Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Nuclear Culture 4: Worlds within Worlds

Plutonium Abraxsis by Judson Huss. Image Source: Snippits and Snappits.

Middle Eastern and Japanese news stories are offshoots of the same problem. The past 230 years of modernization, running hand-in-hand with liberal democratization, meant that the great mass of people in developed societies gained standards of living way beyond a level they ever had. At the core of this nexus between industrial, technological and scientific advances, the rise in quality of life, and competing left and right wing political ideologies is one problem: energy.

Raising the bulk of the human population to this extent requires vast amounts of energy. Yet the sources we use bring many problems - ozone layers; global warming; strategic conflicts over oil; controversy over natural gas drilling; pollution; terrorism; despots and popular revolutions in the Middle East; and fears about nuclear safety and the weaponization of civilian nuclear materials - are we there yet? One of the most prescient science fiction novels of the 1960s was Frank Herbert's Dune. In a way, it's even more accurate than Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, because it moved beyond the political world to the deeper problems of technological determinism. Herbert saw that we would biologically and genetically contort ourselves to match our primary energy source. He made it clear: we will do anything for energy. That is because with energy, we have the raw force to accomplish whatever we can imagine.

Yet we face a deeper quandary.  It comes from precisely that - from 'whatever we can imagine.' Critics dismiss the Atomic Age with three words.  Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Chernobyl. But as terrible as nuclear weapons and accidents are, they are inseparably part of the wellspring of Millennial creativity.  The discovery of radioactive elements in the 19th and 20th centuries opened the door to atomic theory and quantum physics; these doctrines fundamentally altered our vision of reality, which had previously remained essentially unchanged since the Ancient Greeks. It's a sea change in perspective that no one can escape.

But what is that change in perspective, exactly? The Atomic Age gave birth to the Quantum Era.  The deconstruction of the atom gave us what Jacob Bronowski called a glimpse at a World within World.  Our quest for new sources of energy keeps taking us beyond the limits of our perception and understanding, as we dismantle the very building blocks of matter. This has always been a human urge, but it's particularly prounounced at the turn of the Millennium, to push ever further, to greater extremes, past all the limits.

Plutonium pellet. Image Source: Discovery News.

Caption for the above photograph: The isotope plutonium-238 (or Pu-238) produces a steady supply of heat that can be readily converted into electricity. Small pellets of Pu-238 (like the one shown above) are commonly found inside radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) -- the power source of spacecraft that explore space beyond the orbit of Mars. At these distances, the sun's energy is too weak to be a viable energy source for spacecraft, forcing space agencies to use the plutonium isotope.

Here be Dragons

From these discoveries arose our search for dark matter, and our ambitions for space exploration. Hic sunt Dracones. Some anticipate goals like colonizing Mars with relish.  They can't wait to draw up the prep schedule. Others are less breathless, but already address questions like what system of law we should have in Outer Space and in extra-terrestrial colonies.

This huge upheaval in human knowledge is terrifying to many people, even more so because rapid prosperity, development and democratization are so inextricably bound up with that upheaval. Critics warn that moving eagerly into these realms will invite disaster. They regard the West's long transformation into a primarily scientific civilization with suspicion. They feel that the over-confident mentality that put men on the Moon - if twisted, could also inspire a revisiting of the logistics of the Holocaust.

"The Human Dilemma: Arrogance, Dogma And Ignorance." The Ascent of Man (1973) © BBC. Video Source: Youtube.

However, Jacob Bronowski (in The Ascent of Man) and Isaiah Berlin (in The Crooked Timber of Humanity) quarrelled with this interpretation and defended science.  They argued that the origins of the Holocaust lay not in scientific method and scientific inquiry, which depends on the acceptance of (and the constant testing of) uncertainty.  They insisted rather that the real threat was the antithesis of science, namely, the idea that there is an 'ultimate answer.'  They felt that much of what goes wrong in human thought comes from our insatiable need to conceive of, and believe in, the absolute.  Both men insisted that we must cure ourselves of this need. Bronowski's and Berlin's arguments constituted an attack on the Platonic ideal, "that true and universal answers could be discovered to all mankind’s questions and problems."  This Aristotelian rejection of the ultimate form, the denial of a final answer, means that science is inherently flawed.  However, those flaws will always be tested and revised in the push beyond ignorance and dogma.

"Physics in the twentieth century is an immortal work." The year 1900 - the turning point for our understanding of the reality of atoms. The Ascent of Man (1973) © BBC. Video Source: Youtube.

Caption for the above video: A scene from Jacob Bronowski's ground breaking 1973 documentary The Ascent of Man, Episode 10 - "World within World" (the story of the periodic table).

At any rate, this is a 'devil and the deep blue sea' argument.  As far as atomic theory goes, and all that follows it, the horror and the amazing discoveries go hand in hand.  And the amazing discoveries are momentous. In the 1973 television adaptation of his book, The Ascent of Man, Bronowski described the rise of atomic theory in the 20th century as an incredible accomplishment that dwarfed every human endeavour that came before it.

The Miracle Year

A recent book, Faust in Copenhagen (2007), by Gino Segrè, described 1932 as 'the miracle year,' when the world's top physicists met in Copenhagen and changed our world. Segrè emphasized that the physicists gradually became aware that they had struck a Faustian bargain; coincidentally, they met on the centennial of Goethe's death. From the NYT review:
The story of the quantum revolution has been told so many times that it has become as ritualized as the stations of the cross. How Max Planck, faced with some curious observations about hot glowing objects, reluctantly proposed that light is sputtered out in packets — the quanta. How Albert Einstein, seeing deeper, realized that light must also travel that way, that its waves were also particles. How Bohr brought the graininess into the atom, with electrons hopping between orbits in quantum jumps. How Heisenberg, marooning himself on the bleak isle of Helgoland, saw that there were no orbits, that what happened inside atoms was different from anything that could be pictured by a human brain.

