A deeply disturbing and controversial line of thinking has emerged within the physics community.
It's the idea that we are reaching the absolute limit of what we can understand about the world around us through science.
“The next few years may tell us whether we'll be able to continue to increase our understanding of nature or whether maybe, for the first time in the history of science, we could be facing questions that we cannot answer,” Harry Cliff, a particle physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research — better known as CERN — said during a recent TED talk in Geneva, Switzerland.
Science news in pictures
Science news in pictures
1/20 'Tiny vampires' existed millions of years ago
Scientists have discovered that microscopic 'vampire' amoebae existed hundreds of millions of years ago, and they may have been some of the first predators on Earth. By examining ancient fossils with an electron microscope, paleobiologist Susannah Porter from UC Santa Barbara discovered tiny holes which may have been drilled by vampiric microbes. The tiny creatures are believed to be the ancestors of modern Vampyrellidae amoebae, and punctured holes in their prey before sucking out the contents of their cells
2/20 Kepler 62f
An Earth-like planet orbiting a star 1,200 light years away could have conditions suitable for life, say scientists. Kepler 62f is about 40 per cent larger than the Earth and may possess surface oceans. It is the outermost of five planets circling a star that is smaller and cooler than the sun discovered by the American space agency Nasa's Kepler space telescope in 2013
3/20 Vegetables grow well in soil from Mars
Scientists have taken a leaf out of the script of The Martian by showing how easy it would be to grow your own veg on the Red Planet. In the hit Ridley Scott film, a stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon uses his botanical skills to cultivate potatoes. Now his success has been emulated by researchers in the Netherlands who harvested tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and cress raised on simulated Martian soil supplied by Nasa
4/20 Ancient Roman 'leisure complex' unearthed in Jerusalem
An ancient Roman estate complete with its own wine press and bathhouse has been unearthed in Jerusalem. A series of buildings dating back at least 1,600 years were discovered underneath the city's famous Schneller Orphanage which operated on the site from 1860 until the end of the Second World War, when it was turned into an army base. The ruins were discovered by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority who were excavating the site ahead of building new flats for the city's Orthodox Jewish community
5/20 Scientists discover possible new species of deep-sea octopus nicknamed 'Casper'
Scientists believe they may have found a new species of octopus likened in appearance to Casper, the friendly cartoon ghost. Researchers with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the discovery by chance as they searched the seabed on an unrelated mission collecting geological samples. Teams were operating an unmanned submarine on the Pacific Ocean floor at depths of more than four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) in the Hawaiian Islands when they spotted the unusual creature
6/20 Black hole captured eating a star then vomiting it back out
Astronomers have captured a black hole eating a star and then sicking a bit of it back up for the first time ever. The scientists tracked a star about as big as our sun as it was pulled from its normal path and into that of a supermassive black hole before being eaten up. They then saw a high-speed flare get thrust out, escaping from the rim of the black hole. Scientists have seen black holes killing and swallowing stars. And the jets have been seen before.But a new study shows the first time that they have captured the hot flare that comes out just afterwards. And the flare and then swallowed star have not been linked together before
7/20 'Male and female brains' aren't real
Brains cannot be categorised into female and male, according to the first study to look at sex differences in the whole brain. Specific parts of the brain do show sex differences, but individual brains rarely have all “male” traits or all “female” traits. Some characteristics are more common in women, while some are more common in men, and some are common in both men and women, according to the study
8/20 Dog-sized horned dinosaur fossil found shows east-west evolutionary divide in North America
A British scientist has uncovered the fossil of a dog-sized horned dinosaur that roamed eastern North America up to 100 million years ago. The fragment of jaw bone provides evidence of an east-west divide in the evolution of dinosaurs on the North American continent. During the Late Cretaceous period, 66 to 100 million years ago, the land mass was split into two continents by a shallow sea. This sea, the Western Interior Seaway, ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Dinosaurs living in the western continent, called Laramidia, were similar to those found in Asia
9/20 Asteroid to skim past Earth on Halloween 2015
A huge asteroid is set to skim by Earth on Halloween, just three weeks after it was first spotted. The rock is travelling through space at 78,000 miles per hour, and will fly past the Earth at a distance of only 300,000 miles – only slightly further away than our moon, and easily close enough for Nasa to class it a potentially hazardous object. The asteroid is bigger than a skyscraper
