Header 1

Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Monday, January 27, 2014

What Particles Collide, Nature Acts Programmatically, As If It Had Ideas

Let us take a very close look at some important laws of nature. When you go to the trouble of looking very closely at these laws, you may end up being stunned by their seemingly programmatic aspects, and you may end up getting some insight into just how apparently methodical and conceptual the laws of nature are.

The laws I refer to are some laws that are followed when subatomic particles collide at high speed. In recent years scientists at the Large Hadron Collider and other particle accelerators have been busy smashing together particles at very high speeds. The Large Hadron Collider is the world's largest particle accelerator, and consists of a huge underground ring some 17 miles wide.

The Large Hadron Collider accelerates protons (tiny subatomic particles) to near the speed of light. The scientists accelerate two globs of protons to a speed of more than 100,000 miles per second, one glob going in one direction in the huge ring, and another glob going in the other direction. The scientists then get some of these protons to smash into each other.

A result of such a collision (from a site describing a different particle accelerator) is depicted below. The caption of this image stated: “A collision of gold nuclei in the STAR experiment at RHIC creates a fireball of pure energy from which thousands of new particles are born.” 
 
particle collision

Such a high-speed collision of protons or nuclei can produce more than 100 “daughter particles” that result from the collision. The daughter particles are rather like the pieces of glass you might get if you and your friend hurled two glass balls at each other, and the balls collided (please don't ever try this). Here is a more schematic depiction of a one of the simplest particle collisions (others are much more complicated):

particle collision


The results of a collision like that shown in the first image may seem like a random mess, but nature actually follows quite a few laws when such collisions occur. The first law I will discuss is one that there is no name for, even though there should be. This is the law we might call the Law of the Five Allowed Stable Particles. This is simply the law that the stable long-lived output particles created from any very high-speed subatomic particle collision are always particles on the following short list:

Particle Rest Mass Electric Charge
Proton 1.67262177×10−27 kg 1.602176565×10−19 Coulomb


Neutron 1.674927351 ×10−27 kg 0
Electron 9.10938291 ×10−27 kg -1.602176565×10−19 Coulomb


Photon 0 0
Neutrino Many times smaller than electron mass 0

I am not mentioning antiparticles on this list, because such particles are destroyed as soon as they as come in contact with regular particles, so they end up having a lifetime of less than a few seconds.

This Law of the Five Allowed Stable Particles is not at all a trivial law, and raises the serious question: how is it that nature favors only these five particles? Why is it that high-speed subatomic particle collisions don't produce stable particles with thousands of different random masses and thousands of different random electric charges? It is as if nature has inherent within it the idea of a proton, the idea of an electron, the idea of a neutron, the idea of a photon, and the idea of a neutrino.

When particles collide at high speeds, nature also follows what are called conservation laws. Below is a table describing the conservation laws that are followed in high-speed subatomic particle collisions. Particles with positive charge are shown in blue; particles with negative charge are shown in red; and unstable particles are italicized (practically speaking, antiparticles are unstable because they quickly combine with regular particles and are converted to energy, so I'll count those as unstable particles). The particles listed before the → symbol are the inputs of the collision, and the particles after the → symbol are the outputs of the collision. The → symbol basically means “the collision creates this.”

Law Description Example of particle collision or decay allowed under law Example of particle collision or decay prohibited under law
law of the conservation of mass-energy
The mass-energy of the outputs of a particle collision cannot exceed the mass-energy of the inputs of the collision proton + protonproton+neutron + positron+electron neutrino electron+electron
antiproton+
electron (prohibited because an antiproton is almost a thousand times more massive than two electrons)
law of the conservation of charge
The ratio between the proton-like charges (called “positive” and shown here in blue) and the electron-like charges (called “negative” and shown here in red) in the outputs of a particle collision must be the same as the ratio was in the inputs of the collision proton + protonproton+neutron + positron +electron neutrino (two proton-like charges in input, two proton-like charges in output)


At higher collision energies:
proton + protonproton+proton+ proton+antiproton


proton + protonproton+neutron +electron+electron neutrino (two proton-like charges in input, only one proton-like charge in output)
law of the conservation of baryon number
Using the term “total baryon number” to mean the total of the protons and neutrons (minus the total of the antiprotons and antineutrons), the total baryon number of the stable outputs of a particle collision must be the same as this total was in the inputs of the collision proton + protonproton +neutron + positron+electron neutrino (total baryon number of 2 in inputs, total baryon number of 2 in the outputs) proton + neutronproton+muon + antimuon (total baryon number of 2 in inputs, total baryon number of 1 in the outputs)
law of the conservation of lepton number (electron number “flavor,” there also being “flavors” of the law for muons and tau particles)
Considering electrons and electron neutrinos to have an electron number of 1, and considering a positron and anti-neutrinos (including the anti-electron neutrino) to have an electron number of -1, the sum of the electron numbers in the outputs of a particle collision must be the same as this sum was in the inputs of the collision neutron→proton
+electron+anti-electron neutrino (total electron number of inputs is 0, net electron number of outputs is 0)
neutron→proton
+electron (total electron number of inputs is 0, but net electron number of outputs is 1)

Each of the examples given here of allowed particle collisions is only one of the many possible outputs that might be influenced by the laws above. When you have very high-energy particles colliding, many output particles can result (and nature's burden in following all these laws becomes higher).

Now let us consider a very interesting question: does nature require something special to fulfill these laws – perhaps something like ideas or computation or figure-juggling or rule retrieval?

In the case of the first of these laws, the law of the conservation of mass-energy, it does not seem that nature has to have anything special to fulfill that law. The law basically amounts to just saying that substance can't be magically multiplied, or saying that mass-energy can't be created from nothing.

