Sunday, 1 January 2012

The really big and the really peerie

Since I can remember, I’ve always had a fascination for the science of very big things. However, I’ve got a terrible memory and my first childhood recollections are from when I was about 8 and being into cranes - an obsession I still harbour - which were the biggest things I could imagine at the time.

As I grew older I began to ponder standard philosophical nubs such as the meaning of life, the existence of god, where we came from and where we’re going, but drew blanks from the irresolute semi-religious spoon feedings of my childhood. I began to give science a bit more thought, particularly cosmology, as I later found it to be called, and to the origins of the constellations I saw overhead in the Shetland evening skies.

My first serious attempts to get my head around the finer points of the universe came when I stumbled on a copy of Einstein’s General Relativity in the Anderson High School library as a 1st year pupil. I read the book cover to cover several times in laborious succession in the misguided hope that I would understand the grand concepts being presented to me.

Whilst my curiosity was piqued, my peerie head wasn’t quite ready for such a theoretical assault. I made do with popular science magazines and books (Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was a firm favourite) as I had little interest in the structured pursuit of Physics at school.

It was in the book review section of New Scientist magazine that my epiphanic teenage reading experience was presented to me - The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question? - a weighty 1993 book by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman and science writer Dick Teresi. Interest aroused, I scurried off to the Shetland Times bookshop and ordered a copy.

The book ambitiously attempted to cover the history of scientific reasoning and discovery from Pre-Socratic Greek philosophy to Quantum Mechanics, and did a good job of doing so. The last couple of chapters bent my brain a bit, but as physicist Richard Feynman says, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

But this book introduced me to the science of the very peerie - subatomic particles and the strange world they inhabit. Indeed, it was this book that first coined the phrase “The God Particle” to describe the theoretical Higgs Boson which has been an infinitesimal celebrity of late.

The aim of many a physicist is to find a Grand Unified Theory - a bringing together of all the disciplines of physics into a theory so succinct it would fit onto a T-Shirt. In Lederman’s book, he believed the discovery of the God Particle would pave the way to such a lofty pinnacle.

It was with Lederman’s words in my mind that I sat glued to the live Internet ‘webcast’ from CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) in mid December in anticipation of the announcement on the discovery of the ‘God Particle’. I found myself to be unexpectedly relived that the evidence they presented was inconclusive and the search must go on.

The discovery of this enigmatic entity could herald a major gap plugging of the Grand Unified Theory and pave the way toward a comprehensive understanding of life, the universe and everything.

But is certainty more satisfying than wonderment?

Take a moment to look up into the night sky, consider how lucky we are to have such a resplendent view of the cosmos from our halcyon vantage in Shetland and give a thought to the very big, and to the very peerie.

Article for Shetland Life - January 2012

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