Academic journal article Ethics & Medicine

The Elemental Ethicon

Academic journal article Ethics & Medicine

The Elemental Ethicon

Article excerpt

Deep down within the atomic nucleus, deeply within the paradoxical richness of empty space, deep inside the synapses of the great scientific thinkers of the twentieth century-this is the territory of particle physics.

- Bruce A. Schumm1


Deep underground near Geneva, Switzerland, teams of physicists studying collisions of high-energy particles propelled to nearly the speed of light recently reported that they had detected traces of what may be a new fundamental particle of nature. The discovery, which the news media reported as "tantalizing,"2 occurred at the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator, operated by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. One physicist participating in the project commented, "we have looked more deeply into the heart of matter than ever before."3

Confirmation of the identity of the novel particle awaits the analysis of further data. Meanwhile physicists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory in California have reported the detection of ripples in the fabric of spacetime that, at the time of this writing, are rumored to be possibly the very first evidence of gravitational waves.4,5 Speculation abounds that the "little wiggle"6 produced by colliding protons in Switzerland might have been a graviton, the hypothetical quantum carrier of gravitational force. If confirmed, the graviton would join the list of bosons, the fundamental entities that have both particle and field properties and mediate interactions among fermions, the elementary building blocks of matter and antimatter.

The graviton is not just any particle to be added to the list of photons, electrons, gluons, and other punctate entities. Researchers anticipate that the graviton, if found, would be an historic step toward the holy grail of physics, a crucial missing link in the long sought-after unified field theory.

Theory of Everything

"The eventual goal of science," explained physicist Stephen Hawking, "is to provide a single theory that describes the whole universe."7 A theory of everything would unite into one theoretical framework all natural phenomena, even those that seem to be unrelated, and describe completely all possible observations.8

Through a combination of dedicated research, mathematical genius, serendipity, and generous funding, the physical sciences have achieved incremental progress toward that goal. Following Michael Faraday's discovery in 1831 that magnetic field flux could induce electric currents, James Clerk Maxwell in 1864 provided the first example of a theory that linked electricity and magnetism - phenomena that had previously been thought to be fundamentally dissimilar.1' Then, during the late 20th century, physicists successfully combined equations describing the strong and weak nuclear interactions with quantum electrodynamics in what is known today as the Standard Model. Based on quantum field theory, the Standard Model describes and accurately predicts interactions at the molecular, atomic, and subatomic levels.

An intractable difficulty with quantum field theory is that it is incommensurable with gravity. Nature behaves very differently at the galactic scale, where gravitational forces predominate in the interactions between massive objects separated by great distances. In 1915, Albert Einstein introduced his general theory of relativity, which revolutionized the conceptualization of gravity as a geometric property of space and time, the curvature of which is related to the matter and energy present. Einstein spent his later years searching for a unified field theory that would reconcile general relativity with quantum field theory, but his efforts were unsuccessful.10

As the search for a theory of everything continues, quantum field theory explains observed interactions at small scales involving subatomic particles, atoms, and molecules, whereas general relativity explains gravitational interactions involving massive structures at a large scale, such as planets, moons, comets, stars, and galaxies. …

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