Quarks, Muons and Moses or "What I Did on My Vacation"

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By Eli S. Chesen

We are leaving Iraq, contemplating the building of mosques in Manhattan, quibbling with our founding fathers’ church-versus-state paradigm, and in the meantime various and sundry indigenous religious wars are conflagrating in locations beyond the awareness of the geographically challenged. We have been killing each other for hundreds of thousands of years as uncivilizations argued over who was or was not a genuine prophet speaking for this God or that God.

As the metaphysicians tell us, someone like Moses, Joseph Smith, Mohamed or John Travolta either stumbles across stone tablets of religious law or receives hallucinatory guidance, providing those leaders with a platform for leadership. Those leaders proclaim a special relationship with God and act as a proxy between God and the rest of us.

I do not know who speaks for God, but I suspect that if there is a genuine prophet living today, he or she hales from either Boulder or Santa Fe. These are centers of high spiritualism, to say nothing of organic food.

I recently experienced an epiphany of my own during the rare opportunity of a guided tour through Fermilab, home of the world’s second-biggest machine, a particle accelerator or collider located west of Chicago. (The world’s largest machine is the new hadron collider located under the French and Swiss border.)

For me Fermilab is the deus ex machina par excellence.

(See my earlier article in Prairie Fire about the hadron collider, www.prairiefirenewspaper.com/2008/11/concern-about-CERN.)

Named after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who played a substantial role in bringing about nuclear fission, Fermilab soars above the Midwestern plains like a giant church steeple. The people who work at this quirky place tend to have a point of reference with respect to the universe, which says something to the effect that our origins are actually decipherable and palpable. These people are not typically charismatic, but they seem to know a lot.

Years before it was known as Fermilab, this enclave of physicists and mathematicians first split the atom in controlled fission at a most unlikely venue: Under the abandoned Alanzo Stagg Field Stadium in the heart of Chicago at the University of Chicago. This secret project gave birth to the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reactor and was the progenitor of the atomic bomb.

The atomic bomb itself was partially designed there as well, though its final assembly and testing was done on the desert of Alamogordo, New Mexico, with the actual detonation occurring in 1945.

Fermilab, in addition to performing other neat tricks, fires high-speed protons at high-speed antiprotons, an event that takes place inside a giant underground donut-shaped structure. The “donut” is a few miles in diameter. (Protons are positively charged particles, which reside in the nucleus of all atoms. Single protons are hydrogen atoms minus an electron. Anti-protons are manufactured from protons.)

The particles are whirled around in opposite directions within the donut-shaped accelerator propelled by powerful magnetic fields. The magnets are not unlike the magnets used in MRI scanners. The particles are accelerated to a very high velocity, which is only slightly shy of the speed of light. Einstein taught us that there is a speed limit for these accelerated particles and a particle reaching the speed of light would no longer exist as a particle but rather would be converted into dissipated energy.

The purpose of this colossal atomic roulette wheel is to collide the particles, breaking loose and shaking out from them additional even smaller particles, like muons and quarks. The ultimate trophy particle, the big prize, could be the discovery of the Higg’s Boson… Some physicists do not believe this particle exists, while others feel it might not only exist but could explain even more precisely from whence we came.

The behavior of these various particles strictly follow the laws of physics… this always happens and it is something we can believe in and depend upon.

What is mind-boggling to me is that those same laws of physics, which dictate the behaviors of infinitely larger particles, say comets (made of rocks and ice), continues to apply.

Somewhere between Isaac Newton and Albert Einstien, we learned about the physical laws of motion, which predict how protons will behave, how comets will orbit the sun and how apples will fall from trees.

Imagine, if you will, Comet Hale-Bopp discovered five years ago orbiting our sun in an elliptical orbit. This comet briefly traveling through our inner solar system, compared to the Fermilab protons and antiprotons, whirls around our sun very slowly. So slowly that the next time we will see Hale-Bopp will be 2,500 years from now. Depending upon where this comet is in its orbit, it moves anywhere from hundreds of miles per hour to thousands of miles per hour, while the protons of Fermilab go around their orbital race track (4 miles in circumference) at 56,000 times per second.

The epiphany?

By the time Hale-Bopp returns to our neighborhood in 2,500 years, Islam, Judaism, Buddism, Scientology and Christianity will all have likely changed, reflecting decade by decade changes in society. Hale-Bop and the protons of Fermi will, on the other hand, remain predictably the same in making their respective orbital rounds according to definable and predictable laws of physics.

If humankind could focus more deeply on the vast scope and predictability of protons, comets, galaxies and such, perhaps the infinite killer nuances of competing religious beliefs might fade into the background out of comparative triviality, thereby allowing us to comprehend the universe on a scale that would render matters of faith more interesting but less violent. Perhaps then one of the major engines of war could be, once and for all, shut off.

 

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