I can’t let this person’s passing…, um, pass without comment.
Nobel Prize winning physicist Leon Lederman died Wednesday at the age of 96.
It was his book, The God Particle, that got me fascinated with the questions Why Are We Here? and What Really Is This Thing We Call Reality?
Lederman studied some of the smallest possible things we humans know to exist: quarks, leptons, and neutrinos. He was, in fact, the person who brought to the general public’s attention the Higgs Boson. The Higgs, back in the early 1990s, was thought to be the one as-yet undiscovered bit of matter that would explain everything. It was finally observed in tests at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in 2013. The Higgs Boson is the unimaginably tiny pellet created by a certain stimulation of the Higgs Field (the molasses-like stuff that fills every inch of the known universe). The Boson then attaches itself to other elementary particles, giving them mass. In other words, the Higgs is the reason there is tangible stuff.
A physicist named Peter Higgs, among others, proposed in 1964 the existence of the particle that would come to bear his name. In the ensuing years, lots of people took to thinking once the existence of his eponymous little grain was verified, well, we’d know all there is the know about existence. It would be the missing link in what has become known as the Theory of Everything (TOE).
Now, this is tough stuff to wrap your brain around. I’ve read dozens of books geared to the general public about particle physics and I still don’t get it all. Or even a very significant part of it all. Hell, I understand it the way I understand Japanese: I know hai means yes, and that pretty much covers it. When we’re getting down to this minute level of existence, nobody really knows anything; as Richard Feynman famously said regarding his chosen field of expertise: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”
The smart human being, ergo, knows what s/he doesn’t know.
Not being a physicist, a mathematician, a cosmologist, or even an engineer, I’m smart enough to know I don’t know a goddamned thing. When I happened upon Lederman’s book back in the mid-90’s I was hooked. I realized at that moment I would never, ever fully understand what in the hell he was talking about. I could read about the Higgs Boson and the rest of the particles that make up reality until the day I would die and still not come within a light year of grasping any of it. That was perfectly fine by me. Curiosity ends when the mystery is unravelled. If curiosity is a primary reason to go on living — and I believe it is — then to be guaranteed I’ll never know the answer means I’ll never have to stop being curious.
Since I don’t believe in god, it remains imperative for me to acknowledge something greater than myself. Hell, if you can’t surrender to the fact that you are not the biggest and/or only thing in this life, well, you’ll end up a heartless, soulless bastard like…, oh, I needn’t hit you over the head with that hammer again.
In any case, The God Particle — maybe because the mythical creator of the universe is mentioned in the title — struck a nerve in me and millions of others.
Here’s a part of the beauty to be found in Lederman’s book: he writes of “the invisible soccer ball.” Imagine, Lederman asks us, a group of extraterrestrials coming to Earth and being shown around. They go to a soccer game. Thousands of people in the stands watch two teams of eleven players each running around on the field below. Only the visitors somehow are unable to see the soccer ball. They see everything else: the green of the grass, the colorful jerseys of the players, the cheering fans, the nets, the referees, the scoreboard, and so on. They see the players seemingly chasing something all around the pitch. Every once in a while, the crowd goes wild and the players on one side embrace each other in near-ecstasy. One of the more observant of the ETs notices that immediately preceding these outbursts of sheer delirium, the netting behind one of the goals is momentarily distorted. This ET tells her friends, “There must be something we can’t see that is being chased around and occasionally directed into the goal.”
That, Lederman explained, is how a certain few physicists concluded there must be a boson that would bear Higgs’ name, even though they’d never seen it and so could not say for sure whether it existed or not. What would become known as the Higgs Boson had distorted the physicists’ nets enough times to convince them it really was something, even though it was, at the time, invisible to them.
We mere human beings will never attain a Theory of Everything. The only conclusion I can come to, after reading all my books and pondering the findings of Leon Lederman and Peter Higgs and Richard Feynman and all the rest, is to truly understand the mechanics of the universe, one would have to be the universe. If that’s what people who believe in god mean by god, then I suppose I believe in god. Although, there’s hardly any evidence that the majority of people who believe in god are thinking — or have ever thought — in precisely those terms.
I haven’t seen their invisible soccer ball distort the net yet.
BTW: the subtitle of Lederman’s book was If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?
That’s something I and the rest of us will ask, unrequitedly, for the rest of our lives. We’ll never get the satisfaction of knowing — and that’s okay by me.
A Big List Of Big Talk Links
I’d been letting my Big Talk page go un-updated for quite a while now so here are the latest episode links, for your consideration:
▶︎ Sarah Perfetti — co-founder, Be Golden Women’s Empowerment Conference: October 4, 2018
▶︎ Marc Haggerty — community activist: September 27, 2018
▶︎ Chad Rabinovitz & Simon Coronel — Bloomington Playwrights Project artistic director & internationally-renowned illusionist: September 20, 2018:
▶︎ Christian Medina — community volunteer: September 13, 2018
▶︎ Amanda Barge & Shelli Yoder — co-founders, South Central Indiana Opioid Summit: September 6, 2018
▶︎ Vince (Carlos) Gaitani — head of Monroe County Sheriff’s Reserve: August 30, 2018
▶︎ Cindy Beaulé — WFHB fundraiser: August 23, 2018
▶︎ Hoagy Bix Carmichael — son of composer/songwriter/actor Hoagy Carmichael: August 16, 2018
▶︎ Feliz Çiçek — feminist artist: August 2, 2018
▶︎ Troy Maynard — humorist, author: July 26, 2018
▶︎ Chris Mattingly & Dave Torneo — poet & publisher: July 19, 2018
▶︎ Darran Mosley — DJ, karaoke host: July 12, 2018
▶︎ Paula Chambers — Flow Arts entertainer: July 5, 2018
▶︎ Amanda Biggs — actor: June 28, 2018
▶︎ Sam Stephenson — author, historian: June 21, 2018
Tune in every Thursday, 5:30pm, for Big Talk on WFHB, 91.3 FM. And don’t sweat if you miss an episode: you can listen to the podcast any time.