Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider have detected the elusive Higgs boson, a subatomic particle that explains matter. Is it really the “God Particle?”
“Two Higgs boson particles walked into a bar. Over drinks one said, ‘I hear Stephen Hawking bet $100 we don’t exist. What if he’s right?’ The other replied, ‘No matter!’ ”
Get it? No matter? Get it? Well, hopefully you will in a few minutes. I didn’t get it either until I did some heavy-duty reading. In “These Stone Walls’ Second Annual Stuck Inside Literary Award” last week, I described being stuck inside for several days with little to do but read and write while the rest of America had a long holiday weekend. In between chapters while rereading The Lord of the Rings, I also got to reread The Grand Design, the controversial book by physicist, Stephen Hawking, that I wrote about in “Did Stephen Hawking Sacrifice God on the Altar of Science?” It’s a good prelude to this post because the conclusions it draws about faith and science are very relevant to the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, aka “The God Particle.”
We humans crave knowledge about ourselves and the Universe in which we live. I never knew how very much that is true until I was locked alone in a cell for months on end with nothing but the four blank walls around me to occupy my mind. There was nothing to read, nothing with which to write, and no human interaction. There was no way to know the time of day or even day from night. From this awful experience, I learned how very much the human mind seeks contact with any knowledge beyond its own limits. Solitary confinement is a form of torture for people who think.
After weeks alone in that maddening cell, I awoke one morning to find a single, battered issue of National Geographic in the food slot in my cell door. There was never to be another. For weeks I read, cover to cover, every word of every article to the point of memorizing it all.
I may be sane today because of that one issue of National Geographic. It was late 1994, and that three-month stint in solitary confinement was my introduction to prison, but the magazine was even then a few years old. Several articles were about physics and cosmology. It was the first time I ever read of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, or the (then) theoretical Higgs boson, a subatomic particle named in the 1960s for the man who first predicted it, Peter Higgs, a physicist at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. Some now predict he may be awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for this discovery, called by some the modern day scientific equivalent of the discovery that the world is not flat.
If you would bear with me, I would like to have a closer look at this new discovery and what it might mean for both science and faith. If you’re not a science buff, then yawn all you want, but please read on.
Bosons in physics are components of subatomic particles such as protons, which exist in every atom of matter. As a class of particle, a boson is so-called in honor of Indian physicist, Satyenda Nath Bose, who collaborated with Albert Einstein. The existence of a then theoretical Higgs boson resolved a puzzle in the Standard Model of physics, a widely accepted model for how particles interact. The thinking in the Standard Model was that particles such as photons – particles of light – have no mass. They should move throughout the Universe unhindered. The mathematics of the Standard Model explained successfully the existence of particles, but not mass or matter. The Higgs boson proposed by Peter Higgs in 1964 was an explanation for how particles could attain mass, and thus bring into being the Universe filled with matter that we can see.
The Large Hadron Collider is a donut-shaped laboratory 27-miles in circumference on the French-Swiss border. Two beams of photons were set on a collision course moving at close to the speed of light. Their collision resulted in an explosion that recreated the conditions of The Big Bang, the scientifically accepted origin of our Universe.
On July fourth, physicists announced they had a momentary glimpse of the elusive Higgs boson, the subatomic particle long theorized to exist, and without which matter itself would not exist. The physicists who reported that they only found “evidence” of the Higgs boson are just being careful scientists. The discovery has a 99.9999% rate of certainty. There is no doubt left. The Higgs boson does indeed exist.
So what exactly does that mean? I grimace every time someone in the news media refers to this discovery as “the God particle.” Using science out of context to debunk religious faith is a favorite pastime of some in the media.
I took a hard look at the interaction between faith and science two years ago in “Did Stephen Hawking Sacrifice God on the Altar of Science?” After publication of The Grand Design, a book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, some in the news media speculated that Hawking’s book demonstrated that gravity – and not God – is responsible for the creation of the Universe. My conclusion was simply that Stephen Hawking has thrown in with the wrong “G,” and the pundits misreading his book have confused the tools of God with God.
What I find most interesting about the recent discovery is that the Higgs boson appears nowhere in Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design. His analysis of the science of cosmology omitted it entirely. In fact, a decade ago Stephen Hawking wagered $100 that the Higgs boson would never be detected. He lost the bet.
The discovery of the Higgs boson is a big deal in science because it presents a purely scientific explanation for how matter exists, but not why. The model for creation it implies is that a primordial atom exploded in what we call The Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. As the explosion cooled, a force known as a “Higgs field” – which contained the Higgs boson – was formed and permeates the Universe. As other particles interacted with this field, they acquired mass allowing gravity to bring particles together. It acted sort of like a dam slowing particles so that they would mass together. The result was matter as we know and see it – everything from stars to us. It’s sort of the yeast with which God bakes bread.
