I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (the illustrated version – though not exactly a comic book). It’s a fascinating tale of the history of science, well-written and interesting.
But this morning I found a disconcerting paragraph in Chapter 11, Muster Mark’s Quarks, a chapter in which we’re treated to the history of subatomic particles and the struggles physicists and cosmologists have suffered to understand the very tiny and the very large universes in which we dwell (and which apparently dwell in us). At the end of the chapter, Bryson writes:
The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can’t quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances from us and each other we don’t altogether know, filled with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.
Uncertainty rules! Apparently what we have taken for fact out here in the normal world might be a little loosey-goosey. Bryson notes that when an astronomer says that galaxy M87 is sixty million light years from New York, he really means it’s between forty million and ninety million light years from Boston.
And on the subatomic level, there are so many particles and so many interactions and so many unknowns that uncertainty not only rules, it rocks. Take the Higgs Boson, for example. If you can find it. The scientists and engineers at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland have got about ten billion dollars tied up in looking for the Higgs, which may or may not exist, depending on who you talk to. It’s supposed to be the particle that gives mass to other particles. Which leads to the mind-bending question of why a particle needs another particle to give it mass? At least that’s what bent my mind a bit this morning. A person more humorous than myself might ask if a person could go on a Higgs Boson cleansing diet to lose weight. But I am a little strange, so let that go by the boards.
On the positive side, it’s good to know that those guys know that they don’t know but they keep digging and peering and poking and prodding and theorizing. It’s a fun job and somebody has to do it. Hell, I’d be happy to sweep floors at CERN.