Listening Post: Familiar feeling

I’m always interested in news from the world of physics for the same reason I read writers about Zen–it’s not that I get it–it’s that I almost, but don’t quite get it in so many different ways. I back up and take another run at understanding, fail, back up and try again. It’s great exercise. When physics get stale, I can always take a stab at the unity of the Trinity. It’s a bogglement. So when Mark Memmot, in The Two-Way blog today, posts that “Scientists Think They’ve Pinned Down The Higgs Boson,” he’s singing my song.

In some way that eludes me at the moment, this graphical representation of the Higgs boson is intended to add to your understanding.

For your review, the Higgs boson is a subatomic particle long-predicted in the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, that would account for why things have mass. Experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland provided sufficient evidence for the existence of the Higgs particle that the discovery could be announced back in July. Additional data accumulated since then only confirms that observations fit the theory. That makes this a great time to trot out one of the “Nine Types of Stories That Drive Engagement,” as our most recent webinar put it–a “News Explainer.”

Except that I can’t explain it. In the 13.7 blog last year, Adam Frank cited Fermilab’s Don Lincoln, who said the energy field made by the Higgs is like water:

“Depending on your mass you’ll move through the water with ease — like a barracuda — or slowly, like a big, fat man.”

His 13.7 colleague Eyder Peralta says,

“The real important thing for me is that fundamental particles are, as far as we can tell, zero-dimensional particles. They have no radius. You can’t think of fundamental particles as being glass marbles. They literally have no extension in space. They can never bump into anything else.”

Huh? If everything is made of these particles, and none of them have any extension in space, what the heck takes up all this space? And what collides in the collider? Is it like it says in the Heart Sutra?

“form is no other than emptiness; emptiness no other than form”

If so, Avalokiteshvara could have saved them a couple billion euros. Much more likely is that I just don’t get it at all. It’s an old familiar feeling.

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12 Responses to “Listening Post: Familiar feeling”

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  1. Helene says:

    What on earth are you talking about?

  2. Dale says:

    I wish I knew. Dale, NCPR

  3. Bob Falesch says:

    With assistance from TS Eliot:


    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.

    For me, that nails it because I believe the great scientists feel exactly this way as well, and by extension, all of us do I suppose. To be complete (we’re close to the end), I’ll include the remaining, closing lines of Eliot’s masterpiece “The Four Quartets”):


    Through the unknown, unremembered gate
    When the last of earth left to discover
    Is that which was the beginning;
    At the source of the longest river
    The voice of the hidden waterfall
    And the children in the apple-tree
    Not known, because not looked for
    But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
    Between two waves of the sea.
    Quick now, here, now, always—
    A condition of complete simplicity
    (Costing not less than everything)
    And all shall be well and
    All manner of thing shall be well
    When the tongues of flame are in-folded
    Into the crowned knot of fire
    And the fire and the rose are one.

  4. Billyb3 says:

    Dale, Nothing takes up all that space! Everything we are aware of (although I’m not sure about black holes) is mostly empty space. Consider the heaviest densest thing you can think of, and it is mostly empty space. That is a reason neutrinos are able to fly, willy-nilly, around the universe, and almost never run into anything. There is almost nothing for them to run into! For a better explanation than this lay-person’s factoids, call one of the physics profs. at the college.

    As Mark Twain said, “It’s no wonder truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

  5. WoodCook says:

    Swimming in the unknowable. Going with the flow.
    Who says we get to understand all of this?

  6. Bob Falesch says:

    Here’s a comment from that NPR page. I don’t know whether it’ll scroll off soon, so I’ll post it here for safe keeping:

    Higgs Boson walks into the Vatican. A guard says you can’t come in here! to which the Boson replies “Why not? without me, you can’t have mass”

  7. Laura Rediehs says:

    Seventeenth-century philosopher Leibniz realized that there is a paradox in the very notion of “taking up space” — we can always subdivide space further. A smallest particle that has size can always be thought of as divisible into even smaller portions. So, Leibniz postulated that the fundamental “particles” are points of consciousness (which he called “monads”). Instead of the world being composed of spatially extended material particles which are infinitely divisible, he claimed that the world is composed of points of consciousness, which are not infinitely divisible, and therefore are more suitable candidates for “fundamental” entities. Eighteenth-century philosopher Berkeley agreed that there is an essential mistake in thinking that “matter” is the ultimate “stuff” that makes up the world. While he did not support Leibniz’s “monadology,” specifically, he agreed that it is better to think of the world as constituted by consciousness.

    While most of my students think these are the most ridiculous philosophers we study, that just shows how deeply indoctrinated we are today into what back then was the new and controversial “materialist philosophy.” Personally, I think Leibniz and Berkeley were on to something. Trying to explain everything in terms of fundamental material particles is not even conceptually possible, as Dale illustrates. Paradoxes inevitably emerge. Maybe we made a wrong turn in following the materialist philosophy. There’s still value in studying what we call the “material world,” but regarding matter as the ultimate “substance” that explains everything else might be misguided. In our actual lived experience, it is consciousness that is primary. What if consciousness is not reducible to matter? What if consciousness is what really constitutes the universe?

  8. Bob Falesch says:

    I found an English translation of the Leibniz Monadology here:

    home.datacomm.ch/kerguelen/monadology/.

  9. Pete Klein says:

    There is no empty space. Time fills what we think of as empty space. Time can not bump into itself.
    Sooner or later we will get past the Big Bang and come to realize this was not the first nor will it be the last universe. It just takes time to get there.

  10. Kent Gregson says:

    Cool Dale,
    I like the idea of mixing physics and metaphysics. My song about it says in the chorus “How much did Einstein change the way we see the universe and how much did he change the universe we see…” And speaking of Albert, Don’t wory Dale, he said that we are all stupid at something or other.

  11. Anne Burnham says:

    One of the recent Sunday New York Times had an article on the Higgs boson.

    Anne B

  12. Lynn Klein says:

    i am with you, dale, when it comes to physics and Zen! it took me months to get through The Dancing Wu Li Masters..THE physics book for dummies. I think it is good for the brain to boggle it now and then. however, that said, I also think Zen and physics are understood with the gut and heart.