A DAY WITHOUT YESTERDAY
The Higgs boson was detected by the Large Hadron Collider’s super computers in July for a fraction of a trillionth of a second. The tiny collision sent particles in every direction producing the energy equivalent of 14 trillion electron volts and blistering temperatures. The collision recreated a tiny model of the instance of The Big Bang. Some theorize that it was the presence of the Higgs boson particle within the primordial atom that caused The Big Bang itself, and the explosion of all matter in the Universe.
I find this all fascinating, but what is most fascinating is that the entire model was first mathematically predicted, and then demonstrated to even Albert Einstein’s satisfaction, by a Catholic priest. I wrote of the Belgian priest and physicist, Father Georges Lemaitre, in “A Day Without Yesterday: Father Georges Lemaitre and the Big Bang,” and it is my all-time favorite post on These Stone Walls. The story of Father Lemaitre’s model of creation is well told in a great new book, How it Began by Chris Impey (Norton 2012).
If ever you bristle about the typical anti-Catholic mythology that religion attempts to hold back science, remember that the originator of all the science behind this model of creation was a Catholic priest, and many of the great scientists of his time did everything they could to suppress his ideas. They failed because they could not successfully refute either his faith or his science. In the end, even Einstein bowed to Father Lemaitre declaring that his model “was the most satisfactory explanation of creation I have ever heard.” If you have not read “A Day Without Yesterday,” please do.
Pope Pius XII applauded Father Lemaitre’s discovery of The Big Bang because it challenged the acceptable science of the time which claimed that the Universe was not created, but always existed and is eternal. Einstein later acknowledged that this “Cosmological Constant” was his greatest error.
I have three photographs of Father Georges Lemaitre. In one he is with Albert Einstein before a blackboard filled with equations at the University of Louvain in Belgium. In the second, he is before an altar offering Mass. In the third, Father Lemaitre is seated with a young Pierre Matthews, my very good friend and Pornchai Moontri’s Godfather. I received these photos in the mail from Pierre after publishing “A Day without Yesterday.” They are great treasures.
Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at City University of New York, wrote a brilliant and (unlike this post) brief commentary about the Higgs boson for The Wall Street Journal (“The Spark That Caused the Big Bang,” July 6, 2012). Professor Kaku wrote:
“The press has dubbed the Higgs boson the ‘God particle,’ a nickname that makes many physicists cringe. But there is some logic to it. According to the Bible, God set the Universe in motion as He proclaimed ‘Let there be light.’”
SO, IS IT “THE GOD PARTICLE?”
The short answer is “no.” Imagine for a moment that you’re on an archeological dig on the outskirts of Rome. Standing in your carefully excavated hole, your spade strikes a metal box. Inside you discover a small, worn chisel, and a note written in 16th Century Italian: “Herein lies my favorite chisel.” The note is signed, “Michelangelo Buonarroti.”
Well, if you’re an art historian, what you now hold might be priceless. If you’re also a person of faith who has viewed the magnificence of Michelangelo’s Pieta, you may treasure this forever as one of the tools used to create a work of artistic genius. Your discovery might land on a shelf with your name on it in the Vatican Museum. There will be no doubt that what you discovered is a tool used to create an inspired work of art, but it is not itself the art’s creator.
What does the discovery of the Higgs boson mean for faith in a Universe created by God? Absolutely nothing. To say that the Higgs boson and gravity are responsible for the creation of our Universe is sort of like saying that Michelangelo did not sculpt the Pieta, his chisel did. The discovery of the Higgs boson, or Stephen Hawking’s conclusions about gravity, say nothing more to persons of faith beyond the fact that God has devised some exquisite tools and science has just encountered one of them. Reading about the complexities of the Higgs boson is no challenge to faith, but rather fills my limited mind with wonder about the miracle of Creation.
Writing for Our Sunday Visitor, Brian Fraga tackled these same questions in a terrific article, “Is the Higgs boson really the ‘God particle’ ” (July 29, 2012). He quotes physicist and astronomer Stephen M. Barr whose own work in both physics and faith has been an inspiration for me:
“The Higgs particle has absolutely no theological or philosophical significance. It is one thing to ask how the universe is structured and how it operates. It is altogether different to ask why there is a universe at all . . . God creates in the sense that he causes the universe to have ‘being.’ Physics has nothing to say about this.”
I think we may find, in the light of open minds and open souls listening for God, that human kind has just detected an exquisite tool, created and employed by God for whom physics, like faith, is a lens. People of real faith must never fear science, and people of real science must never discount the experience of faith.
So, why did the Higgs boson particle hurry to church? Because mass wouldn’t start without it!