10/20 Life on Earth appeared hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought
Life may have come to earth 4.1 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years earlier than we knew. The discovery, made using graphite that was trapped in ancient crystals, could mean that life began "almost instantaneously" after the Earth was formed. The researchers behind it have described the discovery as “a potentially transformational scientific advance”. Previously, life on Earth was understood to have begun when the inner solar system was hit by a massive bombardment from space, which also formed the moon's craters
11/20 Earth could be at risk of meteor impacts
Earth could be in danger as our galaxy throws out comets that could hurtle towards us and wipe us out, scientists have warned. Scientists have previously presumed that we are in a relatively safe period for meteor impacts, which are linked with the journey of our sun and its planets, including Earth, through the Milky Way. But some orbits might be more upset than we know, and there is evidence of recent activity, which could mean that we are passing through another meteor shower. Showers of meteors periodically pass through the area where the Earth is, as gravitational disturbances upset the Oort Cloud, which is a shell of icy objects on the edge of the solar system. They happen on a 26-million year cycle, scientists have said, which coincide with mass extinctions over the last 260-million years
12/20 Genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs
Chinese scientists have created genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs, after editing the genes of the animals for the first time. The scientists create beagles that have double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a certain gene, reports the MIT Technology Review. The mutant dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications”, Liangxue Lai, one of the researchers on the project. Now the team hope to go on to create other modified dogs, including those that are engineered to have human diseases like muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s. Since dogs’ anatomy is similar to those of humans’, intentionally creating dogs with certain human genetic traits could allow scientists to further understand how they occur
13/20 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
14/20 Bees in the Rocky Mountains are evolving shorter tongues
With warmer summers, flowers in the Rockies have become shallower and more suited to shorter-tongued bees
15/20 The majority of the UK public believe in aliens
The titular alien character from 2011's 'Paul' - a poll has found the majority of the public in Britain, Germany and the US believe that intelligent life is out there in the universe
16/20 Researchers discover 'lost world' of arctic dinosaurs
Scientists say that the new dinosaur, known as Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, “challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology”. Florida State University professor of biological science Greg Erickson said: “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?”
17/20 Scientists find exactly what human corpses smell like
New research has become the first to isolate the particular scent of human death, describing the various chemicals that are emitted by corpses in an attempt to help find them in the future. The researchers hope that the findings are the first step towards working on a synthetic smell that could train cadaver dogs to be able to more accurately find human bodies, or to eventually developing electronic devices that can look for the scent themselves.
18/20 The Syrian civil war has caused the first ever withdrawal from the 'doomsday bank'
Researchers in the Middle East have asked for seeds including those of wheat, barley and grasses, all of which are chosen because especially resistant to dry conditions. It is the first withdrawal from the bank, which was built in 2008. Those researchers would normally request the seeds from a bank in Aleppo. But that centre has been damaged by the war — while some of its functions continue, and its cold storage still works, it has been unable to provide the seeds that are needed by the rest of the Middle East, as it once did.
19/20 A team of filmmakers in the US have made the first ever scale model of the Solar System in a Nevada desert
Illustrations of the Earth and moon show the two to be quite close together, Mr Overstreet said. This is inaccurate, the reason being that these images are not to scale.
20/20 Academics claim a full bladder makes for a better liar
People lie more convincingly if they have a full bladder, according to research by academics at California State University. Iris Blandón-Gitlin's team asked 22 students to lie to a panel of interviewers. Half were given 700ml to drink before the interview and the other half, just 50ml. The students with the full bladders showed fewer signs that they were lying and their untrue answers were longer and more detailed, meaning interviewers were less able to detect that they were telling porkies. PM David Cameron has previously attested to giving speeches on a full bladder.
Equally frightening is the reason for this approaching limit, which Cliff says is because “the laws of physics forbid it.”
At the core of Cliff's argument are what he calls the two most dangerous numbers in the universe. These numbers are responsible for all the matter, structure, and life that we witness across the cosmos.
