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The Fate of Science

What the Large Hadron Collider can tell us about free will

By Shaomin C. Chew

Once upon a time, what we now consider science was regarded as alchemy, and the subject was synonymous with things like witchcraft, jinxes, and time travel. If you had influenza, a wicked old witch had probably jinxed you; if your crops didn’t yield, you must have invoked a family curse. For a long life or the ability to turn base metals into gold, it was not medicine or a chemical lab you sought, but an alchemist or a magician. In those days, our actions were manipulated by the fates.

Perhaps that past era has returned. Physicists have a new theory regarding the Large Hadron Collider—and contrary to your initial suspicions, it has less to do with particles and more to do with destiny. According to renowned scientists Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya, of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, perhaps free will is not as scientifically sound a concept as our modern philosophy so makes it out to be.

Writes Denis Overbye in The New York Times, “A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.” In other words, creating an amount of energy three to four times times the amount created during a nuclear fission reaction—a possibility realizable with the detonation of an atomic bomb—could produce such catastrophic results that the future might travel back in time to prevent such a thing from occurring.

While many learned modern men have taken pride in separating themselves from the antiquated belief that their actions are controlled by anyone but themselves, these physicists, looking to the Large Hadron Collider, seem to reject the concept that human beings have free will and embrace the idea of fate.

Indeed, necessity, rather than choice, seems to govern much of the natural world. When two of the smallest units of matter, protons and electrons, are placed within the same force field without any outside forces acting, a force of attraction inevitably draws them toward one other. Similarly, we know that everything in the universe can be divided into two groups—particles and forces—and that these two groups are constantly at work changing the dynamics of the universe. As part of this universe, human beings are also a composition of both forces and particles; hypothetically, if one could gather all the data on all the forces and particles in existence and learn all the laws of interaction that govern them, it would be possible to calculate exactly how these particles and forces interact in an equation that would proceed until the end of time. Discerning the events of the past, future, or present in any given context would imply that human beings do not have the free will they assume.

“For those of us who believe in physics,” Einstein once wrote to a friend, “this separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion.” Perhaps what we have imagined to be a philosophical question has now revealed itself to be a question of science. When they speculated about the consequences the Large Hadron Collider would have for human civilization, physicists probably didn’t expect to answer the question of free will as well. Whether the world’s largest particle collider will ever succeed in creating a Higgs boson effect, it has already made a hefty contribution to the field of philosophy.

Shaomin C. Chew ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Thayer Hall.

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