Thursday, September 11, 2008

LHC, Higgs, Hicks, Asimov, Creation and Entropy

Yesterday I blogged about one of my favorite stories, "The Last Question" by the late great grandfather of Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov, which raises the question whether or not entropy can be reversed.

The word "entropy" is derived from the Greek εντροπία "a turning toward" (εν- "in" + τροπή "a turning"), but it's a slightly different matter than the virtual world of Entropia we're talking about here (but may have been their inspiration). What we're dealing with here is:

"As a finite universe may be considered an isolated system, it may be subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, so that its total entropy is constantly increasing. It has been speculated that the universe is fated to a heat death in which all the energy ends up as a homogeneous distribution of thermal energy, so that no more work can be extracted from any source.

If the universe can be considered to have generally increasing entropy, then - as Roger Penrose has pointed out - gravity plays an important role in the increase because gravity causes dispersed matter to accumulate into stars, which collapse eventually into black holes. Jacob Bekenstein and Stephen Hawking have shown that black holes have the maximum possible entropy of any object of equal size. This makes them likely end points of all entropy-increasing processes, if they are totally effective matter and energy traps. Hawking has, however, recently changed his stance on this aspect." [wikipedia]

In Asimov's story, all energy is consumed at the end, time no longer exists and the universe is once more cold and void, as it was in the beginning, Creation has expanded untill it could no more and returned to it's cradle. This is why the story came to me after first blogging the LHC testrun.

The LHC, or Large Hadron Collider is supposed to simulate what that 'cradle' looked like, how the universe looked like just after the 'big bang' (if you buy that stuff - I'm more a Creationist), hence I wondered if the LHC would answer Asimov's question: What happens when the lights go out, how do you turn them back on? Surprisingly, Asimov an immensely laureated scientist and outspoken atheist gave the answer, using the words of Divine Creation:

"Let there be light - and there was light."

I decided to ask Dr. Kenneth Hicks from the Ohio University (a well respected scientist, yet humble enough to point out it's the Higgs Particle we're dealing with, not the Hicks particle):

"Regarding Asimov's short story, The Last Question, this is a great one to think about. While the LHC will not answer all of our questions about the Big Bang and the eventual fate of the universe, the LHC's results will get us a
little bit closer to a fundamental understanding of what happened at the earliest moments of the Big Bang.

Actually, Asimov's story is much more relevant to the people who study black holes, such as Stephen Hawking, who at one time claimed that some entropy was lost near a black hole (later, it was shown that entropy is still OK even in the highly distorted space-time of a black hole).

Progress in sience is slow when it comes to answering the big questions, like those posed in Asimov's story. Still, it's a great story to read, and very thought-provoking."

Whatever happens when the LHC is fully up and running, it won't produce a functioning red button that says: 'Switch light of the universe back on', but maybe bring us a wee bit closer to understanding how this magnificent universe works.

For now, I think I've said enough on the LHC (or Doomsday Device as you like) and the Higgs particle. Thanks to Dr. Hicks for his immediate response. Perhaps I'll return to Asimov's "Last Question" once more as I'd like to see how Asimov's Biblical conclusion to the story (let there be light) holds up against these hardcore scientists. Finally, again, the link to the online version of Asimov's short story at Multivac.

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Anonymous Mike Claus said...

Chicken --- Egg.
No matter how much science learns about the beginning of things, man can always ask "What happened before that?". Until there is some scientific evidence to support alternative theories, it is always appealing/easy to claim divine intervention. I don't think LHC is going to end the debate - just move the question's timeframe backwards a few milliseconds.

Friday, September 19, 2008 10:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Paul Snedden said...

I think Mike summed it up beautifully. Well done, Mike.

Although, I think the egg came before the chicken. I've always thought of it as though there is/was another egg-laying animal, and that it "gave birth" to a genetic abnormality - ie, the chicken. That's why chicken tastes like everything :)

Friday, September 19, 2008 10:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Brad Thomas said...

Its possible the lights might turn on again and play the universe over exactly as it is playing now. You might be experiencing deja vu and not even know it.

Friday, September 19, 2008 10:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Greg Poulos said...

Well.. depends on what you believe.

Some believe that once the Universe hits that point (You know: Lights Go Out.) that it collapses and begins again. So, the Big Bang was more of a (lower case) big bang; one of an infinitely reoccurring big bang string...

By the way, I'd schedule the actual first collision for right after the US election. On the off chance that the 1 in a billion chance that there is a black hole that causes the end of all. I'd find it ironic that we go through one of the nastiest of elections... and finally finish it and then...

Friday, September 19, 2008 10:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anders Widov said...

can give an answer to the egg / chicken issue. I don't under stand why that is an issue. My son came home from school with this classical question and the answer with a good explaination suddenly struck me.

The egg was first.

Fact: The dinosaurs lay eggs.
Theory (current one): Birds have evolved from dinosaurs.
Conclusion: The egg came before the chicken!

Qued errat demostrandum

This I have taught my kids and they keep spreading this theory.

Friday, September 19, 2008 10:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Jon Belof said...

A wonderful story by a gifted writer, the main point of the story was the (according to classical thermodynamics) inevitable "heat death" of the universe due to the continual increase of entropy as the universe comes to a state resembling equilibrium.

