Often people remark that science and philosophy deal with two different sets of questions. I’ve heard many times that philosophy (or religion & theology) deal with the “why” questions whereas science deals more with the nuts-and-bolts kind of “how” questions. But then you run into some questions which are kind of in the middle – and this is the region where philosophers of science focus much effort & ink discussing what they call the demarcation problem
: where does science end & philosophy begin?
Let me give you an example of just such a fuzzy question, one which has been asked repeatedly down through the ages: why is there something rather than nothing? Specifically, why is the universe (and us) here at all? Why does it all exist?
Now, up until recently, many people would have looked at such a question as being beyond the realm of science, more appropriately categorized as one of philosophy, theology, or religion. However, as science has advanced, our understanding of very fundamental physics related to the big bang
is providing us clues as to the answer. A little background first…
You see, recently there was a series of experiments conducted at the particle accelerator
called the Tevatron at FermiLab
just down the road from me in Batavia, IL (here’s a Chicago Tribune article on the experiments
). Specifically, what the physicists were attempting to do was to try to replicate the conditions of the early universe smashing counter-rotating beams of protons and anti-protons
together at incredibly high energies (on the order of 1 TeV). For those who don’t know, an anti-proton is the antimatter
version of a proton – you see, the folks at FermiLab have an antimatter generation and storage facility. Yeah, antimatter as in Star Trek
But the trouble with antimatter is that whenever it interacts with matter, a process called annihilation
occurs where all the matter & antimatter are instantly destroyed and nothing but raw, naked energy is left (in the form of high-energy photons, usually) in accordance with that most famous of physics equations – E = mc^2
. In other words, antimatter is really
nasty stuff – let it come too near normal matter and “poof!” it’s gone.
So here’s where the big question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, comes in. About 13.7 billion years ago, right after the big bang, our best theories of physics tell us that there should have been a perfect balance between matter & antimatter. Now, for the reasons which I outlined above, if this were true then we have a problem: why didn’t all that matter/antimatter wipe itself out shortly after the big bang and lead to… well, to nothing? Why is the universe that we see all around us, made (as far as we know) entirely out of matter, still here? This topic is usually referred to by physicists as baryon asymmetry.
Simply put, the Fermi team sent protons and antiprotons around its underground Tevatron accelerator ring into a head-on collision, which produced slightly more tiny fragments called “muons” than tiny fragments called “antimuons.”
It was a laboratory victory of matter over antimatter, and a minuscule replication of what scientists believe must have happened shortly after the Big Bang, though exactly how matter won out has long confounded them.
Previous tests slamming such infinitesimal particles together — a proton is one one-hundred-thousandth the size of an atom — have produced similar results. But they never have risen above a statistical shadow of doubt for physicists working with computer calculations about particles and interactions they can’t see.
By contrast, the latest discovery by Fermilab’s DZero team seems statistically solid. If it makes it past critical peer review, it will lead to a re-evaluation of existing theories and, possibly, a deeper understanding of physics and why things exist. It certainly will inspire a barrage of additional supercollider tests, as other labs try to verify the discovery or shoot it down.
So now our modern science seems to be on the verge of lifting the veil on one of the age-old questions that our species has pondered as long as we were capable of conscious thought. And it gets better: the Large Hadron Collider at CERN
is expected to conduct similar experiments but at even higher-energy levels (up to about 10 times stronger than those at FermiLab’s Tevatron), which means physicists will be able to push ever closer to the energy densities of the big bang to address even more fundamental questions.
I see this as the natural progression of these big questions: they start out in the realm of philosophy/religion/theology but gradually progress into the realm of science as both our technology & imaginations allow. Does this mean that science will ultimately answer all of the questions that are now philosophical in nature? I think the most honest answer is “I don’t know”, but regardless it won’t (and shouldn’t) stop us from asking questions 🙂