Physicists: “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”
Also physicists: *Spend billions of dollars and untold person-hours searching for the tiniest, shortest-lived particles.*
Now, of course that’s not entirely fair. Carl Sagan, author of the quote, also wrote positively about the value and significance of life. I sure he did not measure our worth purely by our relative scale to cosmos. Communicating the vastness of space is challenging; I can see how value-laden language like ‘insignificant’ and ‘humdrum’ grabs attention better than more technical and neutral alternatives. But why not words like ‘rare’ or ‘precious’ which also communicate relative scale but with positive connotations? After all, gold and platinum are not considered insignificant because they make up such a tiny percentage of the overall mass of the Earth. So sure, humans are uncommon on a cosmic scale, but why should that count against us?
When it comes to particle physics research, scarcity doesn’t count against the particles–as demonstrated by the first of two recent announcements from that field. CERN scientists report the discovery of three new particles, a pentaquark and two tetraquarks, at the Large Hadron Collider. Quarks are a group of subatomic particles, always seen in groups of two or more. The resulting composite particles are hadrons, with the proton being the most famous. Protons consist of three quarks; four- and five-quark varieties of hadron like the ones just discovered have only been detected in the past 20 years. They last fractions of a second, and require massive energies to generate–from supernovas or collisions in a multi-billion dollar particle accelerator. We’ve only observed a handful of distinct kinds so far, and only under extreme conditions. That rarity makes finding new ones exciting, not humdrum.
At the same time, what is common can also be intriguing when it remains mysterious. That brings us to a second announcement: still no WIMPs. Weakly Interacting Massive Particles are one possible form of dark matter–y’know, the stuff that probably makes up 85% of the matter in the universe that we don’t know anything about. Well, that’s not exactly true. We’ve learned a fair amount about what it isn’t, having ruled out options such as WIMPs of certain sizes by looking very hard for them and not finding them. The current approach is to bury a tank of liquid xenon deep underground and look for evidence of other particles bumping into the xenon atoms. Going underground shields the detector from more pedestrian particles. The biggest such detector had its first run last year, and the results are in. Everything worked as expected, but so far no WIMPs. That’s not terribly surprising; it makes sense to start with shorter runs to shake out any kinks before starting longer runs more likely to find whatever you’re looking for.
So you’ve got seven tons of xenon buried nearly a mile underground in a chamber shielded by tens of thousands of gallons of water, all to detect particles that are individually much smaller than anything that can be seen under a microscope. Surely the significance of the WIMPs is measured by the vast scale of the resources committed to them, rather than in contrast to them. Similarly, we’ve got a solar system whose astronomical scale is necessary for life to exist on this planet. For example, we need the sun to have massive, long-lasting energy resources, but we also need that energy to have certain entropy characteristics as well. That means the sun needs to be a small warm spot against a cold background. To satisfy the energy and entropy requirements, the sun needs to be very big and very far away. From that perspective, life should be considered a feature of the entire system, rather than a very minor component.
Now, I’m not a particle physicist, so the full implications of these recent results are likely beyond me. The new particles we did find are helping us flesh out our understanding of larger-than-3-quark hadrons, but I don’t know what it will mean when that picture is complete. And as I indicated, the particles we didn’t find narrow down the remaining options for where dark matter could be hiding. But again, I don’t know what will happen if we ever do figure out what dark matter is. However, I did see one possible application, albeit not a technological one.
Mostly what these particle physics stories had me thinking about was Jesus’ parables of losing and seeking. If a widow seeking a lost coin or a shepherd seeking a lost sheep can remind us how valuable we are to God, why not a (team of) physicist(s) and undiscovered particles? Though they occupy miniscule amounts of time and space, physicists go to extraordinary lengths to find them. How much more then will your Heavenly Father invest in seeking you?
Naturally, I don’t mean to suggest that the teachings of Jesus need to be improved in any way. But I don’t think there’s any harm in expanding our repertoire of connections that point back to those stories. Sheep don’t come up very often in my world, not as often as particle physics. (I’ve made my life choices; your results may vary.) If particle physics reminds me of Jesus’ teaching, isn’t that a good thing? In any event, I think I needed a reminder of my worth to God, and if you did too I hope you got it.
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.