Anti-Particles and the Collapse of Meaning: The Strange Language of Theoretical Physics

I don’t have any formal training in theoretical physics, but I’ve long felt and nurtured a deep curiosity about this scientific discipline. This intellectual pursuit has yielded many unexpected rewards, and it has helped fuel my thinking about numerous ideas much closer to my own “epistemic comfort zones” and areas of expertise (e.g., capital markets, media theory, social sciences). In addition to substantive insights emerging from the work of physicists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss, I’ve also developed a mild fascination with the increasingly strange language that has emerged at the frontiers of modern physics.

To a non-expert, this mind-bending language often confuses as much as it clarifies, and although it resolves conceptual incongruities in some areas it also opens up new vistas of paradox and incomprehension. These examples begin to capture some of the flavor and syntax of the quasi-psychedelic logic of theoretical physics.

1. What’s This? It’s Not That  Thanks to this fascinating discussion among the grand luminaries of scientific story-telling, I anti-particlenow know that “antiparticles are particles going back in time”. In the mind of a layperson, this statement probably raises more questions than it answers, and each answer uses technical terms and constructs that require further definition and clarification, without ever yielding self-evident truths about the constituents of matter. 

For example, if antiparticles are particles going back in time, then what are particles? Well, that’s the question at the heart of particle physics. So far, physicists have unraveled voids within voids, deconstructing putative distinctions between space and matter. It seem axiomatically certain that the final answer to the final question will be a question that inspires no hope that we can move even a little closer to a full and final understanding of the building blocks of all being. It seems there’s no final escape from our shared ignorance about the most important questions in life.

2. Unobserved Hypothesized Existence — Modern physics focuses largely on entities whose existence seems empirically

Visual representation of a Schwarzschild wormhole. Wormholes have never been observed, but they are predicted to exist through mathematical models and scientific theory.
Visual representation of a Schwarzschild wormhole. Wormholes have never been observed, but they are predicted to exist through mathematical models and scientific theory.

dubious but mathematically very likely. Consider the Schartzschild Wormhole, “a hypothetical topological feature of spacetime”. Researchers have no observational evidence for wormholes, but the equations of the theory of general relativity have valid solutions which contain wormholes. Similarly, Dark Matter is a type of matter hypothesized in astronomy and cosmology to account for a large part of the mass that appears to be missing from the universe. Matter missing from the universe? Huh?!

Even after a ravenous Wikipedia binge in which we eagerly follow the densely branching tree of definitions and abstractions, the language of astrophysics primarily reveals the limitations of meaning-making. But, apparently, these concessions to the inadequacies of stable syntax do produce desired outcomes. For example, the hypothesis about the existence of the Higgs particle, first formulated in 1964, did lead to the discovery of the particle in 2012. Mazal tov! But what exactly is the Higgs boson? According to Wikipedia:

“The discovery [of the Higgs particle] has been called “monumental” because it appears to confirm the existence ofhiggs the Higgs field, which is pivotal to the Standard Model and other theories within particle physics. It would explain why some fundamental particles have mass when the symmetries controlling their interactions should require them to be massless, and why the weak force has a much shorter range than the electromagnetic force. The discovery of a Higgs boson should allow physicists to finally validate the last untested area of the Standard Model’s approach to fundamental particles and forces, guide other theories and discoveries in particle physics, and potentially lead to developments in “new” physics.”

3. Quotables

OK. Got it. In conclusion, here are some quotes to cement our understanding on the strangeness of the universe and the noble quest for a Grand New Theory that will finally capture the meaning of the radiant void at the heart of all existence.

pratchett“In fact, the mere act of opening the box will determine the state of the cat, although in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.”

― Terry Pratchett

einstein 2“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
― Albert Einstein

bryson“Protons give an atom its identity, electrons its personality.”
― Bill Bryson

phys“Thus virtual particles are indeed real and have observable effects that physicists have devised ways of measuring. Their properties and consequences are well established and well understood consequences of quantum mechanics.”
― Gordon L. Kane

quantum-540x380“We are musical notes emanating from the quantum string section of a grand symphonic orchestra.”
― Kane Freeman