Naming ‘the God Particle’
Note: Since the announcement last week that experimental confirmation of the long-sought Higgs boson may have been achieved, the discovery has been the topic of much discussion in both the science and popular press, not least because the Higgs particle has been widely referred to as "the God Particle." In today's post, Faith Tucker looks at this discovery to explore what overlap there might be between its scientific and its spiritual ramifications. Tomorrow, Gerald Cleaver gives a primer on what the Higgs is and does, and talks more about what its significance might be for the study of particle physics.
The image above describes an "event" (proton-proton collision) recorded in 2012 with the CMS detector at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. According to CERN, "the event shows characteristics expected from the decay of the SM Higgs boson to a pair of Z bosons, one of which subsequently decays to a pair of electrons (green lines and green towers) and the other Z decays to a pair of muons (red lines). The event could also be due to known standard model background processes. ATLAS Experiment © 2012 CERN
Judging from the flurry of headlines over the past week, one might be tempted to think that proof positive of God’s existence (or lack thereof) had just appeared out of a 27-km-tunnel buried beneath the Swiss-French border. This frenzy of news headlines and blog titles hailed the recent news that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has discovered a brand new particle of a mass of 125-126 GeV, which is assumed to be the Higgs boson, or the so-called “God particle.” The discovery of the Higgs boson would certainly be a breakthrough for particle physics and cosmology, but would such a finding also radically redefine theology’s understanding of God or challenge the existence of such a deity? Is there actually any theological or religious significance in Higgs physics at all?
The short answer is “no,” which becomes apparent when one considers the widely-reported story of how it got named. In 1993, Nobel Laureate physicist Leon Lederman, along with science writer Dick Teresi, wrote a book detailing the history of particle physics starting with Pre-Socratic Greek philosophy Democritus and culminating with the hunt for the Higgs boson. Until this latest discovery, the Higgs boson was the elusive final missing piece of the puzzle known as the Standard Model—a collection of the fundamental particles that constitute our universe and the complex and mathematically-sophisticated relationships between them. Considering how incredibly difficult finding the Higgs boson was proving to be, Lederman wanted to name the book after that “goddamn particle,” according to some of his collaborators. His editor, however, would not allow it and so the name was shortened to “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question?” And thus ‘the God particle’ was born, carrying with it more than enough social baggage for such a miniscule particle.
Particle physicist Dr. Zosia Krusberg (at right) is visiting assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Vassar College and thinks “the term ‘god particle’ is unfortunate. The Higgs boson is no more (or less) divine or spiritually significant than any other elementary particle within the standard model of particle physics.” It may be fundamental to explaining one of the most basic characteristics of the universe—namely the existence of matter and mass in addition to energy—but “it is no more (or less) important than any other physics principle underlying the Standard Model.”
Last week’s discovery was monumental in that it may have finally provided experimental evidence for the Higgs Mechanism and defined the specific energy of the resulting Higgs boson, but even this “breakthrough” for particle physics leaves many scientific questions unresolved. Finding the Higgs boson completes the Standard Model, but it does not do away with many other questions and shortcomings of the current state of particle physics, such as the constituent particles of dark matter, a quantum theory of gravity, and other “mathematically subtle problems.” Not to mention that there is still significant work to be done to determine the exact nature of this newly-found particle. According to Dr. Krusberg, this particle might behave just as the Standard Model predicts or it could instead be “a Higgs-like particle that will serve as a gateway into explorations of physics beyond the Standard Model." Krusberg continued, “And I guarantee that it is this latter scenario that most of us are hoping for: physicists love nothing more than discovering the shortcomings of their theories, since this is the first step toward more fundamental theories with even more predictive power!”
No, finding the Higgs boson does not answer all the questions of particle physics, much less lend insight into the existence (or not) of God. For that reason, Dr. Krusberg (like most physicists) bemoans the term ‘God particle’ and insists, “There really is nothing either literally or metaphorically god-like about the Higgs boson.” Indeed, one writer for the British journal The Guardian reached such a point of frustration about the name that he ran a competition for alternatives. The winner was “the champagne flute boson,” ostensibly because the bottom of a champagne bottle is an excellent and oft-used demonstration of the energy potential of the Higgs Mechanism. Or then again, perhaps it is simply because physicists thought that finally finding this shy particle would call for some of the bubbly.
On the other hand, some science writers and scientists can appreciate the ‘educational benefits’ of such a mysterious and controversial name because it attracts the attention of the general public and puts a relatable face on an extremely esoteric physics concept. Krusberg herself admits that “People are naturally drawn to the mysterious and the controversial, providing educators with great teaching opportunities.” But she worries about the larger social implications involved in “mixing the vernacular of physics and spirituality,” not least because such uncritical mixing can lead the non-scientific community to draw conclusions about the authority and reach of science that are not justified.
Understanding that the Higgs boson is not the literal stuff of God and that it does not prove or disprove God’s existence (as the name seems to suggest) extinguishes the fire under any sort of religious outcry. But this does not mean that its discovery is irrelevant to the discussion of science and faith, nor to the Christian community as a whole. As Dr. Krusberg remarks, “The recent discovery of [this] new boson at the LHC perfectly embodies the scientific process at its best (and thereby illustrates to the public why and how science works).” Scientific exploration of nature is not a fool-proof endeavor; healthy skepticism and accountability to a wide community of other researchers are absolutely critical to its success. But such evidence of the power and finesse of well-executed science as we saw last week is a testament to our ability to explore and understand the ‘how’ of the universe. God has equipped humanity with the desire, the intellectual abilities, and the collective will to recognize and explore the cosmic order and beauty of his creation. God has made our home knowable, and has given us the tools and capacities by which to know it.
At left, Cern researchers present their findings to a few hundred of their colleagues in Melbourne, Australia. Image © 2012 CERN
It is valuable, then, for the Christian community to understand and appreciate how science works, in part to recognize that there are many instances in which science and the church work in tandem in order to better understand and better serve the world. But I think there is something else we can draw from the story of the Higgs boson, too. The nickname ‘the God particle’ has touched nerves in religious communities because it implies that science has the ability to prove or disprove divine existence by physical means. Even though the physics community is by no means claiming insight into the divine, it is sometimes assumed by the religious community that scientists view their work as chipping away at God’s existence when they begin to understand something that was previously unknown, or known only “by faith” in esoteric theories and models.
And yet, regardless of motives or metaphysical interpretations, perhaps physicists' search for the Higgs boson is in fact an apt picture of our own search for God. How many times have we stared up at the starry ceiling in times of crisis and prayed fervently for some kind of sign from God to assure us of his presence? And how many times has that much-desired evidence appeared only in retrospect, when we look back to see God’s hand faithfully and elegantly working in ways inscrutable at the time? It took a community of physicists to discern the presence of the Higgs boson. But even so, they could only do so after the fact from the cascade of particle decays it sparked; they could not observe the particle itself directly. In a similar way, though we often do not see the working of God directly, “in the moment,” we still trust in his presence and providence, often depending on friends, family and the community of the church to help us see his hand in hindsight.
So while the discovery of the Higgs boson does not itself explain God, we rejoice at the subtle yet striking new insight we have into God’s creative genius via the Higgs boson and at the way God gives evidence of his faithfulness in the ordered creation itself. Perhaps, however, the greatest insight we can glean from this breakthrough is an analogy for the way God calls us to seek him and find him together, in the community of those who follow his son.
Tomorrow, Baylor University physicist Gerald Cleaver answers the question, "What is the Higgs boson?"