Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Boson and Brahman for the Bored

Courtesy -

There’s a thrill in reading pure science books IF there is no exam looming over your head! Indeed, all my quantum physics and cellular biology PLEASURE reading was done after I graduated.

Needless to say, I followed with avid interest the developments in Cern lab. A quest to understand how our universe was formed has been an eternal one. Perhaps we have taken a step closer towards the Truth. And this is where science and spirituality close in.

It is also a fascinating journey to compare notes between modern physics and Vedic physics. It is a strange feeling – to catch the explanation for a second; to experience that split second level of clarity – only for that clarity to be clouded by yet another question! And that is how we have marched on – question by question.

Since I am free, I can’t see any reason why I should not inflict physics upon you, you poor, hapless reader! But I’ll try and keep it as non-technical as possible. Let’s start off!

Before we understand the hoopla around the boson, we should revisit basic definitions.

Key to understanding quantum physics is the notion of ‘mass’. In colloquial terms, when we use the term ‘mass’ with reference to a body, we more often than not mean ‘weight’. In physics ‘mass’ simply means the energy held in a body. So from now on, whenever you see the word ‘mass’ think energy. Here is a visual explanation given by Newton baba. It’s his second law of motion. Let’s say you want to move a body. You exert force. But because of the mass (energy) resident in the object it resists your force – it won’t budge. You increase your force. At some threshold, the force you exert becomes greater than the energy possessed by the body – so it moves. Quite like tug-of-war isn’t it?

I am sure whenever I spoke of a ‘body’ or ‘object’, you imagined something solid – you know with a volume and density – a presence so to speak. Time to expand (or should I say contract) your imagination. Let’s look at the micro world of the atoms.

Imagine you are looking at an atom. It has no defined boundary as such – no circular outline. It’s all woozy. First you’ll see electrons acting crazy – going around in random orbits. Then, if you see past the electrons, you’ll find some sort of a core – we all call it the ‘nucleus’. The nucleus too has no defined boundary as such. It’s a collection of protons and neutrons huddled together. The protons have a positive charge. The neutrons have no charge. The outer electrons have a negative charge. Thus, the electrons are attracted to the positively charged protons. It is this attraction, called as the electromagnetic force, that keeps the electrons spinning around the nucleus.

Okay, so we understand why the electrons hover around. But what about the atomic nucleus itself – with the protons and the neutrons?

Ah! Protons and neutrons are not ‘whole’ bodies by themselves. They are once again a conglomerate of other smaller particles! I know...I’s like a Matryoshka doll...but, we’re getting there. Protons and neutrons in turn are made up of quarks. Phew! Quarks are the most fundamental building blocks so to speak. But they are so miniscule, that they cannot exist independently – so they group to form larger particles. There are six different types or ‘flavours’of quarks. The most stable types are ‘up’ and ‘down’.

So two ‘up’ and one ‘down’ combine to form one proton. Whereas two ‘down’ and one ‘up’ combine to form one neutron! Can someone write a limerick on this please? The other funny thing about quarks is that they have fractional charge. So an ‘up’ quark carries a charge +2/3 of an electron charge (e) (i.e. its charge is two-thirds of the charge of an electron). A ‘down’ quark carries a charge of -1/3e. So now, if you add the charges, you’ll know why a proton is positively charged ( 2/3+2/3+(-1/3) = 1e), while a neutron has no charge (-1/3+(-1/3) + 2/3) = 0). Thus a proton with a positive 1e charge perfectly balances a negatively charged electron.

That brings us to a fundamental question. Shouldn’t the protons be on the periphery, hanging around with electrons, what with the opposite charge attraction and all that? Why are they crowded in the centre so to speak, with no-charge neutrons? Shouldn’t the protons kind of repel each other and move away? The fact that they are ‘held’ together means there is some other external force ...err...forcing them to stay put. This is called as the Strong Nuclear Force – or simply Strong force.

But what really ‘causes’ this force? Where does this force come from? Enter Bosons. Mind you, bosons have been around for a while. We’ll come to the hoopla around the Higgs boson in a minute. But let’s look at bosons themselves. Bosons are some kind of ‘force carriers’. In the case of nuclear force, a boson named ‘gluon’ ‘imparts’ the force. I won’t go into the technical aspects – but here is an example that can illustrate a force-carrying boson. On a carom board, you have the striker and the pawns. The striker is responsible for moving the pawns in a particular direction. In other words, the moving striker ‘gives away’ some of its kinetic energy to the stationary pawn, and the pawn moves with this new found energy. A gluon or any force carrying Boson is similar to the striker. By interacting with the protons and neutrons, it manages to exert enough force to hold them together.

So our next question is from where do these bosons get their mass (energy) in the first place? In the example of the carom board, your fingers give the necessary energy to the striker. This is where Higgs field comes into picture. Higgs field is...well...another kind of field just as we have the electromagnetic field. Crudely put, the fundamental particle of an electromagnetic field is the photon. In the case of Higgs field, it is the Higgs boson. Also note that in quantum physics, ‘particle’ is not really a tiny body – but it is the minimum possible excitation.

The Higgs field is this mysterious field that envelops our universe so to speak. This field is responsible for imparting ‘mass’ or energy to any particle that interacts with it. In my mind, I imagine the Higgs field as an invisible entity – gently bobbing and thrumming with an intrinsic ‘energy’. We’ve not understood the ‘source’ of this energy. But the most fundamental ‘unit’ of this field – the Higgs boson - ‘imparts’ mass (energy) into any particle that interacts with it.

