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Apr. 16, 2021 | Friday
Editorials and Opinions
Dr. Brown: An imaginative alternative to the pandemic: Change the universe 
Dr. William Brown.



Dr. William Brown

Special to The Lake Report

We all need a rest from the pandemic – why not try physics?

The 20th century was the golden age of physics and cosmology. At the start of the century there was one galaxy (the Milky Way), one particle (the electron) and the universe was a stable affair.

And by the end of a very busy and productive century we had learned that the universe was expanding under the influence of a mysterious expansile force called dark energy, time and space were warped by massive objects, the ultimate expression of which were black holes, and the visible universe made up less than 5 per cent of the total universe, and of the rest, 65 per cent was dark energy and 29 per cent was dark matter.

Then there was the physics of a menagerie of tiny subatomic particles and their associated fields, some of which, like the quanta of the electromagnetic spectrum, are without mass and others of which turned out to have differing masses. All were governed by natural laws and forces.

The "quantum field theory," as it was called, matured and became known as the Standard Model into which neatly fit all the known particles and their associated fields. Or so many physicists thought. But there was a fly in the Standard Model’s ointment: What conferred mass on those particles which, for example, made up the nucleus of atoms?

Over 50 years ago, Peter Higgs, a young physicist, proposed a radical idea: what if there was yet another field, passage through which, conferred mass on particles, more mass for the larger ones and less for smaller particles. The field became known as the Higgs field and the associated particle as the Higgs particle.

After some initial wariness, the theory became widely accepted and, finally, using the giant Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the illusive Higgs particle was found. In short order, the Nobel Prize was awarded to a beaming, now white-haired Higgs in 2013 to a joyous worldwide audience of physicists and a public enamoured with the "god" particle, so named by Leon Lederman in his 2006 book, “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the question?”

Now on to the really interesting stuff. Given the fact that the masses of several types of particles were imparted to them by the Higgs field and that the relationships between different particles were related to their mass, what if the value of the Higgs field changed?

Such a change might have catastrophic consequences for the subatomic building blocks of all atoms, molecules, all of chemistry and, therefore, life. There’s no reason to suppose that the Higgs field has changed in the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang – but the question is – could it?

Brian Greene, the well-known MIT physicist and author, in his superb new book, “To Explain the World,” raises that very question. The answer depends on a fundamental property of the quantum world whereby, every event can only be described in probabilistic terms – not as certainties.

Using one of Greene’s examples, imagine a glass marble at the bottom of a fluted champagne glass and ask the question – what’s the chance of that marble escaping? Short of the glass falling over or breaking for some reason, your answer might be very unlikely or perhaps never.

Now let’s shift to the quantum world and imagine an electron lying in the bottom of the same glass – what’s the chance of that electron jumping out or perhaps through the glass? In the quantum world the answer is probabilistic: in this case very unlikely but possible, given enough time for the electron to escape.

And in the universe, we inhabit, there’s plenty of time, billions, trillions and trillions of trillions of years. Over such a timespan, even unlikely events become likely sooner or later, as the case might be with a change in the Higgs field.

The chance of the Higgs’ field changing and setting the mass characteristics of most particles, is small – after all, it hasn’t happened since the Big Bang. But it could happen anytime, even in the far distant future.

Theoretically, such a change would upset all the natural laws, constants and the subatomic bits and pieces that make up all the various atoms and any arrangements of atoms into molecules, if indeed any atoms are possible.

And should it happen, it probably will begin in one spot in the universe and spread outward at the speed of light, leaving a universe within the circle without particles and anything we would recognize and business as usual beyond, for whatever time remained.

It’s an exercise in playful imagination at a time where we need imagination. Tune in for more surprises in the universe.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the Infohealth series held on the second Wednesday of each month at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.