Theoretical physics inhabits an area of human knowledge and discourse whose frontier is so hermetic no one other than the physicists themselves may claim to make sense of the discourse they manage to produce. Even the physicists are not always sure of what they understand in their own discourse, especially when communicating among themselves. Rather, they understand that the phenomena they spend their time describing correspond to something they — as humans who speak a language used by humans — cannot claim to understand. Their job is simply to acknowledge that it is there.


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As reported by AP, recent experimentation has produced a troubling discovery concerning something called the muon, an elusive particle, heavier than an electron, that orbits an atom without being part of it. Muons apparently behave in ways inconsistent with the established rules of physics. Worse, they actually get away with it. That doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the muon. It means there may be something wrong with the laws, or what are deemed to be the established rules of the system physicists have imagined. That order requires that all existing matter must conform with those rules. This means there may be a problem with matter itself, or with matter and space, two things we tend to think of as separate.

According to theoretical physicist David Kaplan, there’s “something funny going on” that concerns both particles and space. “The secrets don’t just live in matter,” he says. “They live in something that seems to fill in all of space and time. These are quantum fields. We’re putting energy into the vacuum and seeing what comes out.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Quantum fields:

Places where physicists graze while gazing at the universe

Contextual Note

Why is this discovery so revolutionary? The website Physics offers an explanation of the discovery in the form of a comic strip. It concludes with a question that points to new horizons: “Could it be that the muon is creating particles we don’t know anything about, but which might solve other mysteries in physics?” It specifically mentions dark matter as one of these mysteries. Dark matter combined with dark energy together account for as much as 96% of the universe and we have no idea of understanding what they are made of. We know they exist because Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein have taught us how gravity works. But all the marvelous things we can see and account for in the universe fail to explain observable gravitational effects that must be the result of something not just unseen, but unseeable.

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Enter the muon, a fleeting particle delivering the message that among the infinitesimally small subatomic particles we have discovered, there may be something that’s even smaller. For theoretical physicists and cosmologists, the universe appears like a fractal sequence. On the macro side, there’s a similar phenomenon. To the quandary of what came before the Big Bang, some are tempted by the multiverse hypothesis; others by the notion of a simulation. Our logic wants everything to be explainable as the result of a law or a set of laws, meaning no effect can exist without a cause. Whenever something occurs to upset our understanding of those laws, it creates the expectation that the next phase will provide the clues that answer the existing questions. Inevitably, the answers produce new questions.

In other words, thanks to the muon’s unconventional behavior, the field in which physicists graze and gaze has just expanded its borders. Physicists will be well placed to vie for the new grant money that becomes available in the decades to come. Nobody is about to cancel our quest to elucidate the mysteries of our own existence. And theoretical science often leads to technological innovation. Without the absurdity of quantum physics, we would not now be producing quantum computers.

An article in Nature with the title, “Is the standard model broken? Physicists cheer major muon result” clarifies the meaning of this breakthrough. As soon as they had experimental confirmation that the muon is upsetting existing theory, the physicists rejoiced. Lee Roberts at Boston University in Massachusetts was clearly excited: “People were clapping and jumping up and down.” Another physicist, Brynn MacCoy, noted how “obvious” the “joyful” reactions were.

Despite the joy, the Nature article reminds us that this experiment has not provided “unambiguous proof of the existence of new particles.” That inconclusiveness turns out to be even better news. It reminds us that scientific rivalry will continue to play out in what is not only a quest for new funding but also, in its own right, a competitive game. Theoretical physicist Gino Isidori at the University of Zurich offered this analysis of the state of play: “Those who were sceptical will probably stay sceptical.” This isn’t just boring science, but can be compared with a sport. “At this point, the ball is in the theorists’ court,” he said. The theorists’ team is already joyously dribbling down the quantum field.

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Historical Note

Over the past century, quantum mechanics has had a major impact on the culture of our modern civilization. It followed Albert Einstein’s already troubling concept of relativity that challenged the intellectual comfort an increasingly confident Victorian world convinced of the triumph of science and industry (and especially industry). Einstein’s contribution at the beginning of the 20th century forced serious people to accept, among other surprises, that space is curved and that time — part of a whole that includes space — is not as linear as we intuitively think it to be. In other words, relativity sent a challenge to the reigning materialism of a growing industrial economy. The universe doesn’t look like what we see when we gaze across space at the night sky or when we calibrate the time it takes to accomplish our earthly goals.

The quantum revolution shook things up further by introducing its famous “uncertainty principle,” capable of calling into question all the solid truths generations of Westerners were taught to hold as self-evident. To bring the point home, Erwin Schrodinger offered the reflection that quantum uncertainty could mean that the same cat could be dead or alive at what for us is the same precise moment of time in a chain of causality that we believe to be predictable. After all, what could be more radically distinct in our human minds than the difference between life and death?

The new science had a radical impact on Western art, from painting (expressionism and ultimately abstract expressionism) to music (atonality) and literature (stream of consciousness). Artists made a concerted assault on logical predictability, perspective, time and the reassuring sequences of tonality and harmony that please the average person’s ear. They began to deconstruct the matter they were working on in a quest for something that seemed like a deeper truth.

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Of course, this questioning of the orthodoxy of artistic taste did not cancel popular culture. Instead, it empowered a new version of popular culture, one that ordinary people and individual talents could consume but not produce. It empowered the engineers, technologists and industrialists who could design and mass-produce a culture built on the notion of addictive appeal through a savant mix of novelty and conformity, on the one hand, and increasingly sophisticated technical standards, on the other.

This became possible thanks to the science of industrial commercialism that had already become the ruling force of the consumer economy. An entire and increasingly invasive popular music industry emerged that turned musical culture from what it once was — a social medium of creation — into packaged sound accessible through an iPod. The arts had once been defined by artists struggling to create, driven by their passion for their chosen art. Now, all the dominant arts were manufactured by people with industrial means and marketing strategies.

Like everything else in today’s world connected less by technology than programmed desire, science and the arts have followed similar paths. There are still purists in both who struggle with the big questions of their science or art. But even they tend to be sucked into cycles of competition for cash that lead them to rejoice at disruptive innovation or disruptive theory — such as the muon revolution — because disruption itself is the key to positioning their product in a competitive market.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.