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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Particle Religion

Religious metaphors in science are a sign that our beliefs are changing.

A ll of a sudden creationists across the Internet have started repeating a story about Michio Kaku talking about something called primitive semi-radius tachyons. It's claimed that Kaku thinks they're proof of God. What is going on, and what the heck is a primitive semi-radius tachyon?

Here is the earliest article I could find. I can't find the term anywhere in the scientific literature, and probably for a good reason: as far as I can tell, it doesn't mean anything.

Cosmic microwave background
So cuuuuuuuuuuuute!

Most likely it is a garbling of the term spontaneous tachyon, or maybe spontaneous emission of tachyons as discussed by many string theorists like Felder, Kofman and Linde. Or maybe he said de Sitter tachyons. Or maybe finite-dimensional semi-simple Lie algebras. Whatever it was, it got garbled.

Kaku also did a video for Bigthink.com where he says mathematics reveals the mind of God, an expression almost as annoying as referring to the cosmic microwave background images as the universe's ‘baby picture’ or the “We are all star stuff!” that some of them say.

This site quotes him as saying “primitive semi-tachyon radio”:

Analyzing the behavior of matter at the subatomic scale, hit by the pitch radius semi tachyon for the first time in history, a tiny point in space, totally free of any influence of the universe, matter, force, or law, is perceived in an unprecedented way absolute chaos. So, what we call chance no longer makes more sense, because we are in a universe governed by established rules and hazards not determined by universal plane. This means that, in all probability, there is an unknown force that governs everything.

I don't know about God, but you can certainly sense the mind of Google Translate at work there.

Crank scientists

The Internet has given a voice to the millions of cranks who previously had been forced to remain silent. Many of them are in politics, like the guy I heard yesterday who said that depleted uranium has rendered Iraq uninhabitable. But there are also lots in science. There are many, many people out there who believe Einstein's theory of relativity is all a big conspiracy. There are even people who believe that quantum mechanics is all a lie, insisting for instance that there is no such thing as a wave and that interferometers are all fake.

Michio Kaku is no crank. He understands superstring theory—he wrote a highly respected textbook on it. Cranks we understand; what makes me slightly uncomfortable is not that he's talking about God, but that he clearly doesn't really mean it. It's as if the science isn't exciting enough by itself, so the average nonscientist needs a catchy phrase before they will care about it. But sometimes all the creationists hear is that God did this or that.


It turns out that tachyons really do play an important role in superstring theory cosmology. These aren't the same as the hypothetical particles that travel faster than the speed of light. What physicists mean nowadays when they talk about tachyons is something called a tachyonic field which has to do with spontaneous symmetry breaking. And this is important in the Big Bang.

This stuff gets technical fast, and I don't claim to be an expert on it, but the thinking is that the presence of a tachyon in the equations is a signal that the bosonic string is not in the correct vacuum state, which means its field is unstable. The theory is also unphysical if its physical state is negative because the norm of a state is understood as a probability. In other words, tachyons in bosonic string theory, which is an early version of what's now called M theory, were understood to mean there's a problem in the theory.

Particles are localized excitations in fields. A tachyon would create an instability that expands exponentially throughout the entire region, known as a light cone, that it can reach by moving at the speed of light.

A challenge to string theorists is that the ground states of both open and closed strings turn out to be tachyons. Michael Dine has a reasonably nontechnical discussion of this here.

Barton Zwiebach, in his textbook A First Course in String Theory, says it this way:

A negative mass-squared is a sign of instability: the potential for a scalar field goes like V= ½M2𝜙2, so a negative m2 simply means that the stationary point > 𝜙 = 0 is unstable. [p.235]

Maybe this is what Kaku was really saying: tachyons represent instability. Cosmologists say that at the earliest times of Big Bang, the four types of interactions in nature were unified—the universe was said to be symmetric. Spontaneous symmetry breaking caused gravity, the strong force, the weak force, and electromagnetism to separate into the distinct forces we see today. But what triggered the Big Bang? It seems that some physicists are now talking about tachyonic fields as a possibility.

Higgs Boson and other Godlike stuff

The Higgs boson is also sometimes said to be a tachyon because the square of the mass of the Higgs field is negative. The Higgs field is important because its shift to the true vacuum in the theory is said to predict the masses of most of the known subatomic particles.

Leon Lederman originally wanted to call the Higgs boson the god-damned particle, but he claimed his publisher wouldn't let him. That's how we got the term ‘God Particle’. Thanks to the publishers, everybody now thinks Lederman is a religious person.

When scientists talk about God, they usually mean that there is something at work that is big, mysterious, and fundamental that we don't yet understand. Maybe some of them mean it literally, and maybe some really do think of themselves as a priest class, but most often they use God as a metaphor for the mysteries of nature.

String theorists don't just speak of God; they also talk about ghosts and antighosts. If they ever meant any of these things literally, it would mean they've given up on trying to understand the natural world.

This gets religious people excited because it seems to support their religious beliefs. I used to say that science needs to understand the natural world in its entirety before it can begin to study the supernatural. But now I have come to realize that the nature of religion makes this impossible.

It's not that religious ideas aren't evocative and beautiful or that they aren't important. But over the centuries, the conception of God in Christianity has adapted to maintain its distance from us. Max Weber called it ‘disenchantment.’ Over hundreds of years we become less mystical, and our religion becomes less instrumental and more abstract. Our idea of God becomes more like Spinoza's: infinite, unmoved, impersonal, and unimaginable. The closer our ideas get to God, the further away from us he recedes. Whatever we discover about the origin of the universe, by the time we get there, we won't call it God.

It is an integral part of religion for this to happen. If we are to conceive of God as supernatural, our conception of him must change as our concept of nature changes.

Religion has been pushed out of the cosmology business, not because it got things wrong, but because we learned better ways of obtaining knowledge. Calling mathematics the mind of God is meant to suggest that there's intelligent order in the universe. But religious people don't see it that way. Physicists created the whole kerfuffle about fine-tuning when they tried to create a sense of awe about the physical constants. Now they're doing it again.

Maybe it seems harmless, but religious people now use the fine-tuning argument as a proof of God. Will tachyons be next?

Revised jun 21 2016, 8:57 pm; last updated sep 01 2016, 8:40 am

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