There should be a rule against clichés in photography. I say this because the standard picture of a scientist with a pretentious attitude writing equations on a glass surface in front of a camera is far too common. That was exactly how Dr. Peter Ware Higgs appeared in a recent New York Times article wrapping up the story of an elementary particle named after the 83-year-old theoretical physicist.
The observation might be a little harsh. After all, last year two independent teams of researchers, looking at experiments performed at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe made a major discovery — they found something that looks very much like the particle Higgs had hypothesized the existence of in 1964. Scientists have stated that the confirmation of the particle’s existence would provide a groundbreaking explanation for why certain elementary particles have mass, and others do not.
Still, my thoughts about the picture reflect what I think about the entire story: the media, and the world in general, are longing for a meaningful development in physics because the last real breakthrough was the discovery of quantum mechanics almost a hundred years ago. We are anxious to deepen our understanding of the ultimate nature of reality. But during the last century, essentially all we have done is solve minor details, develop applications and craft unverifiable mathematical speculations.
We are, in fact, in need of a new Einstein, Heisenberg or Schrödinger — someone who can look at the world from a radically different perspective and set the pace for a new revolution in physics. Nevertheless, from a historical perspective, it’s reasonable to expect that no amount of genius will solve reality’s puzzle.
Indeed, looking at all developments since Newton and Galileo, a clear trend develops — the scale of the visible world has consistently become both larger and smaller. On the subatomic level, tinier and tinier particles have been discovered, and it’s argued that the size would shrink further should we have more powerful particle colliders available. On the astronomic level, the universe became larger and larger. Our galaxy was once all we could see, but now the visible universe is estimated to have hundreds of billions of them. One wonders how long it will take to verify that there are actually hundreds of billions of universes as well.
It seems reality is shaped like a fractal, flirting with infinity — if you are able to look for it, you’ll find entities of scales as big or small as you can possibly imagine.
Thus, Higgs’ discoveries do bring us closer to the ultimate answer about reality, but just as much as 100,000,000,000 is closer to infinity than 42.
A version of this article was published in the Monday, March 11 print edition. Marcelo Cicconet is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]