On July 4, 2012, scientists at Switzerland’s CERN made an announcement that involved an altogether different kind of fireworks, i.e., the kind of fireworks that one gets when smashing protons into each other at nearly the speed of light. After close to forty years of theorizing, analyzing, and searching — and yes, smashing protons — the scientists announced that they were 99.9999% certain that they had discovered the elusive Higgs Boson. Considered by many in the scientific community to be one of the greatest discoveries in recent memory, it’s probably safe to say that the event has flown right over the heads of most people (as indicated by this video of Brooklyn hipsters trying to explain what the Higgs Boson is).
So what, exactly, is the significance of the Higgs Boson? To understand that, you need to know a little bit about the Standard Model in physics. For decades, scientists have been trying to figure out just what, exactly, makes up the world around us. If you’ll recall your high school physics class, all matter is made up of atoms, which in turn consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Dig deeper, though, and you find that protons and neutrons are made up of even smaller particles called quarks. The Standard Model is, in part, an attempt to list all of these subatomic building blocks, along with neutrinos and photons (to name a few), with the goal being nothing less than a catalog of the very building blocks of nature.
However, for years, the Standard Model was missing one key particle: the Higgs Boson. The Higgs Boson is particularly important because it is associated with the Higgs Field, a field of energy that, so goes the theory, permeates the universe and determines the mass of the other particles when they interact with it. Without proof of the Higgs Boson’s existence – or something very much like it — scientists are at a loss when it comes to understanding one of the universe’s most basic aspects: why particles have the mass that they do. Discovering the Higgs Boson, and how it interacts with all of the other particles, gives scientists an even deeper understanding of how the universe functions at a most fundamental level.
The Higgs Boson’s existence was predicted back in 1964, but it has never been observed. It doesn’t help that it has an incredibly short lifespan — around 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th of a second — before it decays into an array of other particles. As such, it’s impossible to “see” the particle directly. Instead, scientists must look for its “shadow”. But this is no small feat: CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) generates massive amounts of data every second it crashes particles into each other, meaning that scientists must sift through mountains of information to find what they’re looking for. (For a better explanation of how this analysis works, watch the video below.)
So now that scientists feel reasonably certain that they’ve discovered the Higgs Boson, what does that mean for the rest of us? Well, speaking in purely practical terms, probably not much. Even Peter Higgs, the particle’s namesake, admits that he has “no idea” about the practical applications of the Higgs Boson. So for all of the discussion and daydreaming that can easily surround such fantastical discoveries — realms of science like particle physics will always have a fantastical cast — chances are that it’s not going to bring us any step closer to making Star Trek-like technology a reality.
What’s more, it’s tempting to see endeavors like this as frivolous and unnecessary. While reading various article on the Higgs discovery, I inevitably came across trolls who would post comments like “Millions of people are starving in Africa and these scientists spent billions of dollars searching for a subatomic particle? What a waste!” Trollish-ness aside, the comments raise a good point. We live in a world where there are many problems with practical and immediate solutions, e.g., hunger, crime, poor education. So why do we “waste” time, money, intellect, energy, and other resources to delve into these most obscure areas of knowledge? What does it really matter, in the end, if we know about the existence and purpose of bosons, Higgs or otherwise?
These are good questions, and it’s careless to simply brush them aside because they do speak to real human issues and dilemmas. And yet, I think it behooves us to keep two things in mind when we consider scientific advances like CERN’s recent discovery. One is pragmatic, the other more theological.
First, it can be difficult to know how scientific discoveries will benefit us. This statement may seem odd, but history is full of examples of scientific discoveries and advances that had unforeseeable benefits at the time. The positron was discovered in 1931, and who would’ve guessed how its discovery would pave the way for advances in medical imaging? When Alexander Fleming made some surprising observations about his mold cultures in 1928, it’s highly doubtful that he knew his discovery — penicillin — would change the world. James Watson and Francis Crick unlocked DNA’s “double helix” structure in 1953, an exciting discovery in and of itself, but could they have known what such knowledge would mean for, say, criminal justice? And finally, when Claude Shannon wrote his 1937 thesis on the application of algebra to electric switches, nobody could’ve foreseen that he was essentially laying the foundation for all of our modern computer technology. And there are many more similar stories in the annals of science.
