Opinion

Fifth force opens up a universe of possibilities

Every force has an equal and opposite reaction says Paul McNamee, there are good acts to balance the bad

Particle accelerator at Fermilab

The muon g-2 ring particle accelerator at Fermilab. Image: Reidar Hahn/Fermilab

The fifth force is upon us. It’s one of the stories of our time, but because it’s very complicated, we’re not talking about it a lot. So bear with me. I’m about to explain science really badly.

Scientists think they have discovered the mysterious fifth force of the universe, due to an unexpected wobble in a subatomic particle. The particle is called a muon and has not been behaving as expected. Naughty muon. The fifth force and muon are quite the couple of swells.

While boffins had been getting to grips with the fourth force, which might be connected to dark matter, along comes evidence of the fifth, which they had long suspected but couldn’t confirm, making it, in many ways, the John Cairncross of particle physics.

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This fifth force may change how scientists understand how the physical world works. It could be the biggest shake-up since Einstein’s theory of relativity – which is what specialists say a lot when complex subatomic things happen, a bit of CERN action here, a Higgs Boson there.

Though this one does appear to have them agitated, so to speak. It was discovered during research in a particle accelerator called Fermilab, near Chicago.

Quite what it will mean and what it can be used for is not clear (not to me, anyway, and isn’t that key). But given the belief that dark matter may make up a quarter of the universe, Musk or Bezos will probably try and buy the fifth force – the expansion possibilities are endless. Literally.

There is something fascinating about the discovery of great leaps forward in 20th century physics. The brains of great physicists move like the best music, brilliant and illogical and unconstrained by anchoring norms.

The novelist Benjamín Labatut is chiselling out a career retelling their stories. His first book, When We Cease To Understand the World, is a fantastical and dizzying reworking of the lives, and thoughts, of the quantum pioneers. It leaves you shaken and makes you wonder what great truths they really tapped into, those that are way beyond the rest of us.

His new book, The Maniac, is built around the life of John von Neumann and his computer modelling that went into and beyond the Manhattan project and beyond normal human reasoning. It’s something else. Labatut’s books also touch on where the quests lead, invariably not to a place of good.

So, is it the fifth force that is driving the current cruelty and lack of kindness that feels to be growing and becoming more of an accepted norm?

Is it this that explains the Ryanair insistence that an older couple had to pay £110 because they made a mistake in downloading a boarding pass?

Is it the unseen micro vibrations that are making the government condemn everything that may challenge their re-election because, you know, it’s challenging the re-election?

No, of course it isn’t. That’s down to cold greed on the one hand and a desire for power beyond a plan of how to use it to grow and help on the other.

Though, hold on, because as we all know every force has an equal and opposite reaction – that’s Newtonian, thank you very much. And as there are forces out there pointing the finger and accusing people they don’t like for being responsible for something they don’t like, there are good forces doing the opposite. Like the Shephard boys who we feature this week who raised money to get our vendor Bex a new dog after she lost her beloved pet in a car accident.

Or, like you, who engages with Big Issue in whichever way you do and works with us to make things better. Clearly, this isn’t just altruism, it’s science. Take that, fifth force.

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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