modern times

Beer, Philosophy and Particle Physics

Manu Joseph became a journalist because he did not have to crack any objective-type entrance exam to be one. He is the author of two novels -- The Illicit Happiness of Other People, and Serious Men, his first, which won The Hindu Literary Prize and was one of Huffington Post 10 Best Books of 2010.
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As two scientists claim that the future has infiltrated the present to sabotage our search for the God Particle, theoretical physics reaches its peak as a form of entertainment.

As two scientists claim that the future has infiltrated the present to sabotage our search for the God Particle, theoretical physics has peaked as a form of entertainment.

Sometimes, there is much joy in not knowing what we are talking about. I know my friends are wallowing in the entertainment of beer-induced philosophy when they use any of the following expressions—hunter-gatherer, game theory, Schrödinger’s Cat and String Theory. The last two concern theoretical physics, which has almost replaced literature as the source of intoxicated male introspection (‘What is life? Pass me the peanuts’). In fact, today, theoretical physicists have a greater claim to be regarded as philosophers than writers. It is as if we have outsourced our pursuit of truth to them. And they are doing a great job, which is to entertain us with the God Particle, multi-dimensions, dark matter, dark energy and other such things. (It is not their intention to entertain us, they are serious people who spend their entire careers trying to prove what they believe is true, though they are very fondly aware of how exotic they sound). Entertainment is important to us, the lay people. Our pursuit of truth, contrary to all our claims, is actually a pursuit of entertainment, the reason why we have been able to sustain it for centuries in different guises.

At the heart of theoretical physics today is the most expensive experiment man has ever undertaken—The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva. It is a tunnel within a circular tunnel, about 27 km in circumference. Here, subatomic particles will be accelerated to almost the speed of light and collided to see what happens. The idea is to find the splinters of subatomic particles, and among the splinters scientists hope to observe the most sought-after particle—Higgs Boson, a theoretical prediction that will help us understand the origin of mass in the universe.

It was called the God Particle in a book by Nobel laureate Leon Lederman. Journalists loved the term so much that Higgs Boson quickly entered public space as the God Particle. Though it made the Vatican nervous and inspired many books and films and theories of doom, the God Particle is a disproportionately dramatic term for just another important guess of theoretical physicists.

Scientists hope to observe small black holes in the tunnel, a prospect that has infused the fear in some people that black holes will gobble up the whole planet. Scientists also hope to observe extra dimensions.

Some strange things have happened to the LHC. It is believed to be jinxed. In September last year, after it finally began operations, it shut down due to serious technical glitches. Also, a technician died when a heavy piece of equipment fell on him. An employee was arrested for terror links. All this has given rise to rumours that something paranormal is at work. Two highly regarded scientists with no history of ever having sought psychiatric help have now said that the reason why the LHC is so jinxed is that ‘nature’ does not want mankind to discover the Higgs Boson. They say that the future has infiltrated into the present to stop us from discovering the Higgs Boson.

They are not the first scientists to propose that the flow of time can be reversed. There are equally crazy things that reputed scientists have said—because they can get away with most of it. They can substantiate their claims in a language that seems reverential to us because we do not understand it. That is also one of the reasons why philosophy is today firmly in the hands of scientists. They have with them a potent mix that philosophers need—the aura of intellect, the ability to entertain, frighten you with the complexity of their arguments, but give you a peep into a minor exotic strand that will help you gas about it with friends. The success of the film The Matrix is not very different from the reason why theoretical physics is so popular among those who do not understand it.

Not everyone believes that the LHC will discover anything that will change our idea of reality. Stephen Hawking has a bet of $100 that the LHC will not throw up the Higgs Boson. May I humbly present my bet—Rs 1 crore that the LHC will not throw up black holes or extra dimensions. This is not the confidence born out of not having a crore. (I promise I will find the money. You find the dimensions.) It’s just that if there are extra dimensions, money would have no value. I will walk the rest of my life in the trance of knowing that there is really something out there.