Put simply, the route from scientific discovery to application is often quite circuitous. This is both frustrating and exciting: frustrating because it goes against our pragmatic desire for an immediate result or use, and fascinating because what does emerge can be so much better, grander, and more useful than what we might have originally imagined. Indeed, it’s possible that the practical benefits of the Higgs Boson discovery have nothing whatsoever to do with the particle itself, but something tangential. For example, the massive amount of ultra-advanced computer technology used to perform the analysis might give rise to more breakthroughs in computing — similar to how CERN’s own Tim Berners-Lee essentially invented the World Wide Web when he was simply trying to give scientists a better tool to share their data.
Have there been scientific endeavors that turned out to be nothing but a waste of time? And have there been seemingly wasteful endeavors that turned out to deliver something valuable and wonderful? The answer to both of these is, of course, yes. The challenge is to exercise patience along with prudence, and realize that scientific endeavors are, more often than not, an investment in the future. And as with any investment, there is always an element of risk along with the promise of great reward.
In 1970, a nun in Zambia wrote to NASA’s Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, who was trying to develop a manned mission to Mars, and asked him how he could justify the time and money for such a project when there were children starving on Earth. His gracious, thoughtful response – which points out the ways that exploring space can lead to a better life here on Earth — may have been defending space exploration, but many of his sentiments could be extended to any scientific endeavor, even particle physics.
Second, scientific discoveries help us to realize the universe for the wild and wonderful place that it is. I grow tired of atheists and skeptics claiming that Christianity, and religion in general, is anti-science — just as I grow tired of Christians who, through their unfortunate words and deeds, encourage such thinking. Christians, more than anyone else, ought to welcome and celebrate scientific discovery, for science can be a potent tool for helping us worship God through the study, contemplation, and comprehension of the glories of His creation. As Teilhard de Chardin wrote in “Hymn to Matter”:
Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards or measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God.
And though we claim to know Who is behind the natural world, that need not stifle any sense of awe, wonder, mystery, or curiosity as we observe it. The Bible itself contains passages — e.g., Psalm 8, Psalm 19, Job 38-41 — that trumpet the beauty and majesty of God’s handiwork, and find in it something that tells us of His power, creativity, and person.
Science can also help keep us humble and mindful of our creaturely status. This is not to denigrate the efforts of the brilliant men and women who devote their lives to scientific endeavors but rather to hold fast to a simple fact: we are small, limited, and fallible creatures. When I consider that everything we can observe in the universe (stars, planets, dust, etc.) accounts for less than 5% of the universe’s total mass, and that the remaining 95% is composed of unobservable dark matter and dark energy — I am humbled and filled with awe… and a decided sense of curiosity.
The discovery of the Higgs Boson will likely raise more questions than it answers. For example, is the Higgs Boson a truly fundamental particle, or is it comprised of even smaller particles? In an article somewhat cheekily titled “How the Discovery of the Higgs Boson Could Break Physics”, Adam Mann claims that the discovery might disprove other theories besides the Standard Model that scientists are hoping to use to explain the universe. And despite CERN’s extremely high level of certainty, there are those who claim that it wasn’t the Higgs Boson that was discovered, but rather, something else entirely. If true, this could spell doom for the Standard Model and send scientists back to the drawing board. Which, at the very least, means that our universe is even more mysterious than we previously thought — a prospect that is both humbling and exciting.
You might’ve noticed that I did not use the term “God Particle” anywhere in the above article. Simply put, the Higgs Boson has nothing whatsoever to do with God’s existence (though some might claim otherwise). The term first appeared in the title of a book by Leon M. Lederman and Dick Teresi, and its usage was more of an inside joke than anything else. (That the Higgs Boson is unrelated to God’s existence should be obvious for Christians, who believe that God is a transcendent and necessary being, and therefore, not tied to or dependent upon any particular bit of matter for His continued existence.)