While countless scientists are waiting with baited breath for the great reveal of the Higgs Boson, I wonder if they are giving any thought to what the Higgs field and boson might remind them of? In the 16th century there was a quaint theory that tried to explain the transmission of light and the interactions of the planets by proposing a substance or medium that pervaded the entire Universe. It was called the Aether.
We’ve since dropped that idea in favor of Relativity and Quantum theory. However, the Aether was proposed to be subtle particles that were everywhere, including the vacuum of space. Many things were then thought to be explained by this proposal including the transmission of heat, magnetism. The Aether was the universal medium of energy of the Universe and it even exerted a drag on everything that moved. James Clerk Maxwell, who proposed the basis for our modern understanding of electric charges and fields, wrote in Encylopaedia Britanica:
Aethers were invented for the planets to swim in, to constitute electric atmospheres and magnetic effluvia, to convey sensations from one part of our bodies to another, and so on, until all space had been filled three or four times over with aethers
Apparently not his favorite theory, but in case you don’t know what’s actually going on at CERN at the moment concerning an “All-pervasive medium,” let me summarize. A scottish Physicist Peter Higgs made a proposal that the entire universe is encompassed and filled with a kind of field. Any matter that moves within that field gains it’s mass from interacting with the that feild. I like to think of it as the canvas the universe is painted on. A three dimensional (for now) canvas that gives substance to everything else.
How do those wily physicists at CERN plan to expose it? The way they normally do, by smashing things into to each other with unimaginable speed and force. In the process they hope to break off tiny bits of the Higgs field, which will be Higgs bosons. In effect arranging a collision so terrific that the very fabric of the universe will be revealed. Not to worry though, they are using far less power and destructive capability than our universe uses every second of every day. In all probability those hopeful scientists will only bear witness to the tinyest of universe ripping events. Barely noticeable even to the hardest look from the cleverest recorders.
If they succed however, then we will soon know a little more about where Mass and therefor Gravity and Inertia, hence weight and crushed toes from a dropped bowling balls, originate. It also means that we will have achieved something truly stunning. We will have interacted with a prime component of the Universe itself, it’s all-pervasive structural facility.
It’s really quite different than what the Aether was proposed to be, except that it’s something in the deepest vacuum and everywhere else that fills our universe. If we can interact with it, even violently, what subtler ways can we use it?
If we understand the source of gravity, will we be able to someday negate it, or increase it? Once we discover a medium that runs through the universe how soon will we have engines that can churn their way through it? My favorite question is whether the Higgs field is the limiting factor that enforces the speed of light. That’s one we really have to beat to see the rest of our reality. Time will tell.
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011