God and the “Goddamn Particle”

For the past 50 years or so, scientists have been looking for the elusive “Higgs boson” particle (named after physicist Peter Higgs, who postulated the existence of this particle). The confirmation of the particle’s existence would complete the “Standard Picture” of the subatomic building blocks of the universe. The uniqueness of the Higgs boson is that it appears to bequeath mass to other particles, who — sadly — have no mass. Thus, the particle is thought to be responsible for the emergence of matter which has become our present universe. No mass, no matter. No matter, no life.

Higgs did the math to show that how the particle would behave and what it would ‘act like.’ But that was all on paper; in the meantime, the little bugger has eluded empirical discovery. It was so elusive, that a physicist originally coined it the “Goddamn particle,” in a proposed title to his book on the subject. His publisher persuaded him to re-name it “The God Particle,” and the name has taken off in the public sphere (much to the chagrin of many physicists).

The installation of the Large Hadron Collider, a massive underground particle accelerator in Switzerland which attempts to re-create the conditions immediately after the Big Bang, has (apparently) set the stage for the actual discovery of the particle,

Hadron Collider

matching the theory to the “real thing” (as “real” as the quantum world allows). It should be noted, though, that scientists are as yet unwilling to confirm that the particle is, in fact, the exact one Higgs predicted (though confirmation is expected).

This is fascinating stuff. The “Standard Theory” is seemingly confirmed as the fundamental theory behind the physics of the natural world and behind the cosmos’s emergence. I’m no scientist, but I have great admiration for those who dedicate their lives to discovering the building blocks of the physical world (seen and unseen, atomic and subatomic, the world of plants and planets and quarks, gluons and bosons).

But it equally fascinates me to realize that in another 50 or 100 years (let’s say), the Standard Theory will likely be remarkably outdated. There will be corrections, amendations, and alternations. There will possibly be a very different “Standard Theory.” The anomalies in the world, which do not fit the theory, will have piled up to the point that the pressure will be on to either figure out how they fit into the theory or to revisit the theory altogether. Read Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, if you don’t believe me. In the ancient world, the basic building blocks of the universe were fire, earth, air and water. Now they are the twelve particles of matter (six quarks, six leptons) and the four forces of nature (and of course the Higgs boson).

Image: Cern/Maximilien Brice

This should not depress us. Rather, it should remind us that not only is God mysterious beyond our imagining, but so is the creation he brought into existence. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Scripture tells us that, not only is the natural world magnificent, but human beings are unique in that creation (Psalm 8). Among all their capacities, is a persistent curiosity regarding the world in which we live. Humans live in a state of “openness to the world” (Pannenberg) which drives our desire to know it. I wonder, at a time like this, if God doesn’t find us human beings especially endearing? And yet, perhaps he cannot help but chuckle (forgiven the anthropomorphism here), knowing that we have yet so much more to learn and to discover. Remember God’s word to Job?

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? 
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone —
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels[a] shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)

IIt’s quite remarkable that scientists have quite possibly discovered the elusive “Goddamn particle.” Even so, much yet lies beyond the grasp of human knowledge and understanding. Discovery, exciting and profound it can be, often opens up new pathways of mystery that call out for further exploration. These new pathways will prove equally–or more–elusive. If God’s world is beyond our ability to master (try as we might), how much more is God?

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  • Thanks for sharing these insights, Kyle.

  • Thanks for sharing these insights, Kyle. We (civilization) have so much to learn, and so little time, it seems!

  • JVD

    Great post Kyle. What lies beyond the Higgs? Who knows, but fascinating to think about.

  • Wade Carson

    I am curious about what you are saying with this post. If it’s devotional and meditative…embiggening God if you will (Jebediah Springfield), then that’s one thing. This would speak to those who have faith and uses this discovery as an opportunity to celebrate the faith that God is unknowable. The Higgs particle discovery in context of the history of human understanding of the universe serves as a reminder of the times when the human race has acheived knowledge, only to realize later that this knowledge was incorrect or incomplete.

    I have to think that that wasn’t all that you were saying. I may be reading into it, but I think I read some apologetics. “Don’t worry. They may have discovered the God particle, which destroys a very powerful position for the God of the gaps argument, but in time you will see that the Higgs discovery is similar to when man thought the building blocks were earth, air, fire and water (who’s the barber here?). The gaps are still there, even if they aren’t easy to see right now.”

    I am out of practice in this arena, but isn’t it better to separate science from apologetics? It seems that the “why are we here?” question moves the discussion into an area where experimentation and objectivity are useless and sidesteps the line of discussion that seems to lead to a god of the gaps argument.

