Lanterns: The Enigmatic Proton


The Enigmatic Proton

Then there is the case of the enigmatic proton. I love the proton. He is a positive little guy and stubborn like me. He is the backbone of all matter in the entire universe. We know the quark make-up of the protons. It ought to be possible for protons to decay into photons and positrons. Quantum physics tells us that anything possible is compulsory probable, but the enigmatic proton apparently does not know about Quantum physics and if he does, he apparently doesn’t give a hoot. The proton does not decay. It refuses to break up into photons and positrons. That is quite a fortunate fact for us because it is what makes the atom stable and allows for our universe to exist as it does. He is truly the backbone of all matter. It is however a conundrum for naturalists who insist that there is no intelligent design to our universe.

“There is at least one very unusual feature of the Laws of Physics that seems very finely tuned with no anthropic explanation in sight. It has to do with the proton, but let’s first review the properties of its almost identical twin, the neutron. The neutron is an example of an unstable particle. Neutrons, not bound inside a nucleus, will last only about twelve minutes before disappearing. Of course the neutron has mass, or equivalently energy, which cannot just disappear. Energy is a quantity that physicists say is conserved. That means the total amount of it can never change. Electric charge is another exactly conserved quantity. When the neutron disappears, something with the same total energy and charge must replace it. In fact, the neutron decays into a proton, an electron, and an antineutrino. The initial and final energy and electric charge are the same.

Why does the neutron decay? If it didn’t the real question would be, why doesn’t it decay?  As Murray Gell-man once quoted T.H. White, ‘Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory.’ Gell-man was expressing a fact about quantum mechanics: quantum fluctuations-the quantum jitters-will eventually make everything happen unless some special law of nature forbids it.

What about protons, can they decay, and if so, what do they become? One simple possibility is that the proton disintegrates into a photon and a positron. The photon has no charge, and the proton and positron have exactly the same charge. It ought to be possible for protons to disintegrate into photons and positrons. No principle of physics prevents it. Most physicists expect that given enough time, the proton will decay.

But if the proton can decay that means that all atomic nuclei can disintegrate. We know that atomic nuclei of atoms like hydrogen are very stable. The lifetime of a proton must be many times the life of our universe.

There must be a reason why the proton lives so long. Can that reason be anthropic? Certainly our existence places limitations on the lifetime of a proton. It obviously cannot be too small. Let’s suppose the proton lives one million years. Then I would not have to worry about my protons disappearing during my life. But since the universe is about ten billion years old, if the proton lived only one million years, they all would have disappeared long before I was born. So the anthropic requirement of the proton lifetime is a lot longer than a human lifetime… Anthropically, the lifetime of the proton may have to be a good deal longer than the age of the universe.” (The Cosmic Landscape by Leonard Susskind, Back Bay Books, New York, pages 189, 190, 2006.

Notice that Susskind insinuates that man is somehow responsible for dictating the life of the proton, “Certainly our existence places limitations on the lifetime of a proton.” This is the Anthropic Principle at work trying to make man the designer and creator of the universe. But, let us leave that aside for the moment. Assuming that the age of the universe is as Susskind theorizes, ten billion years (others place it around 15 billion years), then a million times the age of the universe is 1016 years. And yet the life of a proton is vastly greater than this unfathomable age.

“But, we know that the proton lives vastly longer than 1016 years. In a tank of water with roughly 1033 protons, we would expect to see one proton decay each year if the life of the proton were 1033 years. Physicists, hoping to see one proton decaying, have constructed huge underground chambers filled with water and photoelectric detectors. Sophisticated modern detectors can detect the light from just a single decay. But so far, no cigar, not a single proton has ever been seen to disintegrate. Evidently the life of the proton is even longer than 1033 years, but the reason is unknown.” (The Cosmic Landscape by Leonard Susskind, Back Bay Books, New York, page 190, 191, 2006)

A proton that does not decay within one million times the total age of the universe is obviously not impacted in any way by any anthropic need. There is no anthropic connection between man’s mind and needs with the creation process that took place long before man existed. The only connection to man is that God designed it in order to allow us to inhabit it. It is not an anthropic connection but a Deocentric connection.

 How is it that sheer chaotic forces could randomly create in its first attempt a proton that is for all intents and purposes the foundation of all elements and to the best of our knowledge eternally stable? To believe that random ordering would be responsible for such fine-tuned results is tantamount to lunacy.

 There are Universal Laws that govern our universe; hence there must be a universal lawgiver. Laws do not self-design. The presence of a law is indicative of a mind that conceived it. Those of us who believe in an open universe understand that the Creator uses these laws to accomplish His will, even when we do not yet know what these laws are.

The supernatural is simply the natural that we yet do not understand. We do not promote a mystical magical concept of the universe. We believe that the laws, built into it by the Creator, govern all of nature. But, we also understand that through other laws that we may, as of yet have no inkling of understanding, He is able to interfere in what we perceive to be the normal processes of nature because of our finite understanding; much in the same way that we may, for example, interfere in the normal course of a river by damming it. What arrogance man shows when he thinks that only what he knows and is able to understand is natural.

Written by Henry Patino

1 Responses

I really enjoyed this! Thank you!

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