Told You So: Discovery of Higgs boson again underlines
predictive accuracy of modern science
“In the accession horoscope, retrograde Saturn in the fourth house aspecting the tenth lord Jupiter cannot save the throne of the King of Nepal.”
KN Rao, Journal of Astrology (April 24, 2006)
With all due respect to Mr Rao, any person picked at random from the streets of Kathmandu that fateful day could have predicted the end of the Nepali monarchy.
For April 24 was the day former king Gyanendra reinstated the House of Representatives, which, under the circumstances, was as good as any informal abdication.
Thankfully, modern science uses more reliable methods than the positioning of Saturn and Jupiter to make predictions.
Ever since British physicist Peter Higgs predicted, way back in 1964, the existence of the particles that now carries his name, the hunt for Higgs bosons, a crucial piece in the explanation of the world as we know it—everything from the existence of an atom to the mysteries of the whole universe—had been among the top priorities of particle physicists around the world.
The theoretical framework underpinning the existence of Higgs boson (or any of its more quirky cousins) was so strong that the question of discovery of the particle was more a matter of when than if. As it happened, on July 4, 2012, physicists at CERN, the world’s biggest particle physics lab, hit the jackpot, nearly 40 years after the first prediction of the particle’s existence.
The latest discovery, physicists believe, is a huge milestone to arriving at the laws that will ultimately lay bare the deepest mysteries of the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang.
Closer home, last August, 21-year-old Kathmandu native Lujendra Ojha made headlines around the world for his discovery of possible flows of saltwater on Mars, opening up the wonderful possibility of existence of life on the Red Planet, in the process resurrecting utopian dreams like human colonization of Mars, as most famously suggested by Ray Bradbury in his 1950 sci-fi short story collection, The Martian Chronicles. If there is water, it is safe to venture, there must also be some kind of life there.
Similarly predictable are supposed to be the carefully weighed assumptions of Modern Physics. Many students patting their pates in anguish while mired in the dull world of Newtonian physics in their secondary high, nonetheless, can relish the more challenging world of Modern Physics, which incorporates the more highfalutin concepts like quantum mechanics and relativity.
Even if you don’t get 10 percent of Einstein’s theories, the sex appeal in trying to unpick the most brilliant mind ever is unmatched.
Palle Yourgrau’s A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein offers a fascinating account of the perambulatory relationship Einstein shared with Kurt Gödel, the greatest logician of all time, back in the 1950s, when they were both involved with the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University.
So fascinated was Einstein with Gödel, writes Yourgrau, that “toward the end of his career …Einstein commented that his own work no longer meant much to him, and that he now went to his office ‘just to have the privilege of walking home with Kurt Gödel.’”
Yourgrau continues: “If Einstein succeeded in transforming time into space, Gödel would… make time disappear… Gödel took aim at Einstein and relativity. Wasting no time, he announced in short order his discovery of new… cosmological solutions… In the possible worlds governed by these new cosmological solutions… it turned out that the space-time structure is so greatly warped or curved by the distribution of matter that there exist timelike, future-directed paths by which a spaceship, if it travels fast enough…can penetrate into any region of the past, present, or future.”
The implications of the famous duel are still being worked out in particle physics circles. Short of a spaceship tailored to these descriptions, there might be no way to settle the argument one way or the other. But this theoretical possibility has inspired generations of physicists to continue their search for a particle that travels faster than light, the discovery of which would throw a monkey wrench into Einstein’s famous Theory of Relativity.
Of course, not all scientific predictions are accurate. Stephen Hawking, on learning of the July 4 developments at CERN, told the BBC that he had made a wager with another physicist that “the next particle wouldn’t be found. It seems I have just lost $100.”
Perhaps ex-king Gyanendra has a hotline to Mr Rao, the predictor of his downfall, hence his fervid attempt to regain his lost glory through copious dans at various dhams right around the country. Hawking—of “the god is redundant” fame—wouldn’t bet a tenner on it.