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February 27, 2008

The God Particle

Thanks to Gina for posting an article for us "science types." To help distill it for the curious masses, I offer the following:

What is the “God Particle?" It is the illusive ingredient, called the Higgs particle after physicist Peter Higgs, in the cosmic soup that gives rise to the property of mass in the universe. So?

The importance of Higgs is in validating the Standard Model -- the traditional model of physics that depicts sub-atomic particles as infinitesimal points of matter, exhibiting properties like mass and electronic charge according to energy fluctuations in the universal quantum field. A long-standing mystery is why some of these particles, like electrons and quarks, have mass and others, like photons do not.

It has been conjectured that the property of mass is due to movement within the Higgs field -- a cosmic “molasses” of Higgs particles that acts as an omnipresent inhibitor for matter particles.

The importance of the Standard Model lies in its tie to the Theory of Everything (TOE) -- science’s holy grail, which is hoped to hold answers to the mysteries of why the world is the way it is.

The general support of the Standard Model is due to its success in correlating experimental observations with theory in the sub-atomic realm. But this commendable record in describing external phenomena is contrasted against the frustration of scientists in explaining nature’s underlying ontology. That is, answering questions about nature’s nature, such as “What is matter?” and “What gives matter its various properties?” It is believed that the discovery of the Higgs will help close this epistemological gap. The Higg’s importance to the Standard Model and its cosmic ubiquity have led many pundits to poetically refer to Higgs as the “God Particle.”

Ironically, even if the “God Particle” is found, science will be faced with the next question -- Where does the Higgs particle derive its properties? And like “What preceded God?” solely materialistic answers will always lead to some endless regression down the ever-receding corridors of the mind.

God Particle or not, science will remain at the cradle’s edge of knowledge with many unanswered mysteries, including,

  • Are the nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces related in some fundamental way, and if so, how?
  • Why are the universal constants (like masses and charges of the proton and electron and the gravitational constant) the values they are?
  • What were the initial conditions leading to the Big Bang?
  • What was the nature of matter and energy at the moment of, and shortly after, the Big Bang?
  • What is the origin and source of energy that perpetually drives the fluctuations in the quantum field?
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Thanks, Regis - I imagine that this was helpful for those who didn't tune out by paragraph two.

To help those (like, say, Gina) who struggle with science and math, I think it would help to note that though a computer runs on electrons and depends upon light for you to see the words on the screen, scientists have no idea how electrons and light actually fit together. Oh, they have lots of data, and lots of theories, but all of that just leads to more mysteries. It's possible to describe how electrons within the computer get turned into light that enters your eye when you look at the screen. But it's not possible to explain whether or not electrons get destroyed or light "created" in the process, without relying on some leaps of faith and uncomfortable guesses.

Scientists have hope that experiments with huge machines will help fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge. But just as the discovery that an atom is made up of protons, neutrons and electrons, there's always the next question of what those particles are made from.

Me, I read this kind of thing and I have Job 38-42 ringing in my ears. We think God owes us an explanation of what happens to us, expecting that we could fully understand it. But most of us don't even know what a lepton is, or how strange attraction works. How could we possibly understand God's historical calculus of humanity, when we barely get interpersonal relational arithmetic?


I'm guessing you are assuming that the Bing Bang did in fact occur?

Regis Nicoll

Brian--I think the evidence from general relativity, stellar redshift, and the "smoking gun" of cosmic background radiation, all corroborate a beginning consistent with the opening chapter of Genesis.

Tom Heneghan

Peter Higgs told journalists in Geneva he doesn't like the term "God particle" because it might offend believers -- even though he is not one himself. More on the Reuters religion blog FaithWorld at http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2008/04/09/is-god-particle-the-right-term-for-massive-mystery-in-physics/

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