05 July 2012

A Perhaps Religious Moment in an Otherwise Cynical Time

Scientists at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider announced they have discovered the traces of a new particle consistent with the elusive Higgs boson. Some have described it as the "molasses" that holds the universe together at a level so infinitesimally small we can scarcely conceive it.

This is a BIG. F'ING. DEAL.

What is the Higgs boson? In 1993, a British minister of science offered a prize for the best lay explanation which was won by David Miller of University College London. In essence, a Higgs field accounts for why things have mass.

I believe we have no real understanding how big (and I use the term advisedly) this discovery—if, in fact, it is replicated and confirmed—is and what it means for let's call it the "human project". For example, the discovery of the electron ca. 1897 by J.J. Thomson paved the way for all the electronic conveniences we enjoy today, including that computer or smart phone you're using now. I'm not sure any fin de siècle 'bloggers' or their equivalents could have predicted we, 115 years later, would be walking around with a device that could, at the same time, connect us with just about anyone on the planet, videochat with anyone anywhere, take sharp and accurate color pictures instantly, carry around enough music to listen to continuously for up to a week non-stop, access more information than was contained in all the libraries of the world at the time, upload information to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit around the earth, etc., etc. All in a device that fits in a man's trouser pocket.

It's very exciting to be living in this day and age. But, it's worth remembering that we are only just dipping our toes in the water in terms of understanding the world we miraculously inhabit and somehow have come to perceive.

In the span of a few short years, we've seen images of a deep field of space which capture light from the state of the universe over 13 billion light years ago, near the time of the creation of all time and space as we know them.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field
And now our instruments have detected evidence of the basic stuff of matter.

An agnostic person, but one who holds out the possibility of some entity so much greater than we can possibly conceive, might say we humans could be on the verge of experiencing the first real inkling of the immensity of something truly worthy of being called deity, one that doesn't rely on mystification and primitive myth and hierarchy to make us experience abject awe at the magnificence of the world we find ourselves in. Frankly, for me, it raises what I consider to be the true religious question, first raised in the song of the Biblical Psalmist: What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? and his children, that Thou payest them any heed?

That is to say, what is our place, the place of humanity—nay, of life itself—in this unfathomable vastness?

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ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

We'll probably extinct ourselves before getting too much farther.

Thanks to greed and shortsightedness.

Randal Graves said...

Quantum foam isn't as fun as quantum bubble wrap.

Really sitting down to contemplate this shit usually convinces me to have a shot or three.

Prunella Vulgaris said...

That little Saturn on the video was the size it looked like through the telescope when me and some homies watched the transit of Venus. That night was one of the best of my life because of the palpable sense of awe I felt seeing something a hundred times the size of us further away than I can even comprehend. It's so beautiful and spooky at the same time.

Jim H. said...

@if: Glass half empty there, dude? Then again, you rightly point out the fragility of life itself, desperately clinging to this remote spinning rock somewhere OUT THERE.

@RG: I'd love to join you, but you might have to turn the music up!

@Ms Pru: Awe is the word. Yes. It's important to properly awed at our littleness and not at the PTB.