However, my understanding is that the current cosmological treatment of entropy is incomplete (to my knowledge, addressing this is not a precise goal of the LHC although presumably a better understanding of black hole dissipation may affect these ideas). There was a recent Scientific American that reviewed some current cosmological research on this topic (i.e. gravitational entropy states and implications for the long-term structure of the universe).

Personally, I don't take Asimov's solution to seriously: it is a modern-day equivalent of "deus ex machina".

Friday, September 19, 2008 10:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Ove Svensson said...

Or it could be as Douglas Adams wrote in THHGTTG,

"There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly
what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear
and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory which states that this has already happened."

Friday, September 19, 2008 10:52:00 PM  
Blogger VeeJay Burns said...

Clarification: THHGTTG means:

"The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy"

Friday, September 19, 2008 10:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Elena Skargbosa said...

Off-Topic, to Anders: it seems you're assuming that at some point in Evolution the chicken came from an egg of a different species (i.e. not a hen). Is that biologically possible?]

Friday, September 19, 2008 10:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Greg Poulos said...

To Elana, I believe Anders was referring to the fact that, at some point, one of the Chicken's ancestors was actually not a chicken. At some point, through evolutionary steps, there was a non chicken, laid an egg, with slightly different DNA through mutation, and viola a new species. How much differentiation is for someone else o debate...

Friday, September 19, 2008 10:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Robert Poulk said...

The thing that's interesting to me is how entropy fits into this whole thing. We as humans continue to fail miserably at preventing entropy from disorganizing our best attempts at ordering the universe down to absolute zero, a fact uconsidered in Asimov's story. So having read not only the Foundation series but also many of his marvelous essays (I have a paperback copy of "The World, Numbers and I" locked away for my great-grandchildren) and detective stories (the one where the criminal stole only the rich man's peace of mind is a particular favorite) I have a strong suspicion that Asimov's Last Question was posed not as a fait accompli but as a trick to catch the unwary being swept along by the inertia of his science.

Unless entropy stops being the law, the answer doesn't even require a pencil, let alone the LHC:

To turn the lights back on, let go of the switch and LET THERE BE LIGHT.

Nothing Biblical there -- just some anachronistic syntax...


Friday, September 19, 2008 10:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Les DeGroff said...

I suspect the LHC will not answer the question, nor many more fundamentals of physics. My uninformed guess is that there are some additional scale factors, even if you get a pair of heavy particles to collide at high relativistic speeds (the sum of their energy near reputed big bang conditions) you are not close to recreating the conditions of space/time and surrounding energy.

:-) a related couple of questions...which I have considered in a SF story context (unfinished) is what would happen if you had a technology to invoke at will "space creation/expansion" and what would be the effects of simply "expanding" a large black hole as appears to be in the center of our and many other galaxies. Expanding a black hole might be result of space expansion, or some trick of changing or inverting gravity...either so that conditions of gravity > c no longer apply.
:-) further down the ultra technology path of mining neutron stars, black holes and white dwarfs would be control of the spew that comes out, so that you can selectively design the element's mix in the yield. Hydrogen with a dollup of helium is just not that useful.

My personal crackpot theory, not original to me is that our universe is a black hole...internally expanded or stretched space time and that some black holes in our universe have budded off new younger universes. ... mmm :-) and it's elephants all the way down. :-)

As for the chicken/egg and Elena's point, there is a well excepted idea that eggs came before chickens, birds and even dinosaurs, so that is pretty clear.... however, a lot of evolution happens by slow cumulative changes and while generation to generation can interbreed (remain the same species) after many steps they can not successfully reproduce. Note there are many fuzzies in nature... horses, donkeys can begat mules and hennies, and very rarely those hybrids are even fertile.
Things get even more complex if you want to talk about single mutations that restrict reproductive success in some matings but not others. Lethal recessives where it takes two copies of a gene (from mother and father) to be deadly exist... we generally do not consider them a new species.

Friday, September 19, 2008 10:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Scot Baldwin said...

I can't imagine that the LHC will come even close to replicating any resemblance of how things may have been just as "there was light." It almost seems laughable that we would think it could. But, I thought that the LHC was more a search for the Higgs boson. I think they will likely capture some anomalous image that will create a heated debate as to whether it's the Higgs or not, but at the end of the day...Mike is right. We won't ever be able to get to the zero mark and hence we will next need an LHC with a 100 mile radius to get closer to Genesis, and so on. I don't think there will be any universe shattering discoveries which will validate E=MC2, quantum's standard model, or the string theory (and one more than the others). But the great thing is that the journey will have produced more discussion on these topics than ever before. Who knows, maybe this collision of particles will create a black hole that will suck us all in...or better extrude us all out (if Les is correct)!

Friday, September 19, 2008 10:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Shannon Ehlers said...

I suspect that the greatest similarity between the LHC and the 'big bang' is that they each are the product of another's effort. Intelligent design is still up for debate, at least in the case of the former.

Ooops, I think my creationist is showing - have to cover him back up or the stodgy scientist club won't let me back in for meetings anymore.

Friday, September 19, 2008 10:56:00 PM  

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