Adonis Diaries

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Explaining the Mysteries of the Universe

Physicist Ali Chamseddine has developed theories and models that help in unraveling some of the universe’s unanswered questions.

By on May 20, 2015
Ali Chamseddine

Last November, I wandered the physics department at the American University of Beirut (AUB) searching for a professor to help me script a short video series I was preparing.

It was Friday afternoon so the department was virtually empty, save for one office with its door ajar.

Little did I know when I walked in and introduced myself that I was meeting a man responsible for a number of theories and models that are aiding humanity unravel the mysteries of the universe.

“As a child I was completely absorbed in mathematics,” explains Ali Chamseddine, who currently serves as a physics professor at AUB. But as chance had it, he ended up enrolling in physics for his undergraduate degree. He humorously attributes it to the fact that his older brother was already studying mathematics and that the family would not allow both siblings to learn the same trade.

He chuckles, then tells me that the real reason he opted for physics was because at the time mathematics was taught in French at the Lebanese University.

After completing his degree, he got a scholarship and started working on his PhD on Supersymmetry at London’s Imperial College. There, he was advised by Mohammad Abdus Salam, a Pakistani theoretical physicist and a future recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize for physics.

What is Supersymmetry?

All matter is made up of fundamental particles, the basic building blocs of everything around us. The Standard Model is a theory of fundamental particles developed in the second half of the 20th century that successfully explains almost all experimental results.

The problem is that it explains ‘almost all’, but not everything. There are many phenomena, such as the expansion of the universe, dark matter, and some aspect of the theory of gravitation that the model cannot account for. As such, other models are needed.

Enter Super-symmetry.

Elementary particles, as they are alternatively called, are either fermions or bosons. Supersymmetry suggests that for each particle there exists a so-called super partner, and that the super partner would be from the opposite class: fermions would have boson super partners and vice versa.

But none of the observed fermions and bosons are partners; in fact, a supersymmetry partner has never been found. This means that if the theory were proven, the number of elementary particles would double.

The Large Hadron Collider, built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and completed in 2008, is the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider. “Hopefully with this energy, it will be sufficient to create these particles that have not been seen yet.”  (The energy was doubled recently, after renovation of the collider)

Just finding one or a couple at first would be sufficient to prove that the model works, and that would mean that “physics as we know it, would completely change.”

After completing his thesis, Chamseddine joined CERN as a scientific associate. There he proposed a theory that years later would be used to determine the low energy limit of String Theory. In it, he argued that the space-time continuum is 10 dimensional instead of the four dimensions we are aware of: time and the three dimensions of space. This model was necessary to frame Supersymmetry.

“If you were to look at a sheet of paper, you’ll see three dimensions, length, width, and albeit small, a thickness. Now imagine that its thickness is much less, say ten to the power minus thirty-five centimeters. It is there that these dimensions hide. We can’t see them, but their implications are around us,” says Chamseddine.

Following CERN, he went to Northeastern University in Boston where he proposed a model that predicts where the Supersymmetry particles should be and what are their signatures. With more than 2000 citations, the paper is “very influential” and is still used by experimentals today looking for Supersymmetry. Chamseddine calls it his best work.

The big shift

After 1985, he left the United States and joined the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, known as ETH Zurich, as a research professor where, for 12 years, he concentrated on research around noncommutative geometry.

When Einstein was alive, only two forces were known: gravitational force and electromagnetic force. Since then, it has been discovered that there are two additional forces: the weak force and the strong force.

Einstein was able to build a theory that describes the gravitational using a geometry invented by German mathematician Bernhard Riemann but it could not account for the other three forces. You need a new kind of geometry explains Chamseddine, “this is noncommutative geometry.”

Noncommutative geometry was initially conceived by French mathematician and a Fields medalist Alain Connes. “It is the frontiers of mathematics,” says Chamseddine. Currently, both he and Connes work on building the theory to understand all four forces with this new geometry. He spends summers in France at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHÉS), as a Louis Michel Chair, a post for distinguished long-term visitors.

