Friday, 23 July 2010

The trouble with tribbles

Infinity is a bit big too big for us to handle. It may be best if we just marvel at it rather than it become common place in our lives. If we divide 1 by infinity the answer is zero, an emptiness that is also quite intangible. A mathematician would say the reciprocal of infinity is zero. Reciprocal meaning here, turning any number into 1 divided by that number, turning our view of it on its head.

Physicists are used to working with reciprocals that aren’t just for numbers. A crystal is essentially an repeating arrangement of an extremely large number of particles. It has a certain symmetry, but the sheer number of particles involved makes it an unwieldy beast to handle. So the physicist spends her time working in the reciprocal space of the crystal, making something very large into something chunky and manageable. The reason she can do this is because the symmetry of the object is preserved when flip it over in this way. The reciprocal (usually called a diffraction) pattern for a crystal is shown below.

There are certain “things” that really only have a “substance” in this reciprocal space. They are strung out and nebulous in real space but are a definite something in reciprocal space. We can observe the effects they have on matter in our own real space but their identity is best quantified in reciprocal space. In a crystal they are called “quasi-particles”. I spent some post-graduate years chasing these things.

Now, dear reader, about this Higgs Boson. The reciprocal space to the “space” occupied by a quantum object like an electron or a quark (the fundamental building blocks of matter) is called “momentum space”. The Higgs Boson really only has “essence” in this momentum space. Below is a momentum space diagram showing how a Higgs (H) may be formed from 2 gluons (g). Incidentally gluons are another type of virtual boson that only really has essence in momentum space.

I am telling you this (if you didn’t already know) so that you will correct people who go around calling it a particle. It isn’t a matter based particle as we would commonly understand this. It is a theoretical entity, which may turn out to be real but a particle it isn’t. We will never capture one because it isn’t an entity in our space to capture. If found, it will be virtual in our world but it will be real.

Does it matter? Yes, IMHO it does matter whilst it has been given the moniker of the “God Particle”. This is a stupid name and I don’t want anyone having ideas that somehow the discovery of the Higgs will upset our daily lives or open up a Pandora’s box of nasties. Nor do I like the way it has become like some esoteric or even Gnostic truth only to be revealed to a few. Some scientists will look at you with that pained expression on their face and say “well, it isn’t really a particle you know, but it is too hard to explain”, and I don’t like it when scientists do that.

Hmm, is there a theological analogy to all this? On second thoughts, don’t go there.

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