But in the case of the law of the conservation of charge, we have a very different situation. To fulfill this law, it would seem that nature requires “something extra.”

First, it must be stated that what is called the law of the conservation of charge has a very poor name, very apt to give you the wrong idea. It is not at all a law that prohibits creating additional electric charges. In fact, when two protons collide together at very high speeds at the Large Hadron Collider, we can see more than 70 charged particles arise from a collision of only two charged particles (two protons). So it is very misleading to state the law of the conservation of charge as a law that charge cannot be created or destroyed. The law should be called the law of the conservation of net charge. The correct way to state the law is as I have stated it above: the ratio between the proton-like charges (in other words, positive charges) and the electron-like charges (in other words, negative charges) in the outputs of a particle collision must be the same as the ratio was in the inputs of the collision.

This law, then, cannot work by a simple basis of “something can't be created out of nothing.” It requires something much more: apparently that nature have something like a concept of the net charge of the colliding particles, and also that it somehow be able to figure out a set of output particles that will have the same net charge. The difficulty of this trick becomes apparent when you consider that the same balancing act must be done when particles collide at very high speeds, in a collision where there might be more than 70 charged output particles.

I may also note that for nature to enforce the law of the conservation of charge (more properly called the law of the conservation of net charge), it would seem to be a requirement that nature somehow in some sense “know” or have the idea of an abstract concept – the very concept of the net charge of colliding particles. The “net charge" is something like “height/weight ratio” or “body mass index,” an abstract concept that does not directly correspond to a property of any one object. So we can wonder: how is it that blind nature could have a universal law related to such an abstraction?

In the case of the law of the conservation of baryon number, we also have a law that seems to require something extra from nature. It requires apparently that nature have some concept of the total baryon number of the colliding particles, and also that it somehow be able to figure out a set of output particles that will have the same total baryon number. Again we have a case where nature seems to know an abstract idea (the idea of total baryon number). But here the idea is even more abstract than in the previous case, as it involves the quite abstract notion of the total of the protons and neutrons (minus the total of the antiprotons and antineutrons). This idea is far beyond merely a physical property of some particular particle, so one might be rather aghast that nature seems to in some sense understand this idea and enforce a universal law centered around it.

The same type of comments can be made about the law of the conservation of lepton number. Here we have a law of nature centered around a concept that is even more abstract than the previous two concepts: the notion of electron number, which involves regarding one set of particle types (including both charged and neutral particles) as positive, and another set of particle types (including both charged and neutral particles) as negative. Here is a notion so abstract that a very small child could probably never even hold it in his or her mind, but somehow nature not only manages to hold the notion but enforce a law involving it whenever two particles collide at high speeds.

The examples of particle collisions given in the table above are simple, but when particles collide at very high speeds, the outputs are sometimes much, more complicated. There can be more than 50 particles resulting from a high-speed proton collision at the Large Hadron Collider. In such a case nature has to instantaneously apply at least five laws, producing a solution set that has many different constraints.

For historical reasons, the nature of our current universe depends critically on the laws described above. Even though these types of high-speed relativistic particle collisions are rare on planet Earth (outside of particle accelerators used by scientists), these types of particle collisions take place constantly inside the sun. If the laws above were not followed, the sun would not be able to consistently produce radiation in the way needed for the evolution of life. In addition, in the time immediately after the Big Bang, the universe was one big particle collider, with all the particles smashing into each other at very high speeds. If the laws listed above hadn't been followed, we wouldn't have our type of orderly universe suitable for life.

By now I have described in some detail the behavior of nature when subatomic particles collide at high speeds. What words best describe such behavior? I could use the word “fixed” and “regular,” but those words don't go far enough in describing the behavior I have described.

The best words I can use to describe this behavior of nature when subatomic particles collide at very high speeds are these words: programmatic and conceptual.

The word programmatic is defined by the Merriam Webster online dictionary in this way: “Of, relating to, resembling, or having a program.” This word is very appropriate to describe the behavior of nature that I have described. It is just as if nature had a program designed to insure that the balance of positive and negative charges does not change, that the number of protons plus the number of neutrons does not change, and that overall lepton number does not change.

The word conceptual is defined by the Merriam Webster online dictionary in this way: “Based on or relating to ideas or concepts.” This word is very appropriate to describe the behavior of nature that I have described. We see in high-speed subatomic particle collisions that nature acts with great uniformity to make sure that the final stable output particles are one of the five types of particles in the list above (protons, neutrons, photons, electrons, and neutrinos). It is just as if nature had a clear idea of each of these things: the idea of a proton, the idea of a neutron, the idea of a photon, the idea of an electron, and the idea of a neutron. As nature has a law that conserves net charge, we must also assume that nature has something like the idea of net charge. As nature has a law that conserves baryon number, we must also assume that nature has something like the idea of baryon number. As nature has a law that conserves lepton number, we must also assume that nature has something like the idea of lepton number.

This does not necessarily imply that nature is conscious. Something can have ideas without being conscious. The US Constitution is not conscious, but it has the idea of the presidency and the idea of Congress.

So given very important and fundamental behavior in nature that is both highly conceptual and highly programmatic, what broader conclusion do we need to draw? It seems that we need to draw the conclusion that nature has programming. We are not forced to the conclusion that nature is conscious, because an unconcious software program is both conceptual and programmatic. But we do at least need to assume that nature has something like programming, something like software. 

Once we make the leap to this concept, we have an idea that ends up being very seminal in many ways, leading to some exciting new thinking about our universe. Keep reading this blog to get a taste of some of this thinking.