And thus, the journey of the universe begins. The tiny quarks that interact with the bosons are held together to form protons and neutrons. In turn the electrons spin around this nucleus. And voila – you have the atom of a fundamental chemical element! And you have your universe with the oxygen and hydrogen and water and metals and....You. I can never get my head around this...and I marvel at this beauty. Perhaps I marvelled too much...that’s why my marks in school and college were so poor!

But hold on, I am not done yet. All the above are 20th century physics. But let’s take a look at what happened in 2B.C. in India. Atomic physics (or should I say philosophy?) was explained by a revered philosopher (and scientist?) Kanada. There are several books that explain this Vaishehika school of thought on atomism, but for the sake of this blog, I found a simple white paper by Roopa Narayan (you can read the white paper here) titled ‘Space, Time and Anu in Vaisheshika’. Section 5.3 on Initial motion of Anu in this white paper explains that the ‘first initial motion’ of the Anu when the universe began was caused by ‘adristam’ or the unseen. On reading this, I could not help drawing a comaprison with the mysterious, invisble Higgs field. Further reading on the Vaisheshika sutras are enriching and humbling. Kanada has explained the matrix of time, space and motion IN RELATION to the points of reference. Perhaps the difference is that while Kanada’s texts are more metaphysical, philosophical in nature, modern physics has given unshakeable mathematical proofs to the phenomena around us. The phenomena has never changed - only our understanding and interpretation has changed over time!

But lets go back even more in time – when the Upanishads came into being. We’ve often stumbled upon words such as ‘Brahman’ and ‘ether’. It has been explained that ‘all matter originate from the Brahman, and all matter shall (eventually) go to rest within this Brahman’. The Brahman is described as ‘NirAkAra’ (without shape i.e. no boundaries) and ‘Nirguna’ (that is without characteristics). Indeed, we all meditate on this invisible Brahman, we manifest the Brahman in many shapes and call It ‘God’. Other religions have similar notions – some call it the Universal Spirit. Everyone believes that this Spirit, this Entity envelopes the universe. We believe that this Brahman/Spirit is responsible for creation - for that first atom with its protons and neutrons and electrons – which then went on to combine and react to form the stars and planets and galactic systems. And eventually living beings.

No wonder the Higgs Boson is called ‘God’s particle’ – the one which sets creation in motion, quite literally. Perhaps many years down the line, as the Higg’s field is validated with theories and equations – we might have really taken a mathematical step closer to Brahman/God/Creator/Spirit. Oh! We do live in interesting times!

© Sumana Khan - 2012


  1. Oh this is one area which is closest to my heart. You should actually read "beyond Einstein" which flirts with the fine line between quantum and philosophy. And when I read this news, all I could think of was the nasadiya sukta from rig veda.. till now, I was thinking that sukta to be a saying of a person who in vain wanted to attain the same brahaman.. but now, that means a whole lot more :)

    1. You have given me two new things to read :) thank you thank you!

  2. I fell in love with that book... very detailed explanation on quantum physics.. odi amele namage nimma abhipraya/vimarshe tilisi...:)

  3. Wish physics was taught to me like this in school and college!
    You'd have made an excellent lecturer, you know. :)

  4. Thanks for this refresher!
    I last read about stuff like this nearly 40 to 45 years ago.
    Of course, we read about atoms and molecules and about protons, electrons and neutrons only in our elementary courses in Physics.
    The subject has now completely evaporated from my mind as I never had any use for it after appearing for my last the Physics examination while doing my Engineering studies at BITS Pilani in the late sixties.
    It is good to recall all this and I found your treatment of the subject both interesting and illuminating.
    Yes, Karthik is right. You would have made a great lecturer, (no, make that Professor!)

    1. :) Thanks for promoting to a 'Professor' LOL!

  5. I used to hate Physics in school/college but I now find it interesting. As you said nobody's evaluating now :P This is a very concise refresher and loved how you have put it across, so simple to understand. I need to dig further. A few days before, I was feeling like reading our PUC physics books once again. Might as well do.

    1. ha ha yes Wanderer! Also they made physics so if the goal of physics was to solve problems.

    2. i mean mathematical problems :D

  6. What a wonderful refresher! Very lucidly explained.You sure would have made a great teacher!And hey, you pleasure reading includes quantum physics and cellular biology? All I can say is WOW!

    I have a strange love-hate relationship with Physics.Being the daughter of a physicist,I do nurse a fondness for the subject but never had the courage to take it up after high school, mostly because I hated the mathematical part of it--the derivations involving integration and all that.

    1. Scribllehappy..pleasure reading also (predominantly) includes serial killer crime novels LOL! So it is not all that 'wow' :) I was not too keen on the mathematics part too. Perhaps when they design physics as philosophy - i will redo my degree again :)

  7. Loved reading this. Had been pondering over the Higgs Boson but hadn't got clarity but you've explained it so well and succinctly that the penny dropped and it's all clear now :) You have a great way with words, a natural flow to your writing that makes it eminently readable and gripping. Have you thought about writing professionally? You would also make a great teacher :)

    BTW, I'm Shail's sister Shivaja's friend. In case you're wondering. :) And have been reading your posts for quite a while now :)

    1. Thank you for stopping by Allahdeen (and thank you for being a regular)! I am glad my explanation of the boson made sense..and I hope MY understanding is correct! I wish some physics expert reads this and gives additional details.

      Yes, I've taken up writing professionaly. My debut novel should be out this year, if all goes well. It is being edited at a publisher's. Thanks for your kind words!