Sep 13, 2008

Columnists - Sitaram Yechury

In what must be considered as the world’s most ambitious and expensive experiment, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the underground CERN facility near Geneva fired its first protons into a 27-mile-long tunnel. The LHC is designed to fire sub-atomic particles in opposite directions to collide at a speed of 99.9 per cent of the speed of light. It is hoped that this would recreate the circumstances close to the Big Bang that created the universe in the first place. This, in turn, should help us to understand many things that remain unknown. “We think we understand the universe, but we only understand 4 per cent of everything,” said James Watson Cronin, the 1980 Nobel Laureate for Physics. It is this 96 per cent of matter, pervasive but unidentified, that holds the universe together and accelerates its expansion.
Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, who hails the LHC as the greatest experiment in human history, believes that there are many universes, possibly an infinite number, each with different attributes, in different combinations, and that we simply live in one that combines things in a way that allows us to exist. Will the LHC take humanity forward in comprehending that special combination that creates creatures like us who seek answers to how and why they evolve and exist?
The popular science writer, Paul Davies, asks: “Are the seemingly endless varieties of natural forms and structures which appear as the universe unfolds, simply the accidental products of random forces? Or are they somehow the inevitable outcome of the creative activity of nature? Is there a ‘cosmic blueprint’?”
Such deep questions of existence have been the battleground for philosophy and theology down the ages. Every scientific advance has been interpreted accordingly in this battle. Popular novelist Dan Brown, in Angels and Demons, drawing on the earlier achievement of CERN in producing anti-matter, suggests a convergence of science with the Biblical theory of creation fascinatingly captured by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Anti-matter is a very powerful source that releases energy with 100 per cent efficiency as compared to 1.5 per cent in nuclear fission. Yet, it is highly unstable, igniting when it comes in contact with matter. Did God create life through matter and anti-matter collision? If so, was God necessary?
Scientists today believe that soon after one ten millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, gravity emerged. In a ridiculously small interval of time, electro-magnetism and nuclear forces emerged, accompanied by an army of photons, protons, electrons, neutrons and much else. From virtual nothingness the infinitely large cosmos emerged that continues to expand.
Will the LHC throw new light on understanding these phenomena? We now know that the essence of all substances — living and non-living — and their attributes are determined by the atoms of which they are made and how these atoms are linked together. Science now tells us that these atoms were all synthesised from pristine hydrogen by processes deep inside stars that died before our solar system came into being. As Martin Rees says, “We are literally the ashes of ancient stars — the ‘nuclear waste’ from the fuel that made them shine.”
Newton’s discovery of gravity showed that the same forces acted on the stars as they act on our bodies. This led to the control of the trajectory of spacecraft and satellites. Faraday’s discovery of electric and magnetic forces led to electricity generation and radio waves. The discovery of the anatomy of the atom and its electrons led to nuclear energy, laser technology etc. However, as Rees says, we have very little knowledge of the force that actually holds the nuclei of atoms together, the force without which there would be no carbon, no oxygen and, hence, no life. Will the LHC throw some light on what this force may be?
Sub-atomic particles may have emerged from the Big Bang. But then, how did they acquire any mass? This is the elusive Higgs boson through which the sub-atomic particles pass through, acquiring mass and, thus, constituting the matter that makes up the universe. Stephen Hawking calls this ‘the God particle’. Will the LHC find this?
Such are the questions that a global team of physicists are hoping to provide answers to. What happened in astronomy with the Hubble telescope and in biology with the human genome project, is now happening in physics with the LHC. Whatever be the levels of excitement, it would be naïve to expect immediate results as it will take well over a year for the collider to reach the expected speeds and energy emissions to replicate, on a minuscule scale, the conditions of the Big Bang.
It is, indeed, gratifying that over a hundred Indian scientists are involved in the LHC project. India gifted a bronze statue of the Nataraja to celebrate India’s connection with CERN. The plaque on the statue quotes Fritjof Capra of The Tao of Physics fame: “... for modern physicists Shiva’s dance is a dance of sub-atomic matter”. Another symbolism of significance should not be missed. Shiva, in the tandav trance, is always shown in the Nataraja as encircled. Is this the dialectical unity between the zero and infinity — unity of the opposites?
This quest to understand the universe and, therefore, ourselves, must proceed on the basis of a rational scientific temper. This man-nature dialectic must unfold by, say, restoring to Einstein his awe of creation — to create one unit of matter, energy equivalent to the square of the speed of light is required (m=E/c2), rather than emphasise on destruction, where tremendous amounts of energy are released with the destruction of matter (E=mc2).
(Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP)

No comments: