อนุภาคฮิกส์: ฟิสิกส์อธิบายได้ทุกอย่างจริงหรือ?

วันก่อนผมไปร่วมงานเสวนาเรื่องอนุภาคฮิกส์กับปรัชญาที่ The Reading Room ของคุณเกี๋ยวแถวๆสีลม ที่มาร่วมเสวนากันก็มีอาจารย์ปิยบุตรจากภาควิชาฟิสิกส์ จุฬาฯ แล้วก็คุณคุณากรซึ่งเป็นนักแปลอิสระ ประเด็นที่เราคุยกันมากประเด็นหนึ่งได้แก่แนวคิดเรื่อง “ลดทอนนิยม” หรือ reductionism ซึ่งเป็นทรรศนะที่ถือว่า ในการอธิบายปรากฏการณ์อะไรนั้น เราควรจะ “ลดทอน” ปรากฏการณ์นั้นๆให้ย่อยลงเป็นส่วนประกอบเล็กๆ ยิ่งเล็กเท่าไหร่ยิ่งดีเพราะจะได้อธิบายได้ถึงหลักการพื้นฐานที่สุดมากขึ้น แนวคิดก็คือว่าเมื่อมาถึงหลักการที่เป็นพื้นฐานที่สุด หลักการนี้จะอธิบายเรื่องอื่นๆได้ทั้งหมดในจักรวาล อนุภาคฮิกส์ก็คิดขึ้นมาเพื่ออธิบายการเกิดขึ้นของมวล เพราะว่าตามทฤษฎีแล้วอนุภาคต่างๆมันไม่จำเป็นต้องมีมวล แต่ในเมื่อความเป็นจริงคือสิ่งต่างๆมีมวล ก็เลยต้องมีคำอธิบายว่ามวลเกิดขึ้นมาได้อย่างไร นักฟิสิกส์เลยคิดทฤษฎีขึ้นมาว่าน่าจะมีอนุภาคตัวหนึ่งทำหน้าที่ให้มวลแก่สิ่งต่างๆ อนุภาคนี้ก็เลยได้ชื่อว่าอนุภาคฮิกส์ตามชื่อผู้คิดทฤษฎี

ประเด็นก็คือว่า การมีอนุภาคฮิกส์เป็นตัวอย่างที่ดีของแนวคิดแบบลดทอนนิยม กล่าวคือมวลเป็นอะไรที่ทุกสิ่งทุกอย่างมี แม้แต่พลังงานก็มีเพราะตามทฤษฎีของไอน์สไตน์พลังงานกับสสาร (ที่มีมวล) เปลี่ยนสลับกันไปมาได้ เมื่อเป็นเช่นนี้อนุภาคฮิกส์ก็เลยอธิบายได้ทุกสิ่งทุกอย่าง กล่าวคืออะไรก็ตามที่มีมวล (ก็คือทุกอย่าง) สามารถอธิบายได้โดยผ่านอนุภาคฮิกส์ทั้งหมด

ทีนี้ประเด็นที่เป็นปัญหาก็คือว่า ลดทอนนิยมเป็นแนวคิดที่ไม่สามารถอธิบายปรากฏการณ์หลายๆอย่างได้ เพราะเมื่อเกิดปรากฏการณ์เหล่านี้ขึ้นมา มันมีลักษณะพิเศษที่ “เกิดขึ้น” หรือ “โผล่ขึ้น” มาจากการรวมตัวกันของส่วนประกอบย่อยๆโดยที่ลักษณะพิเศษที่ว่านี้ไม่มีอยู่ในส่วนประกอบย่อยเหล่านี้ ตัวอย่างที่เข้าใจง่ายที่สุดก็ได้แก่น้ำ หรือ H2O เราทราบว่าน้ำเป็นสารประกอบที่ประกอบขึ้นจากอ๊อกซิเจนหนึ่งอะตอมและไฮโดรเจนสองอะตอม ทีนี้น้ำมีคุณสมบัติที่เรารู้กันดี คือเปียก แต่อ๊อกซิเจนกับไฮโดรเจนไม่ได้มีคุณสมบัติแบบนี้ คุณสมบัติอีกอย่างของน้ำก็คือดับกระหาย แต่ทั้งอ๊อกซิเจนกับไฮโดรเจนไม่สามารถดับกระหายได้ คุณสมบัติ “เปียก” หรือ “ดับกระหาย” เป็นคุณสมบัติที่ “โผล่ขึ้นมา” (emergent) จากความเป็นน้ำ เป็นอะไรที่เกิดขึ้นโดยที่ส่วนประกอบแต่ละส่วนไม่มีคุณสมบัติเช่นนี้ ทีนี้ทั้งอ๊อกซิเจนกับไฮโดรเจนต่างก็มีมวลทั้งนั้น ก็คือประกอบขึ้นจากอนุภาคฮิกส์ในท้ายที่สุดทั้งนั้น แต่อ๊อกซิเจนมีคุณสมบัติหนึ่งที่ไฮโดรเจนไม่มี คือช่วยให้ไฟติด อนุภาคฮิกส์ไม่สามารถอธิบายได้ว่าอ๊อกซิเจนช่วยให้ไฟติดได้อย่างไร และก็อธิบายไม่ได้เช่นกันว่าน้ำดับกระหายได้อย่างไร

ข้อสรุปก็คือว่าเราไม่ควรเชื่อมั่นในลดทอนนิยมมากเกินไป เราไม่ควรเชื่อว่าทุกสิ่งทุกอย่างสามารถ “ลดทอน” ลงไปได้เป็นส่วนประกอบย่อยๆ แล้วถ้าเราเข้าใจส่วนย่อยเหล่านั้น เราจะเข้าใจทุกสิ่งทุกอย่างที่ส่วนย่อยนั้นประกอบอยู่ ถ้าเป็นอย่างนั้นจริงเราก็จะสามารถเข้าใจได้ทุกอย่างที่มีอยู่ในจักรวาลเพียงแค่เข้าใจการทำงานของอนุภาคฮิกส์เท่านั้น ซึ่งจริงๆก็ไม่เป็นอย่างนั้น เพราะแม้แต่เรื่องพื้นๆอย่างน้ำมีคุณสมบัติเปียกก็ยังอธิบายด้วยอนุภาคฮิกส์ไม่ได้

เรื่องการเกิดขึ้นของคุณสมบัติที่ไม่ได้มีอยู่ในส่วนประกอบของวัตถุที่มีคุณสมบัตินั้นยังมีอีกมาก คงได้มีโอกาสเขียนเรื่องนี้ยาวๆมากกว่านี้ แต่ตอนนี้คงต้องพอแค่นี้ก่อน

Einstein explaining the famous matter-energy formula

Here is a Youtube video that captures the voice of the great physicist Albert Einstein explaining his famous equation, e=mc2. 

There are a number of implications for Buddhist thought. First of all, the interchangeability between matter and energy seems to support the notion that things do not have inherent characteristics. If a seemingly solid thing like a lump of matter could be interchangeable with energy, then matter itself does not have what is normally conceived of as having, namely its spatial shape, its mass, its solidity, and so on. It’s only a short route from this to the claim that all things are but “empty” as Nagarjuna said. Whether something is matter or energy perhaps depends ultimately on *our* point of view. Language and conceptualization have a magical way of “creating” something out of what is essentially “nothing.”

Atom Smasher — A Buddhist Response

By now everybody is talking about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that CERN is putting up and has already turned on. As is now widely known, the purpose of this super supercollider is to smash protons to bits to learn what is inside of them. It is believed that this could shed light into the early components of the universe a few billionths of a second right after the Big Bang. This could be a milestone in history of science and in our understanding of our universe.

So it is an appropriate moment to draft up a Buddhist response, or my response to the whole thing anyway. In Buddhism there is a theory of the composition of matter, which can be found in the Abhidharma. It is said that that matter is composed of some very tiny particles and it is the arrangement of these particles that lead to the formation of the ordinary objects that we know, such as tables, chairs, stars and so on.

It is said in the Pali Abhidhammattha-Sanghaha, or the Manual of Abhidhamma, one of the key texts in Theravada Buddhism, that ordinary material objects are composed of very tiny paramanu. The text describes this as follows:

It should be noted that the atomic theory prevailed in India in the time of the Buddha. Paramanu was the ancient term for the modern atom. According to the ancient belief one ratharenu consists of 16 tajjaris, one tajjari, 16 anus; one anu, 16 paramanus. The minute particles of dust seen dancing in the sunbeam are called ratharenus. One paramanu is, therefore, 4096th part of a ratharenu. This paramanu was considered indivisible (A Manual of Abhidhamma or Abhidhammatha-Sanghaha, p. 318).

I did not have time to look up how big or small a ratharenu is, but the idea should be clear. Things are ultimately composed of paramanu, and I have heard some scholars say that one paramanu is about one nanometer wide (This is only an approximation). And according to the Abhidhamma the paramanu is considered indivisible. So the picture is a basic one of tiny particles making up the material world.

However, the Abhidhamma (or ‘Abhidharma’ in Sanskrit) is only a school of thought within Buddhism. This fact is much obscured in Thai Buddhism because of the veneration that the Abhidhamma canon has received being one of the three ‘baskets’ of the Buddhism scripture. Very few in Thailand have a chance to study the other schools of thought in the other traditions, so they come to take the Abhidhamma itself as the final word of the Buddha, where in fact in the Suttas the Buddha scarcely mentions topics such as basic composition of matter, if at all.

So the point is that there are other traditions of Buddhism which do not subscribe to the atomic theory of the Abhidhamma. This is well known in Tibetan Buddhism, which has received all the earlier and later developments of Buddhism from India. Other schools, most notably the Madhyamaka, say that, ultimately speaking, even the paramanus do not exist from their own side. That is, on the objective side of the matter, there can be no such thing as the paramanu, and since there is no paramanu, all material things are but illusions created by the mind when it fabricates reality through concepts and language. At one level there is Emptiness, but at another level there are all the things that we know and are familiar with. However, these two levels do not mean that one is shallow and the other is deep. On the contrary the two ‘levels’ are more or less the same, so to speak. This is because Emptiness itself is empty, there being no ‘thing’ such that it could be regarded as the ‘Emptiness’. ‘Emptiness’ is just a term to signify things in the world, only emphasizing their interdependence and lack of inherent characteristics. So on a “deeper” level behind the ordinary things there might be Emptiness, but then at the deeper level than Emptiness itself are these ordinary things like tables and chairs.

So how is this related to the atom smasher? One thing it might do is that it might provide either a support or a counterexample to the Abhidhammic theory. Smashing protons together might yield some further, hitherto unknown, particle that might well correspond to the paramanu. Or it might not, because coming from the ancient tradition the paramanu could then be further interpreted in either way.

But my real point is not with the Abhidhamma. The point is that anything that happens as a result of the smashing will not only answer some old questions, but will open up a whole host of new questions to keep physicists busy for a foreseeable period. Suppose the smashing yield some smaller particles that we have not known before, then there will be further questions as to whether these smaller particles themselves are basic and indestructible, or whether they can be smashed further. Or could it be that after the smashing nothing is revealed of the proton except for something that could not be classified as matter at all? In any case the colliding and smashing will always yield more questions, perhaps more than answers.

Will in the end the experiment provide an evidence to the Madhayamaka’s idea that all material objects are at the ultimate level ’empty.’ This could be so, and let us see what happens as a result of this smashing.

I end with a YouTube video very clearly describing the whole process:

Time is empty.

One point that attracted quite a lot of attention during the class on Nagarjuna last weekend was about time. Basically what Nagarjuna is saying is that time itself is empty. What this means is not that time itself has no content of its own, nor that time is in the Newtonian sense of being a steady flow moving ever forward, but that time itself is empty of any inherent characteristic. The flow that one imagines in conceptualizing time is nothing but our own imputation on reality. In this sense time is not different from other results of conceptual imputation, such as individual things and so on.

This points to a startling conclution that time, considered on its own, or “from its own side” as the Tibetans are wont to saying, is nothing. Ultimately speaking there is no such thing as time in reality. As individual objects have already been found to be empty of their inherent characteristics, so is time. Nagarjuna’s argument here is quite similar to that advanced by Leibniz in his characterization of time and space as being relational and dependent on things and events. For Leibniz time and space do not exist on their own, and here is one of the main differences between him and Newton. If time could be thought of as inherent existing, for example, as a “place” wherein events take place in such a way that one event can be classified as being earlier or later, then there must already be some coordinates by which these events could be so classified, for how else can we know which one is earlier or later? But if that is the case, then time itself must already have within it some means to measure the positions of the events. This, however, contradicts Newton’s own assumption that time is shorn of any marks and is nothing more than something that flows absolutely.

This also seems to be Nagarjuna’s point. Time, as does everything else that is conceptually constructed, depends for its very being on other things. Without the things that compose events, time is nothing at all, not, of course, in the Newtonian sense of time having nothing in it, but time itself is nothing. We have time because we do have things in it, and we have things in it (and space) because we already have the concept of time. Time, space and things and events are totally inseparable from one another.

If time is empty in this sense, then it does make sense ultimately to hold that there is the past, the present and the future. For all these are but relations within time. Moreover, the past, present and future derive their being from the relation to the consciousness of an individual. We feel that the time “right now” is the present because this is what we feel, this is what we are consciousness of at the moment, and of course we feel taht this “now” is forever moving. This is only a fact of our consciousness. Since all of us are moving inexorably toward that end, we have the sense of time as something ever moving onward and something that absolutely cannot be recalled or repeated. Once time is lost, it is lost forever.

However, a startling thing from the teaching of the Buddha is that that feeling that we all have is but an illusion. The relation between past, present and future holds only if there is a reference point, a point at which the present can be determined. If the present couldn’t be determined, then both the past and the future would make no sense. The present can only be determined with reference to the self, or the thinking consciousness. One feels that the present is nothing but one’s own present. But if we were to take a more general position and detach ourselves from our own individual mental continuum and our body, then the present does not have to be what we ordinarily take to be here and now, but could in fact be anywhere, that is, any time.

Perhaps this is what is meant when it is said that Buddhas and highly attained Bodhisattvas are above time. They are timeless, and once it is totally, fully absorbed in the mind of a being like you and me that time itself is empty in this sense, then it is possible that we can be timeless too.

Matter, Antimatter, Universe, Multiverses

Roaming about the blogs in wordpress, I found out the other day this blog that contains a post of a google video on a documentary by the BBC on history of contemporary physics. The story is about the discovery of the structure of atom and the intimate connection between the very big and the very small. Those who are familiar with physics will immediately recognize Rutherford’s discovery of the internal structure of the atom and all the subsequent developments after that.

There are two things that got me watching the whole video until the end (it took me almost an hour). The first was that there is matter and there is antimatter. Antimatter is just like matter, except that it is a mirror image of matter. Antimatter exists in an alternative universe, so to speak. It might be compared to a shadow of the entire visible universe. This has very startling implications.  For example, I now exist (this much is certain because, as Descartes said, I am now writing this post and am thinking (or at least believe I am thinking, and so on). But according to this antimatter theory, there is somewhere out there my counterpart, another me who exists in the fullest sense as I do exist now, only that that another me is a mirror image of myself. Since I am right handed, my doppelganger is then left handed, and so on.

Another thing, which is perhaps more outrageous, is the proposal that there are a multitude of universes apart from our own. I remember reading a science book when I was a teenager that there can be only one universe, because the universe is the sum total of everything there is. But then this physicist suggests that our universe is just one among very, very many! What is going on?

The physicist (I happen to forget his name, but he’s from Oxford) suggests that there are a universe for every possibility. Hence each possibility is an actual reality in some universe. He calls them “multiverses.” Thus there is another universe (or philosophers prefer to call “another world”) in which I am not a Buddhist, but a Christian, yet another where I am a Taoist, and another where I am a Jewish, and so on and on. This is not mere philosophical argument out of the logic of possibility (such as David Lewis’s), but a *physical* theory.

But if all this is true, it has a profound implication for Buddhist teaching. If there are many, many multiverses in many of which there is a ‘Soraj’, so where is the real ‘Soraj’? What about the sense of identity of the ego, which is so hard for most of us to get rid of and is the root cause of ignorance (avidya) which brings about sufferings and endless roaming in samsara. If there are an infinite number of Sorajs then who is the real Soraj? Is it the one who is conscious now of writing this very sentence and is feeling the tactile sensation of a Korean-made keyboard? Not exactly, for all the other Sorajs in all the multiverses could be doing the same thing and are feeling the same sensation. The only reason why this might seem counterintuitive to some is that the attachment to the sense of the ego is so strong. There has to be something to hold on to which is part and parcel of the sense of the identity of the self. This feeling just cannot be dissipated to the many personalities out there in the multiverses. The problem, though, is that this feeling, this seeming sense of identity of being oneself is just an illusion. It is an illusion because we can always imagine a scenario where we do not possess the perspective of a particular person, but instead view that particular person just as another among very many human beings there are, each feeling the same thing and having the same perspective. So there is nothing in the putative sense of the ego that can guarantee that this sense of the ego is for real.

Enough for now. It’s late already. Back to the TV 🙂