A loss of elegance in the nature of matter

Physics is losing the elegance it once had.

I suppose I am just old-fashioned but I learnt that simpler was better and more elegant – whether in mathematics or science or engineering or literature or poetry.  Shorter reports rather than longer ones, simpler language if more precise, lighter machines rather than heavier ones, elegant physical structures rather than complex ones. No waste, no extraneous fuss. Necessary and sufficient was the ideal.

In the ancient world, all things were made up of fire, water, air and earth. It was a simple. elegant and powerful model to explain the world of matter.


Matter a la Aristotle

Matter a la Aristotle (image honolulu.hawaii.edu)

Then in the modern world, 2,500 years later, when over 100 different elements had been discovered, and where each element was built up of unique, fundamental atoms, an even simpler, more elegant and powerful model was discovered/developed. All atoms of all elements were found to be built up from just 3 elementary particles; the proton, the neutron and the electron.

Rutherford-Bohr atom

Rutherford-Bohr atom

It has been downhill from that peak of elegance ever since.

Physics has become a Big Science where billion dollar sledgehammers are used to crack little nuts. Pieces of nut and shell go flying everywhere and each little fragment is considered a new elementary particle. The Rutherford-Bohr model still applies, but its elementary particles are no longer considered elementary. Particles with mass and charge are given constituent particles, one having mass and no charge, and one having charge and no mass. Unexplainable forces between particles are assigned special particles to carry the force. Particles which don’t exist, but may have existed, are defined and “discovered”. Errors in theoretical models are explained away by assigning appropriate properties to old particles or defining new particles. Every new particle leaves a new slime trail across the painting. It is as if a bunch of savages are doodling upon a masterpiece. The scribbling is ugly and hides the masterpiece underneath, but it does not mean that the masterpiece is not there.

Atom in the standard model 1 - CPEPweb

Atom in the standard model 1 – (image CPEPweb.org)

Atom in the standard model 2 - CPEPweb

Atom in the standard model 2 – (image CPEPweb.org)

The “standard model” does not quite fit observations so new theories of dark energy and dark matter are postulated (actually just invented as fudge factors) and further unknown particles are defined. The number of elementary particle have proliferated and are still increasing. The “standard model” of physics now includes at least 61 elementary particles (48 fermions and 13 bosons). Even the ancient civilisations knew better than to try and build with too many “standard” bricks. Where did simplicity go? Just the quarks can be red, blue or green. They can be up, down, charm, strange, top or bottom quarks. For every type of quark there is an antiquark. Electrons, muons and taus have each their corresponding neutrinos. And they all have their anti-particles. Gluons come in eight colour combinations. There are four electroweak bosons and there ought to be only one higgs boson. But who knows? CERN could find some more. I note that fat and thin or warm and cool types of particles have yet to be defined. Matter and antimatter particles on meeting each other, produce a burst of energy as they are annihilated. If forces are communicated by particles, gravity by gravitons and light by photons then perhaps all energy transmission can give rise to a whole new family of elementary particles.

The 61 particles still do not include the graviton or sparticles or any other unknown, invisible, magic particles that may go to making up dark matter and dark energy. Some of the dark matter may be stealthy dark matter and some may be phantom dark matter. One might think that when dark matter goes phantom, it ought to become visible, but that would be far too simple.  The level of complexity and apparent chaos is increasing. Every new particle discovered requires more money and Bigger Science to find the next postulated elementary particle.

When CERN claimed to have found the God Particle – the higgs boson – they still added the caveat that it was just one kind of the higgs boson and there could be more as yet unknown ones to come. So the ultimate elementary particle was certainly not the end of the road. Good grief! The end of the road can never be found. That might end the funding. And after all, even if the God Particle has been found, who created God? Guess how much all that is going to cost?

Forbes: The Large Hadron Collider took about a decade to construct, for a total cost of about $4.75 billion. There are several different experiments going on at the LHC, including the CMS and ATLAS Detectors which discovered the Higgs boson. CERN contributes about 20% of the cost of those experiments, which is a total of about $5.5 billion a year. The remainder of the funding for those experiments is provided by international collaborations. Computing power is also a significant part of the cost of running CERN – about $286 million annually. Electricity costs alone for the LHC run about $23.5 million per year. The total operating budget of the LHC runs to about $1 billion per year.

The Large Hadron Collider was first turned on in August of 2008, then stopped for repairs in September until November 2009. Taking all of those costs into consideration, the total cost of finding the Higgs boson ran to about $13.25 billion.

I am not a physicist, so maybe all this cost for the sledgehammer approach is worthwhile. I don’t comprehend the “standard model” but I can’t help feeling that many of the current “discoveries” in physics are primarily concerned with getting further funding. So when the CERN public relations machine goes into overdrive and issues breathtaking prose about awesome new finds, I tend to reach for the salt. A “standard model” it may be, but simple it is not and elegance is a long, long way away.

“Simple” and “elegant” are value judgements. I look forward to the time when physics and physicists simplify their house(s) of magic and fantasy and return to those values. And preferably with some elegance and without the sledgehammers of Large Hadron Colliders and supercomputers.

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,

And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum

But for the structure of matter, 61+ elementary particles is not just inelegant. It is becoming downright ugly.



Tags: , ,

%d bloggers like this: