Paul Andersen: Fair Game
August 13, 2012
It should be required that anyone claiming residence in Aspen should be able to define the “Aspen Idea” (body-mind-spirit) in all its constituent parts. The body and mind are somewhat straightforward, but spirit is illusive.
I define spirit as “the ethereal other,” a kind of dreamy way of saying that I’m clueless about the immaterial. “Essence” might be a better word for the ephemeral soul of matter, representing something as an idea rather than in a physical form.
To hold a peach is to experience the material form of a peach. To hold the idea of a peach in your mind is to grasp the essence or spirit of a peach. To eat a peach is usually as far as most of us are willing to take this line of thought, with the resulting pleasure of succulent juices running down your chin in a body-mind-spirit effusion of peachiness.
My 19-year-old son, Tait, completely altered my plebeian notions of spirit when out of the blue he displayed the brilliant cognitive capabilities of his Andersen genetic heritage. Over a family dinner a few weeks ago, where great ideas are routinely discussed, he offered an insight that is deserving of media attention, which is why I’m writing about it here.
Please note that our typical family dinners are designed to satisfy appetites with gustatory pleasure, but occasionally, they propel us into higher realms of revelation and enlightenment. Sadly, it is only our aged dog Heidi who gets to witness these illuminating discoveries, which are not, alas, reported in Scientific American.
Tait’s observation on spirit coincided with the excitement of the Higgs boson discovery, which set the scientific world abuzz this summer with the notion that the so-called “God particle” is essential for creating the mass of matter.
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At the Aspen Ideas Festival, physicist Brian Greene explained that discovering the Higgs boson was as daunting as “trying to hear a tiny, delicate whisper over the massive thundering din of a NASCAR race.”
Having never been to a NASCAR race, the comparison is lost on me, but Googling “Higgs boson” clarified Greene’s analogy. This particle is damned elusive, even to brainiac physicists like those at the Aspen Center for Theoretical Physics who cover the chalkboards with mysterious, God-like equations.
According to a website labeled “Higgs Boson for Dummies,” the Higgs mechanism in nature allows particles interacting with this field to acquire mass. This supports what is called the Standard Model of particle physics, which supports Tait’s suggestion about the nature of spirit, which he offhandedly unveiled to his dumbfounded parents.
If the Higgs boson particle defines mass, Tait posited over a plate of homemade enchiladas with guacamole, all swarming with Higgs boson particles, there also must be a particle that does not define mass. If so, then a quantifiable definition of spirit would entail particles that are circulating among us in an invisible yet definable form. Except for paranormal encounters and Bigfoot sightings, these forms have been lost to our perceptions until now.
I nearly dropped my fork at the implications. The idea that a spirit world exists as a potentially provable scientific notion could give credence to an invisible yet extant world of ephemeral phenomena. As particle physicists struggle to define mass, a new world opens into a definition of spirit as non-mass particles.
“The ethereal other” becomes potentially measurable and definable, not through seances and Ouija boards but through supercollider technology. The God particle might actually be the invisible, non-mass particles that Tait suggests are the counterpart to Higgs boson.
Before I rush to the Aspen Center for Physics to announce this revelation in bold letters on the blackboard, I’m held back by a cautionary note in a deeply philosophical book I’m reading: “It is best to forget what science said yesterday if you are to believe what she says today.”
While Tait and a phalanx of scientists might be onto something big, and while the Higgs boson discovery might dramatically alter our understanding of mass and non-mass in nature, it would be prudent to wait a century or so before pronouncing it as a fact in this column. Please stay tuned.
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