And if these two numbers were even slightly different, says Cliff, the universe would be an empty, lifeless place.
Dangerous No. 1: The strength of the Higgs field
The first dangerous number on Cliff's list is a value that represents the strength of what physicists call the Higgs field, an invisible energy field not entirely unlike other magnetic fields that permeates the cosmos.
As particles swim through the Higgs field, they gain mass to eventually become the protons, neutrons, and electrons comprising all of the atoms that make up you, me, and everything we see around us.
Without it, we wouldn't be here.
We know with near certainty that the Higgs field exists because of a groundbreaking discovery in 2012, when CERN physicists detected a new elementary particle called the Higgs boson. According to theory, you can't have a Higgs boson without a Higgs field.
But there's something mysterious about the Higgs field that continues to perturb physicists like Cliff.
According to Einstein's theory of general relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics — the two theories in physics that drive our understanding of the cosmos on incredibly large and extremely small scales — the Higgs field should be performing one of two tasks, says Cliff.
Either it should be turned off, meaning it would have a strength value of zero and wouldn't be working to give particles mass, or it should be turned on, and, as the theory goes, this “on value” is “absolutely enormous,” Cliff says. But neither of those two scenarios are what physicists observe.
“In reality, the Higgs field is just slightly on,” says Cliff. “It's not zero, but it's ten-thousand-trillion times weaker than it's fully on value — a bit like a light switch that got stuck just before the 'off' position. And this value is crucial. If it were a tiny bit different, then there would be no physical structure in the universe.”
Why the strength of the Higgs field is so ridiculously weak defies understanding. Physicists hope to find an answer to this question by detecting brand-new particles at the newly upgraded particle accelerator at CERN. So far, though, they're still hunting.
Dangerous No. 2: The strength of dark energy
Cliff's second dangerous number doubles as what physicists have called “the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics.”
This perilous number deals in the depths of deep space and a mind-meltingly complex phenomenon called dark energy.
Dark energy, a repulsive force that's responsible for the accelerating expansion of our universe, was first measured in 1998.
Still, “we don't know what dark energy is,” Cliff admits. “But the best idea is that it's the energy of empty space itself — the energy of the vacuum.”
If this is true, you should be able to sum up all the energy of empty space to get a value representing the strength of dark energy. And although theoretical physicists have done so, there's one gigantic problem with their answer:
“Dark energy should be 10120 times stronger than the value we observe from astronomy,” Cliff said. “This is a number so mind-boggling huge that it's impossible to get your head around ... this number is bigger than any number in astronomy — it's a thousand-trillion-trillion-trillion times bigger than the number of atoms in the universe. That's a pretty bad prediction.”
On the bright side, we're lucky that dark energy is smaller than theorists predict. If it followed our theoretical models, then the repulsive force of dark energy would be so huge that it would literally rip our universe apart. The fundamental forces that bind atoms together would be powerless against it and nothing could ever form — galaxies, stars, planets, and life as we know it would not exist.
On the other hand, it's extremely frustrating that we can't use our current theories of the universe to develop a better measurement of dark energy that agrees with existing observations. Even better than improving our theories would be to find a way that we can understand why the strength of dark energy and the Higgs field is what it is.
Getting answers could be impossible
Cliff said there is one possible way to get some answers, but we might never have the ability to prove it.
If we could somehow confirm that our universe is just one in a vast multiverse of billions of other universes, then “suddenly we can understand the weirdly fine-tuned values of these two dangerous numbers [because] in most of the multiverse dark energy is so strong that the universe gets torn apart, or the Higgs field is so weak that no atoms can form,” Cliff said.
To prove this, physicists need to discover new particles that would uphold radical theories like string theory, which predicts the existence of a multiverse. Right now, there's only one place in the world that could possibly produce these particles, if they exist, and that's the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
And physicists only have two to three years before CERN shuts the LHC down for upgrades. If we haven't found anything by then, Cliff said, it could signal the beginning of the end.
“We may be entering a new era in physics. An era where there are weird features in the universe that we cannot explain. An era where we have hints that we live in a multiverse that lies frustratingly beyond our reach. An era where we will never be able to answer the question why is there something rather than nothing.”
Check out the TED talk below:
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