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Clifford D. May:
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April 24, 2013
Jewish World Review
July 11, 2012/ 21 Tamuz, 5772
Humans and particles and those who would order them
Some people will tell you the intellectual difference between humans and other species is just a question of degree, and I always think, yeah, sure, and the difference between a fat man jumping and an eagle soaring is just a matter of degree, too.
Of course, it isn't. It is a difference in kind, and the minds of humans are different in kind from those of every other creature we know anything about. We have a very special thing about us, namely that we are the universe aware of itself, not just as a matter of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting, but of examining, contemplating, understanding, of coming up with intricate, ultra-sophisticated concepts such as the Higgs boson, otherwise known as the "God particle."
Though I hate to admit it, I almost feel there is a difference in kind between me and the physicists concluding successful experiments about the Higgs boson. It is no small thing that their work helps explain why subatomic particles have mass and produce matter, why there was a big bang, why we got a universe and even why there are human beings.
Some of those human beings -- researchers at CERN's $10 billion Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland -- arranged trillions of proton collisions by shooting beams at a speed almost as fast as light, I have read to my amazement. The beams slammed together, generating trillions of volts of electricity, heat that is about as hot as heat gets, and a spray of subatomic particles that would go all over the place, existing for about a trillionth of a second.
No eye could catch this, obviously, but some building-sized mechanical detectors did, and their information was transmitted to computers that evaluated everything, figuring out that the chances of error were about one in 3.5 million in helping to verify a 50-year-old hypothesis aiming to solve a major puzzle. Although scientists had agreed that subatomic particles were the building matter of the universe, there was a problem because, without some sort of intervention, these particles would just whiz around without ever bothering to get together to make as much as a lump of mud.
Maybe, a group of scientists said, there was another particle that created a field so sticky that when the other particles passed through it they would become slower, form matter and get this universe of ours chugging along. One scientist in the group was Peter Higgs, for whom this particle is partly named. At age 83, he was happily on hand when CERN scientists announced July 4 that they thought they had certified his thesis. It's reported that he cried.
My take on all of this is hugely positive, although I have something negative to say, too. The positive is how grateful I am to these scientists who are forever enlarging our understanding. My view is that our most noble pursuits are to learn and to love, and while the learning takes many forms, not all of them scientific, science is one of the greatest achievements of mankind. While I do not have the background to appreciate the CERN discovery the way scientists do, I still marvel at the ideas as best I grasp them.
I do not extend the same gratitude to a public school system recently criticized in a study sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. A report said our schools are putting the nation at risk partly because they were not imparting enough scientific knowledge to students and that scientific fields were consequently lacking in enough skilled workers. The disservice is to more than national competitiveness and security, in my opinion. It is also a disservice to the young minds of a species suited for an exceptional awareness.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
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Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
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