... As though their knowledge of the quantum secrets came with the power of prophecy, some three dozen of Europe’s best physicists ended their 1932 meeting in Copenhagen with a parody of Goethe’s “Faust.” Just weeks earlier, James Chadwick had discovered neutrons — the bullets of nuclear fission — and before long Enrico Fermi was shooting them at uranium atoms. By the time of the first nuclear explosion a little more than a decade later in New Mexico, the idea of physics as a Faustian bargain was to its makers already a cliché. Robert Oppenheimer, looking for a sound bite, quoted Vishnu instead: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Segrè even suggests that the fast pace of change of knowledge in physics so intimidated and unnerved the Austro-Dutch physicist Paul Ehrenfest that he committed suicide in 1933 (Faust in Copenhagen, pp. 252-253). The reviewer of Segrè's work, George Johnson, describes this period as "one of science’s most heroic eras."  But as yesterday's post on this blog suggested, heroes in the Nuclear Age are riddled with heroic flaws, not unlike the science that inspired them.

Living history: origins of and demonstration of Geiger counter with Hans Geiger's great-grandson, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada (2007). Professor Robert C. Burk. Video Source: Youtube.

A "new force beyond the force that we know"

On 6 March, theoretical physicists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) announced they had discovered a new particle, and possibly a new force. From an AFP report:
Data from a major US atom smasher lab may have revealed a new elementary particle, or potentially a new force of nature that could expand our knowledge of the properties of matter, physicists say. The science world was abuzz with excitement Wednesday over the findings, which could offer clues to the persistent riddle of mass and how objects obtain it -- one of the most sought-after answers in all of physics.

But experts cautioned that more analysis was needed over the next several months to uncover the true nature of the observation, which comes as part of an ongoing experiment with proton and antiproton collisions to understand the workings of the universe.

"There could be some new force beyond the force that we know," said Giovanni Punzi, a physicist with the international research team that is analyzing the data from the US Department of Energy's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

"If it is confirmed, it could point to a whole new world of interactions," he told AFP.

While much remains a mystery, researchers agree that this is not the "God Particle," or the Higgs-boson, a hypothetical elementary particle that has long eluded physicists who believe it could explain why objects have mass.

"The Higgs-boson is a piece that goes into the puzzle that we already have," said Punzi. "Whereas this is something that goes a little bit beyond that -- a new interaction, a new force." Punzi said the new observation behaves differently than the Higgs-boson, which would be decaying into heavy quarks, or particles. The new discovery "is decaying in normal quarks," Punzi said. "It has different features," he added. "One thing we know for sure -- it is not the Higgs-boson. That is the only thing we know for sure."
I09 explains the discovery in plain language, here. The presentation of the research at a meeting of physicists is here. Most people discussing the news counselled caution (here and here).  What does this mean?  This could mean that there is a new force we do not know about, another force besides those four with which we are familiar, namely gravity, electro-magnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. While scientists seek to reproduce the results, I09 summarizes the outcome as it now stands:
1. It's just a fluke. Even if there really is just a 1 in 1300 chance that this is the case, this is the possibility that's most in line with accepted physics. As such, we definitely shouldn't be in a hurry to discount this, even if it's the least exciting possibility.

2. The researchers made a mistake. Again, not a terribly appealing option, but it does happen. And actually, this isn't necessarily a bad thing under certain circumstances. As University of Illinois physicist Viviana Cavliere argued at the end of her presentation yesterday, if this is a result of mismodeling, then that still points to some intriguing gaps in our understanding of how particle physics works, and figuring out where the researchers went wrong could help our overall knowledge. Which is closely related to...

3. This is an unexpected, previously unknown feature of the Standard Model. This means we're not invoking any new features of the universe, but instead saying that the particles and forces we're familiar with might sometimes interact in unexpected ways under certain, very specific situations.

4. This really is a previously undiscovered particle. If there really is an unknown particle about 160 times the mass of a proton, then it's done a phenomenally good job hiding for so long. It would need to have some highly unusual properties to help it escape detection - for instance, it apparently shares the W boson's ability to decay into two jets, but its decay must otherwise be very different, or we would have found it ages ago. And if this is a new particle, physicists are already in general agreement that it isn't the long sought Higgs boson, as it's far heavier than the Higgs should be, and its decay pattern doesn't match what physicists expect from the Higgs.

5. This is a new fundamental force. This is probably the least likely possibility. After all, there are only four fundamental forces as it stands: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. The idea is that this force would only operate over very short distances, like those within an atomic nucleus. While this discounted - it's also possible that this mystery particle is a carrier of some new force in the same way the W boson is a carrier of the weak force - this would really shake particle physics to its core, and so this idea demands the most evidence and the most skepticism.

Whatever is going on here, it's important to remember that this doesn't mean the Standard Model is wrong - this won't overturn the decades of careful investigation and experimentation that have revealed the various elementary particles that make up the universe. What this might mean - heavy emphasis on "might" - is that the Standard Model is incomplete, but physicists pretty much knew that already. This could just be some of the first really tangible proof of that.
Fermilab scientist Christopher Hill stated, "Nobody knows what this is. If it is real, it would be the most significant discovery in physics in half a century." Yes, if this is correct, it's the kind of thing that could change everything.  Again. New discoveries.  New incredible jumps in technology.  New unknown areas to explore. New levels of unimaginable power. New heroic sagas.  New weapons. New tragic flaws. Here we go again.

See all my posts on nuclear topics.

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