How many stars are there in the universe?

How many stars do you think there are in the universe? If you are anything like me, who has a rather casual knowledge of science, you’ll feel completely unqualified to even hazard a guess. If you were to try, you could be forgiven for getting it wrong because the answer keeps changing. Once upon a time, it was thought there was only one star (in the sense in which we understand it), and the things we saw were holes through which we could glimpse this light of heaven. Not so long ago it was thought there were infinite stars in an infinite universe (we now know that our universe is not infinite) and it seems that the answer was, until recently, 100 sextillion stars (it looks more impressive with the numbers actually written down: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). This answer is rather out of date with the publication of a report in the journal Nature by Dr Pieter van Dokkum from the University of Yale (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2010/12/01/the-estimated-number-of-stars-in-the-universe-just-tripled/). It has been reported by van Dokkum that the number of stars in the universe is three times what we previously thought. The study’s main focus was the class of star known as Continue reading “How many stars are there in the universe?”

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“Brave New World”

A Brave New World that has such ‘particles’ in it. As Miranda in The Tempest looks at the people that enter the island she lives on, she is perplexed by the newness that they bring to her little, self-contained world. The physicists at CERN seem to look at every new particle they discover with the same awe and wonder. In Miranda’s case, the people she remarks upon as new are equally astonished by her and think her to be the news. Both sides are not aware that they actually come from the same area, the same background even and are way more similar than they think possible. I do not want to create a similarity between particle physicists and new particles, but part of the message of The Tempest is about discovery of something that one already knows almost inherently and that does strike me as a similarity to the research at CERN. Physicists there discover ‘new’ particles and have new insights into a universe that subsequently seems to be very alien to the world we inhabit but still is the same. Continue reading ““Brave New World””

The God particle! Or is it?

The_Large_Hadron_ColliderATLAS_at_CERN_CerchiatoThe search for the elusive Higgs-boson is the driving force between the fierce, but allegedly friendly, competition between the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the Tevatron at Fermilab. Since CERN has decided at the beginning of the month that the LHC will run throughout the winter, an otherwise unusual practice because of the high energy consumption, it probably will win the race, or so they hope.

The reason why it is so important to win that race is that the Higgs boson plays a central role in the Standard Model of particle physics, but is the only particle in that same model that is not yet discovered. The discovery of the Higgs-boson would explain the existence of mass in the universe and the distribution of mass among the particles. It sounds like something of an ultimate explanation for the last open questions in physics.

But what happens then? String theorists argue that the smallest entities in the universe are strings which constitute the particles. In their view the Higgs-boson would not be the ultimate explanation. But should not the question be if we can “ultimately” explain something at all? The Higgs-boson is called the God particle. But what do we mean by that? That God has created that particle? That the Higgs-boson is God? That the existence of the particle proves God’s existence? That God is behind the Big Bang? And if it is discovered, does physics as a discipline all of a sudden stops, because everything is now explained. Of course not, is the obvious answer for most. But why is it then called the God particle? What is that supposed to be telling us?

For those interested in news updates about CERN from the Times, go here.

For an interesting article about science and its relation to religion, read the following:

$1.99 - small Margaret Cavendish on the Relation between God and World

By Karen Detlefsen, University of Pennsylvania

(Vol. 4, May 2009)

Philosophy Compass