I’m an astro-physicist, one who’s research has for almost twenty years now been in large part focused on antiparticles in our galaxy, so when headlines – or at least news stories – bring these antiparticles to the front and put them in the same sentence with ‘God’ and ‘our existence’, I am not only interested, I find matter (no pun) for commentary. Oh, and for once, there won’t be any reference to Islam…
What’s the story? You may not have heard, but the physics community got all excited last week because Fermilab (one of the big accelerators out there) found some hints of why there are more particles than antiparticles in the universe. Indeed, that has been a serious mystery, because all matter (the particles that constitute atoms and molecules, i.e. electrons, protons, neutrons, and other less well-known fundamental particles) came from the energy that was expanded in the Big Bang, but it could only come out in particle-antiparticle pairs, which sooner or later “annihilate” when they meet their opposites in the universe. But somehow there was some “excess” matter over antimatter, just a tiny bit, 1 extra for every 30,000,000 pairs! And those “extras” ended up forming all the matter structures that exist, from atoms to galaxies, and of course you and me. And that’s why you read that “our existence” is owed to that “matter-antimatter asymmetry”, and I don’t want to use the fancy vocabulary (like “baryogenesis” or “baryon asymmetry”).
There have been proposals and particle physics models to account for that asymmetry (the most well-known among students of physics is “CP violation”, where C stands for “[electric] charge conjugation” and P for “parity”, i.e. left-right), and laboratory (accelerator) experiments have long found some particles which exhibit that kind of violation, but it has also been shown that the process would not have produced enough excess to account for, yes, “our existence”… In fact, there are many proposals for particle-antiparticle asymmetry, but none have been confirmed experimentally, and certain not at any appreciable level – until now.
And that’s where last week’s news story comes in, with physicists at Fermilab announcing that they have seen a heretofore unobserved violation effect that could produce a substantial level of excess (of particles over antiparticles). And, of course, it wasn’t enough for the paper to appear in Science (one of the most, if not the most prestigious journal out there), they had to throw in the buzz words “existence” and “God” to make sure the announcement would resonate around the blogosphere. Dennis Overbye, New York Times science reporter, titled his report “A New Clue to Explain Existence”; in it he quoted Joe Lykken, a theorist at Fermilab, saying “I would not say that this announcement is the equivalent of seeing the face of God, but it might turn out to be the toe of God.” Wow!
First, it is way premature to claim any trophies over this experiment; as all scientists know, this result needs to be ascertained (it is only tentative right now) and confirmed (by other teams and instruments). Indeed, in our fields, a “2 to 3 sigma” result is statistically bordering on the marginal, and I (with many) can recall important results that were presented with much greater statistical confidence but got retracted later or were just never confirmed by anyone else.
Secondly, I don’t know whether the exaggerated usage of such ‘God’ metaphors (the previous one was the fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background that was described as “seeing the face of God”) says more about the media, the scientists, or the general public. Why does everyone feel obligated to not only hype a discovery (which, granted, can often be important) but also describe it in grand metaphors? Why can’t we just present the results in context, with some background, and perhaps a nice Sidney Harris cartoon? Why does a genetic engineering feat like Craig Venter’s replacement of a bacterium’s DNA with a synthetic one have to be announced as “Scientist Craig Venter Has Created Artificial Life”? Again, I am not downplaying the achievements, just complaining about the hype…
Anyway, I wish that my positrons (anti-electrons) were really directly linked to “my existence” (then I could use that idea in seminars) or that matter-antimatter excess was a toe-print of God’s, but I don’t believe one can raise the science to such levels, and I don’t think it serves science or education to adopt such hyping and buzzing approaches.
Also see a related post, God is in the Metaphor.