05 July 2012

Stephen Wolfram Blog: “A Moment for Particle Physics: The End of a 40-Year Story?”

To me, the Higgs particle and the associated Higgs mechanism had always seemed like an unfortunate hack. In setting up the Standard Model, one begins with a mathematically quite pristine theory in which every particle is perfectly massless. But in reality almost all particles (apart from the photon) have nonzero masses. And the point of the Higgs mechanism is to explain this—without destroying desirable features of the original mathematical theory. Stephen Wolfram

With all the news and excitement flying around on the Internet these past days about the discovery of the Higgs boson, I must admit I have similar feelings to Stephen Wolfram. While I’m by no means an expert in advanced physics, the little I know on the subject tells me this doesn’t bring scientists any closer to the Holy Graal of physics and cosmology, the unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics. With the Higgs particle confirmed, there are now two competing models on how mass comes about: the inertial mass is caused by the interaction with the Higgs field (quantum mechanics), while the gravitational mass is generated by the curvature of the space-time continuum (general relativity). Since both are identical (as far as anyone knows at the moment) there has to be some connection – or one of the theories has to be wrong. The most promising explanation would probably be something like quantum foam, a chaotic or fractal sub-structure of space-time, that could explain why some particles are heavier – they interact strongly with the “bumpy” space-time – and also the overall curvature – particles change the foam while passing through it.

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