The Universe in a Grain of Sand

There was a flurry of press coverage when the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland was turned on, and again when it was shut down by a technical problem shortly afterwards. The collider’s operation was a much-anticipated event in science, one that could confirm or undermine one of the most successful theories about how the universe is structured. The public attention that it has received is rare for scientific news, perhaps owing to concerns that something celestially dangerous is being cooked up in our backyard.

The lead-up coverage was accompanied by hype about the potential risks, so when the test did not seem to go as planned, it was natural to wonder if the fabric of space-time had been bruised. Some of the initial rumors about what could happen were extreme. One speculated that these new high energies, when combined with the specific way the particles would be broken, would annihilate us. In another scenario, the lab might create uncontrollable tiny black holes. In yet another, the creation of a “stranglet” would spawn new and terrible levels of nuclear power.

There are possible risks when messing around with fundamental matter, but in this case, the shutdown was due to a mundane gas leak. What makes this test interesting for scientists, rather than newsmakers, is unchanged, and will still be exciting when CERN starts up the collider again.

Here is what is at stake. For a scientific theory to be accepted, it must 1) explain observable phenomena; 2) be “elegant” in the sense that its truth and clarity are obvious; and 3) predict what will happen when you do something you have never done before.

The purpose of the Large Hadron Collider is to create an unprecedented situation. If the predicted particle does not appear, a series of theoretical abstractions will be questioned – and become open to replacement by radically different alternatives.

It is not generally appreciated how much real-world impact a changed scientific model can have. For most people, the topics that excite physicists do not seem to affect daily life in the slightest. But there is a deeper chain of abstractions – the tools we use to think – at work here, one based on the way we perceive reality.

For example, consider how different the world was before the concept of “zero” was discovered. Zero is essential to bookkeeping and hence all modern commerce. And that is quite apart from the way we take for granted the idea of “nothing.” The concept simply did not exist in the west until the Catholic Church ended its prohibition on the notion in the twelfth century, 1400 years after zero had been invented in the Arab World.

Similarly, what if theories using germs had not been proven? We wouldn’t think about information transfer or messages the same way. Or the concept of the force field, which enables the concept of influence? Freud’s original model of the mind, the successors of which since shaped how we think of ourselves, were inspired by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Powerful scientific abstractions eventually creep into the way we enjoy art, and how we form our laws and articulate our ethics.

In the highly anticipated CERN experiment, the theory in question is at the center of a controversy about what abstractions seem more fundamental in the universe. One is based on number; the other is based on form. The first holds that the universe is fundamentally probabilistic, generally random but with an order to its randomness. The other posits that the universe is inherently geometric, and that geometric properties, such as symmetry, govern it. If the experiment finds the predicted particle, it will tilt the argument toward form.

Here’s what this could mean in the long run. When you just read the word “symmetry,” you probably thought about two balanced halves, or a reflection. We extend this simple notion through all of our reasoning about the world: man and woman, boss and employee, love and hate, left and right. It drives our ideas of politics, religion, and even the principles of truth underpinning our system of laws.

But what if you naturally dealt with symmetries of three? What if it was proven, through a particle collision, that a true balance required three sides instead of two?

The tests in the Hadron Collider may trigger this change, every bit as disruptive as an explosion. Or perhaps it will be less dramatic, dawning in the mind of a clerk gazing out the window of a patent office. A different perception of reality has the power to change us – change the way we think – and it could come from anywhere.