientific naturalists is more a reaction to the stunted theism that’s proselytized by orthodox religion. A patriarchal, prejudiced, omnipotent, omniscient, monotheistic God is not a God that naturalists and free thinkers can believe in. But that shouldn’t bias our reverence for the deep consciousness of the universe that underlies all physical reality as well as informing our own inner life.
There are many other philosophers and scientists who subscribe to a more middle ground naturalism, and challenge the reductive physicalism and atheism espoused by Carroll and so many others in the scientific community. This is an ‘open naturalism’ that deems physical law as being only part of reality. That which lies beyond the physical was defined as metaphysics by Aristotle. This is the subjective realm of our inner experience that lends itself to multiple ontological interpretations. Many philosophers consider this to be a shared causal reality. It’s the embodiment of emptiness in Buddhism.
Make no mistake, ‘open naturalism’ also rejects the notion that the physical laws of the natural world can be interrupted by supernatural intervention. In contrast, most orthodox religions along with contemporary new age spirituality are founded upon claims of supernaturalism and mythic literalism. But religious belief need not be conflated with such dogma. There are, for example, various doctrines of religious naturalism that are followed by a small minority of faiths.
An expanded scientific naturalism is reflected in a recent book by theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek, ‘A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design’ proposes a universe that embodies beautiful ideas – symmetry, harmony, balance, and economy. This deeper order of beauty is manifest in the elegant forms we observe from the micro to the macro within the natural world. And Wilczek thinks it’s no accident that it’s also at the heart of what humans find as aesthetically inspiring.
Physicist and natural philosopher Lee Smolin has critiqued Sean Carroll’s musings and his faith in present-day science as providing the answers for the biggest questions of our day. He finds Carroll’s positivism as misplaced. Smolin asserts “Science is not a fixed set of facts — it is a collection of methods for finding errors in our thinking and hence is structurally self-correcting. We understand a lot, but in the future that understanding will be couched in terms of radically different concepts and principles that illuminate questions that only confuse us now.”
A brief list of these unsolved problems include: a quantum theory of gravity, how the initial state of the universe at the big bang was chosen, how the laws of physics governing our universe were chosen, how did life begin out of nonliving matter, and how is it that the physical brains generate mind and experience? The latter is termed by body-mind dualists as ‘the hard problem of consciousness’. Smolin tackles these mysteries as well as alternative views of quantum field theory and dark matter in his compelling new book, Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum.
We have gained access to the hidden laws of the universe. The wonder is that the universe is actually intelligible and that creatures like us have gained insight into nature’s secrets. And yes, it remains very much of a mystery. Our current scientific theories have limitations. A new paradigm is once again called for. It must go hand-in-hand with socioeconomic transformation, and a respect for the natural world and our place in the web of life. If not, we’ll soon loose the beauty and diversity of our biosphere.
Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema
FirstLook Film Forum– Fall Season
This subscription-based Sunday morning series includes seven film premieres with a pre-show brunch, introduction, and discussion. Visit narocinema.com for event dates and info.
After more than fifty years living and working in his six-story, 72-room building in Manhattan, acclaimed photographer Jay Maisel must now sell his building and move out. Presented with Chrysler Museum. Shows Tues, Oct 22.
On a mountaintop in South America, eight teenaged guerrillas with guns watch over a hostage and a conscripted milk cow. Playing games and initiating cult-like rituals, the children run amok in the jungle and all civility breaks down. Shows Wed, Oct 23.
The core arc of the life and teachings of Dr. Richard Alpert, from the psychedelic psychologist who along with Timothy Leary were thrown out of Harvard in the ‘60s – to his pilgrimage to India and his transformation into the truth sage and humorist Ram Dass, the author of ‘Be Here Now’. Shows Tues, Oct 29.
PlantPop Film Awards
The First Annual PlantPop Film Festival organized by PlantPop, the world’s only horticultural film studio. Over the past year, this locally based video production house has produced and released over 50 short videos by a dozen talented filmmakers. Shows Sunday, Nov 3.
Decades after Albert Einstein’s death, particle hunters, dark matterists (and deniers), and gravitational wave astronomers are still pursuing the elementary particles unleashed by his explosive theory of general relativity and gravitation. Shows Wed, Nov 6 with speakers and discussion.
RAISE HELL: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins
“Polarizing people is a good way to win an election and a good way to wreck a country.” Journalist Molly Ivins was six feet of Texas trouble who took on the Good Old Boy corruption wherever she found it. Playdate to be announced.
This cinematic documentary is a visceral wake-up call that humans are no match for the sheer force and raw power of water. Filmed in such diverse locations as Greenland, Venezuela, Siberia’s Lake Baikal, and the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Playdate to be announced.
WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?
Roy Cohn was a ruthless and unscrupulous lawyer and political power broker whose long career ranged from acting as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist-hunting subcommittee to molding the career of a young Queens real estate developer named Donald Trump. Playdate to be announced.