Once upon a time in an intellectual land far, far away, philosophy concerned itself, among other matters, with questions such as the nature of meaning in life, how to live in the absence or presence of God, and why there is something rather than nothing. A great existential cartoon, which still hung on a bulletin board of the philosophy department at Hunter College in New York City in the early 1980s, had one philosopher inquiring of another whether he was referring to “nothing as nothing or nothing as something.” The joke gives good indication of why philosophy doesn’t concern itself with such questions any longer. Now they reside in the country of philosophy-with-a non-professional-“p,” as in everybody’s got one: what’s yours?
Instead we have truth statements, and science, and the latter is far more exciting. The New York Times reports that physicists at Fermilab (as of last year only the second largest particle accelerator in the world, after the recently operational Large Hadron Collider near Geneva) may be on track to answer why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe – which is to say, how it is that we even exist, rather than not exist.
In a mathematically perfect universe, we would be less than dead; we would never have existed. According to the basic precepts of Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics, equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created in the Big Bang and then immediately annihilated each other in a blaze of lethal energy, leaving a big fat goose egg with which to make stars, galaxies and us.
But this is not so. (Right?) And physicists (and, frankly, I) want to know why. It was Russian human rights hero and physicist Andrei Sakharov who first theorized how it could be that matter might predominate over antimatter.
As it turns out, collisions of protons and antiprotons in Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator produce pairs of subatomic muons slightly more often than they do antimuons. “So the miniature universe inside the accelerator went from being neutral to being about 1 percent more matter than antimatter.” The Times goes on to say – and this is where it really gets interesting –
The new effect hinges on the behavior of particularly strange particles called neutral B-mesons, which are famous for not being able to make up their minds. They oscillate back and forth trillions of times a second between their regular state and their antimatter state. As it happens, the mesons, created in the proton-antiproton collisions, seem to go from their antimatter state to their matter state more rapidly than they go the other way around, leading to an eventual preponderance of matter over antimatter of about 1 percent, when they decay to muons.
They oscillate back and forth – trillions of times a second – unable “to make up their minds.”
A metaphor. In particle physics. In fact, scientists, and science writers, use metaphor all the time. But is it mere metaphor? Well, metaphor is only “mere” to those who merely look at the window that metaphor provides on the world, rather than through the metaphorical window. Trillions of times a second, for reasons researchers have yet to discover, this “strange particle” vacillates between yes and no, between thesis and antithesis – and the nothing that is neither in equal balance. Commonly, it has been the hypothetical Higgs boson particle to which scientists have referred as the “God particle,” for reasons you can read about here.
But in the neutral B-meson, it appears, we have existence – something (as in why is there?) – in the balance. “God,” as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe did not say first, “is in the details.” At the Big Bang instant of creation, God or what passes for it, infinitely compacted and massive, like a great in and intro-verted Bodhisattva contemplating its contemplation, verges on the edge of creation: to matter or not to matter. To be or not to be. Back, forth, back, forth in its contemplative, inertial mass.
And one percent more often than not, the Big Bang Bodhisattva pauses on “to be.” And we exist.
We barely got out alive.
Images from Starts With A Bang
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- From Fermilab, a New Clue to Explain Human Existence (nytimes.com)
- New clue to anti-matter mystery (news.bbc.co.uk)
- Why the universe is composed of matter, not anti-matter (americablog.com)
- Why We Exist: Matter Wins Battle Over Antimatter (space.com)
- Fermi’s Tevatron finds another bias against antimatter (arstechnica.com)
- Matter-Antimatter Bias Seen In Fermilab Collisions (science.slashdot.org)
- Large Hadron Collider to begin high energy collisions (telegraph.co.uk)
- Geneva atom smasher set for record collisions (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Geneva atom smasher sets collision record (seattletimes.nwsource.com)