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The two most dangerous numbers in the universe are threatening the end of physics

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Missing link: Higgs boson

The two most dangerous numbers in the universe are threatening the end of physics

'For the first time in the history of science, we could be facing questions that we cannot answer'

By Jessica Orwig
16 January 2016

A deeply disturbing and controversial line of thinking has emerged within the physics community. It's the idea that we are reaching the absolute limit of what we can understand about the world around us through science.

“The next few years may tell us whether we'll be able to continue to increase our understanding of nature or whether maybe, for the first time in the history of science, we could be facing questions that we cannot answer,” Harry Cliff, a particle physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research — better known as CERN — said during a recent TED talk in Geneva, Switzerland.

Equally frightening is the reason for this approaching limit, which Cliff says is because “the laws of physics forbid it.”

At the core of Cliff's argument are what he calls the two most dangerous numbers in the universe. These numbers are responsible for all the matter, structure, and life that we witness across the cosmos.

And if these two numbers were even slightly different, says Cliff, the universe would be an empty, lifeless place.

Dangerous No. 1: The strength of the Higgs field

The first dangerous number on Cliff's list is a value that represents the strength of what physicists call the Higgs field, an invisible energy field not entirely unlike other magnetic fields that permeates the cosmos.

As particles swim through the Higgs field, they gain mass to eventually become the protons, neutrons, and electrons comprising all of the atoms that make up you, me, and everything we see around us.

Without it, we wouldn't be here.

We know with near certainty that the Higgs field exists because of a groundbreaking discovery in 2012, when CERN physicists detected a new elementary particle called the Higgs boson. According to theory, you can't have a Higgs boson without a Higgs field.

But there's something mysterious about the Higgs field that continues to perturb physicists like Cliff.

According to Einstein's theory of general relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics — the two theories in physics that drive our understanding of the cosmos on incredibly large and extremely small scales — the Higgs field should be performing one of two tasks, says Cliff.

Either it should be turned off, meaning it would have a strength value of zero and wouldn't be working to give particles mass, or it should be turned on, and, as the theory goes, this “on value” is “absolutely enormous,” Cliff says. But neither of those two scenarios are what physicists observe.

“In reality, the Higgs field is just slightly on,” says Cliff. “It's not zero, but it's ten-thousand-trillion times weaker than it's fully on value — a bit like a light switch that got stuck just before the 'off' position. And this value is crucial. If it were a tiny bit different, then there would be no physical structure in the universe.”

Why the strength of the Higgs field is so ridiculously weak defies understanding. Physicists hope to find an answer to this question by detecting brand-new particles at the newly upgraded particle accelerator at CERN. So far, though, they're still hunting.

Dangerous No. 2: The strength of dark energy

Cliff's second dangerous number doubles as what physicists have called “the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics.”

This perilous number deals in the depths of deep space and a mind-meltingly complex phenomenon called dark energy.

Dark energy, a repulsive force that's responsible for the accelerating expansion of our universe, was first measured in 1998.

Still, “we don't know what dark energy is,” Cliff admits. “But the best idea is that it's the energy of empty space itself — the energy of the vacuum.”

If this is true, you should be able to sum up all the energy of empty space to get a value representing the strength of dark energy. And although theoretical physicists have done so, there's one gigantic problem with their answer:

“Dark energy should be 10120 times stronger than the value we observe from astronomy,” Cliff said. “This is a number so mind-boggling huge that it's impossible to get your head around ... this number is bigger than any number in astronomy — it's a thousand-trillion-trillion-trillion times bigger than the number of atoms in the universe. That's a pretty bad prediction.”

On the bright side, we're lucky that dark energy is smaller than theorists predict. If it followed our theoretical models, then the repulsive force of dark energy would be so huge that it would literally rip our universe apart. The fundamental forces that bind atoms together would be powerless against it and nothing could ever form — galaxies, stars, planets, and life as we know it would not exist.

On the other hand, it's extremely frustrating that we can't use our current theories of the universe to develop a better measurement of dark energy that agrees with existing observations. Even better than improving our theories would be to find a way that we can understand why the strength of dark energy and the Higgs field is what it is.

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  1. These kinds of scientists are really no different than those religious types for whom faith is everything.

    They try to fit what they see into what they have decided are the laws, and come up short scratching their heads.

    First, the Higgs field. It's analogous to the constants such as pi and others that have values that look silly. Highly irrational numbers with no inherent patterns, no elegance or beauty. Humans still use base 10 for their maths. What would happen if we converted to base 12? Would the contants and other numbers and relations between them look different? Yes. Base 10 has the ugly 5. But DNA operates on base 12: 2 strands, 3 base pairs per codon, 4 letters of its alphabet.. all divisors of 12.

    My point is that I think they are using a calibration that produces ugly numbers and that they need to find the correct calibration of mathematics to see the elegance they are currently missing. Just as when you turn the kaleidoscope a little bit and a completely different and more beautiful pattern emerges.

    Now with dark energy. I don't believe in it. The above article incorrently reports that they first 'measured' it. Crap. They dont even know what it is let alone have any instruments to measure 'it'. It has been conjured up to explain the observed expansion of soacetime. They see matter flying apart against gravity and say 'hmm there must be a force doing this, and because we cant see it lets call it dark.' (Ditto with dark matter).

    So they have firstly invented a force that may or may not exist and then get confused when their calculations about its strength dont make sense? Enter the faith element :)

    They have more work to do, and I applaud them for trying. But they havent seen their own trap and logical error: they have thought up a theoretical reality construct and have assumed it to be real, and scratch their heads when the numbers don't add up

    I think that they need a few more advances before they see some elegance. Firstly admit that there may be some intelligence in the design, that this highly unlikely universal setup was intended. Make the link between the conscious interaction we have seen in quantum experiments and the macro picture, that consciousness does play a role.

    Secondly lose the base 10 bias and play with base 12 for a while.

    Once these two recalibrations are in place re visit the link between geometry (general relativity) and energy (quantum), expecting there to be maybe a couple more fundamental forces to be discovered.

  2. John, I see parallels here between our education system and media system, and raise this because of your stated interest in education. When do people always agree? In systems of control.

    The media the world over expounds one worldview, more or less. It is only the 'alternative' media and independent journalism that challenges this. And what do we see as the effect? 90% of people have adopted the corporate media's worldview.

    In the article above, we see the same effect in science; the system of universities and publications and peer-review is forcing the same consensus on all academics. It hasn't escaped my notice that academic research publication is controlled by a few major publishers. Anyone could be forgiven for realising the similarities with the 'news' industry.

    The scientific article above is written within the bounds of the predominant scientific worldview - it may be correct, but we don;t know. It uses the existance of the higgs field and dark energy as a priori assumptions without challenge, even as they come up against things that don;t make sense as a result.

    Scientists have stopped questioning the validity of their system and logic, and therein lies the danger of stagnation and control. The schizophrenia within the scientific establishment world is that on the one hand nothing new is accepted until proven again and again, yet on the other hand no one can deviate from the mainstream without threatening their credibility. The irony is that dark energy is yet to be proven, yet it is taken as a given pretty much.

    So, along with the reform of the education system, there needs reform of the academic publishing system, to allow fresh insights to be tested without ridicule and whispered mockery. The race to be published, to gain a good job, needs to be replaced by a recognition of genuine insight. Academics need to be hired as a result of their ability to be intellectually agile, not because they have published x papers on one thing. I call it corporate academia.

    Universities need to once again become the playgrounds of intellectual radicals as much as any other kind, and the publishing industry needs to be prised wide open to accommodate them.


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