Coming back to Lebanon

In 1998, officials at AUB lured him back to his home country with the promise to build a research center – the Center for Advanced Mathematical Sciences – and instating him at the helm. A few years later, financial support dwindled so he decided to step down. “They wanted the center to bring money, but research in fundamental science doesn’t pay.”

Chamseddine was also present at CERN for a roundtable discussion around the Jordan based SESAME project, a cooperative research venture of scientists and governments from all over the region built around a repurposed, “outdated” cyclic particle accelerator. “It’s a big mess; I think it will have a rough ride.” The operational launch of the center has been pushed back on several occasions.

Puzzle solvers

When asked about the state of scientific research in the Arab world, he runs out of words for a moment, the only time he struggled for an answer, then says “It is really bad, you know. Even before civil unrest swept a number of Arab countries, one barely had any hope; right now, we are going backwards at the speed of light.”

Despite the dire take on the state of science and research in the region, his motivation and ambition to continue on uncovering the universe’s mysteries, is rock hard. He compares himself and researchers like him to puzzle solvers playing a game.

“We sit down for days and we try to make sense of it. Where it would take us? We don’t know. But if we knew, it would not be fun anymore.”

You have your Gods. I reserve mine: All for myself…

Let the people who need to re-read the old Books for stories, which are actually happening everyday and everywhere, do what they please: I prefer to read fresh versions, rooted in the current realities. Truth is uncovered by getting engaged in the reality, with all its miseries, injustices, indignities…

Let people who feel this urge to continually re-interpret the outdated and obsolete notions in old Books, abstract notions that you’ll never be able to experiment with and that you’ll never comprehend, do what they please: I have this one life to experiment with and a rich reality to investigate, at my reach everyday…

The live-forces in society have challenges to tackle, and difficulties to prosecute, while still healthy and full of energy and curiosity…Fictional abstract notions of the after-life are for the weak-minded and those witnessing serious degradation in their health and mind power…

The live-forces in society need to:

1. Confront injustices on all fronts: Elite rich classes of exploiters, dictators and oligarchies, totalitarian regimes, absolute monarchies…

2. Demand and capture their rights, civil, political, and human dignity…Free preventive health care, retirements, educations, opportunities to all…

3. Shoulder their responsibilities to the common good of communities…

4. Keep practicing their talents and skills that they invested countless time and energy to acquire and enjoy…

5. Keep acquiring comprehensive knowledge in order to make sense of books and be able to write interesting books…

6. Get engaged in social and political laws processes and ensuring transitions to government systems that guarantee free speech, free expression of opinions, free gathering…All the requirements of a Renaissance Age…

This is a one-life shot, and I want to live it. And I want to live what I desire in the living.

Complications, complications…a long string of imaginary complications.

Life is so simple though.

You are born by the fluke of an impossible series of events. You get to survive to be 5 year-old, a miracle 7 decades ago even in developed nations.  Your mother survived your birth, a miracle 6 decades ago in developed States, after giving birth to half a dozen of “unlucky” babies who didn’t make it among the living…

A couple of suckers of parents think they ought to sacrifice their lives to take care of this “happy happening“, way until he reaches 50 of years, on account that a baby is a baby as long as he looks chubby, roundish, and healthy.

And the parents die.  And you wait the long life expectancy statistics to come true.

And other persons, not your parents, are changing your diapers and cursing: “What’s this piece of shit they threw my way to tend to? They are exploiting my energy and hard work for naught: For negative results in performance, degeneration by the day…” (Fortunately, you are almost deaf, and if you did hear anything, you are in no position to confront the nurse “argument”)

The result of medications that extend life and destroy its quality…

Not an elegant return of the cycle to childhood, by any long shot, with the permanent infirmity you are in…

And ultimately, fodder to worms. And “dust to dust…” and ultimately to boson?

And you say: “How could you be engaged in the common good, if your outlook to life is so down right gloomy?”

And I reply: “A pragmatic demonstration for my respect of other people’s opinions, contrary to mine, in the notion and possibilities in the after life…”

And Higgs enshrined a modern material God. The tiniest of all: The Boson

Last week, particle and nuclear physicists “discovered” that the theoretical notion of the particle boson, labelled the boson of Higgs does exist.  The British Higgs theorized in 1965 that this boson must exist if matters should gain any weight…the missing link to a cohesive theory for the creation of a universe…Higgs is jubilant that the discovery was conclusive while still alive…

After thousands of trials bombarding elementary particles of protons and neutrons and…5 bosons, the tiniest of all particles, materialized in a flickering fraction of a one millionth of a second, invisible to human eyes and other sensory organs.

And the new God turned out to be the smallest, the tiniest of all, and still the most invisible even to the most modern equipment in technologies, and still permeating everything, every particle…

And the new God turned out not to be One, but zillion of Gods, mostly identical though, zillion in every particle in the universe…

And the new God turned out to have some physical weight, physical gravity…And without Him nothing could have amassed any weight…And no Gravity, and no universe could have existed…

And it turned out that all He had to do is to show up for less than one millionth of a second after this mythical Big Bang for everything to take form and exist…to happen, to get bigger, to expand, shrink at incredible speed

And we thought that we are from dust and shall return to dust. Wrong! We are from bosons and shall return to bosons…

Mankind created a God to be far larger than the universe, far more powerful…Political scientists said the ancient God should had to be that powerful, liberal capitalists said so, multinational financial corporations said so, superpower imperialist political strategists said so, Einstein relativity theory said so, all the religions said so…

And it turned out that this ancient God was not that big, not so abstract, and hate to survive more than one millionth of second on His own, free from attachment to other particles…

What happened to this God who appeared to Charlton Heston Moses, who took all his time spelling the 10 Commandments to a flabbergasted Moses who finally fell asleep and went into deep coma?

Heston Moses died and was reincarnated into “Heston Higgs”…old in the picture, as it should be. Prophet Higgs has been screaming in the wilderness for over four decades on this British Desert: “God appeared to my mind. He is in my mathematical nuclear equation. God said: Call me Boson. Find me this Boson. I miss Him. Get in touch with this damned Boson…And for God sake, call Him Boson, not Boson of Higgs…Cannot stand blasphemy…”

The new God is a Heisenberg quantum particle that “cannot be seen and heard simultaneously…” (see note)

Trust the physicists, this highly religious sect, for searching for the absolute and the eternal God. They still believe in the Big Bang, another myth that acquired consensus certainty in this exclusive club.  As if the universe should be created “instantly” and with a Big Bang for it to make any sense…

All other scientific fields, natural and social, believe that development and creation is a time-consuming process…Not to nuclear and particle physicists: Everything must happen instantly and in no time…

Trust the physicists to claim that nothing would have materialized without the existence of this boson after the one millionth of a second of the Big Bang…In every second, many stars and galaxies disintegrate, emitting zillion of bosons, and still, the universe could not have existed if the boson failed to intervene and materialize right after the Big Bang

The new God is not even physics: He is still a philosophy of the sub atomic universe…He always was a concept to hold together our scattered brain, yearning for the Absolute and the Eternal

Note: Heisenberg restriction in the sub atomic universe was that no particle can be exactly located and timed simultaneously: If we focus on exactly measuring the location of a particle, then time is a statistics and vice versa.  Why? Any measuring instrument is bound to disturb the current state of any particle in the sub atomic world…

I have studied nuclear and atomic physics. I have studied relativity and quantum physics…I loved all these courses, except quantum.  I kept wondering: If we cannot measure exactly and simultaneous many parameters in the sub atomic universe then, why call it physics?

May be since I have taken quantum mechanics technology has advanced in such a way not to disturb particles in the sub atomic universe…May be the quantum convoluted equations are easier to compute by computer…May be Quantum mechanics can be inducted into the world of Physics…

And you have hundreds of theoretical physicists trying hard to discover a mathematical equation that would unify relativity and quantum physics…Why? Math is an abstract field by excellence, but when you intend on purpose to applying it in physics then you have got to be able to measure, test, and validate the equation…How can this be done in the subatomic universe?




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