  • Kyle Roberts

    Hi Wade: Good question. The primary gist of the piece is the former (“embiggening God” – is that a real word?). It’s a sort of natural theology reflection on how the wonder of the universe (at the subatomic level, here) can give us a greater sense of God’s beauty, mystery, etc. And yes, I sneaked a bit of the other in there too. It wasn’t mean to be derogatory toward science or to tie up apologetics and science. But, I don’t think the best way, for believers, to conceive of the relation between science and religious belief (theology) is via a strict independence either (Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria”). It usually doesn’t work this way in real life. Many may read the discovery of the “God particle” as making God’s existence irrelevant, unnecessary, redundant, etc.. It would be an unjustified leap, but we see that all the time in popular science (i.e. Richard Dawkins and his ilk). So yes, I was speaking a bit to that–to say that science does wondrous things and makes remarkable discoveries, but we need to keep them in perspective (as Kuhn, Michael Polanyi, and others have argued). I do believe that scientific discoveries are not merely relative — there is a kind of cumulative gain of knowledge. But the subjectivity inherent even in science should give us some breathing room, on the “faith” side when we interact with it. Thoughts?

    • Jace

      When religious types try to adapt science into their faith based system of beliefs, it only helps disprove their position. While I disagree with you fruitless attempt to incorporate a “god” into a discussion regarding science, personally I thank you for doing this Kyle, because it’s people like you who are helping today’s youths realize religion offers no answers. By continuously updating your system of beliefs to match social and scientific advancement, you are only proving that there is no legitimate argument for religion or it’s “god”. How long can a religion based on a phony virtue such as “faith” be considered legitimate if it’s followers continuously contradict themselves and their scripture……science will free humanity from the burdens and suffering religion has brought. It’s only a matter of time.

      • Wade Carson

        thanks…good thoughts. I wouldn’t have said it that way. I tend to focus on apologetics for why none of this stuff makes sense from my apostate perspective…sort of “you believe what you want, but here is why I don’t”…but I sometimes lose sight of the damage that religion does. Maybe that’s where we should focus discussion for a while…not allowing for the “few bad apples” defense but really press the argument that on balance, religion may be a net – negative.

    • Wade Carson

      @ Kyle. fun…fun…fun discussion. You’ve clearly got this issue covered far better than I do. I read a little bit of apologetic retrenching…and I think I was right. That said, that’s not really important to me. Faith and spirituality are so subjective that I don’t think science even enters in. There will never be a scientific argument that proves God doesn’t exist…just like there is none that can prove God exists. I think faith/religion plays out in another realm entirely…mortality, betrayal, fear, love, hope, wonder…honestly, if there was more “this is what I believe, but my beliefs are completely subjective and are in no way superior to yours” it would be a lot easier for me to co-exist or even entertain a subjective “leap” of faith for myself and for others. It’s the apologetics that blow it….arguing that one’s faith is the right one, the only one, that’s where I don’t understand that any thinking individual can setup shop. On the other hand, is it possible for anyone to say, “hey, this is the faith story I picked…I picked it because I grew up with it or chose it because it made sense, but it certainly wasn’t because I think whatever you believe is any less possible, cogent or valid. How could I ever gain the kind of perspective that would allow me to know which one is true? I need it. That’s all. It gives me perspective on the world, helps me deal with the fear of mortality, helps guide my actions and priorities.” I spent the weekend with my Wheaton housemates for a 40 year birthday party. We had church in my buddies living room. I’d give anything to have that church experience without the exclusivist … and I believe arbitrary … faith positions. Because sitting around singing and talking about how much we love each other really cannot be topped.

  • danny bloom

    Leon Lederman and co-author Dick Teresi called the draft of their
    book “The Goddamn Particle” since it’s so difficult to prove. The book
    would be released in the US and their publisher Dell Publishing (also
    US) thought it wouldn’t rub the right way with a certain audience and
    convinced them to use ”God Particle” instead. wikipedia, national
    post indipendent.ie, daily tech, etc etc

  • danny bloom

    so please CORRECT: ”It was so elusive, that physicists coined it the “Goddamn particle.” This later morphed into the loftier term, “God particle,” taking on heightened meaning.” IN FACT, it did not MORPH into GOD particle, the editors at DELL ordered it changed for book title. GOOGLE

    • Kyle Roberts

      Thanks for the correction, Danny. I made the change.

  • danny bloom

    and 3, there is NO GOD

    • Kyle Roberts

      yes there is.

  • It amazes me how you idiots try to pin every thing there is an was to this ” god ” fellow whom basically is nothing but a fantasy made up in minds of ignorant men….God is not even a theory….it’s not even a speculation….it’s just a child’s dream

    • Kyle Roberts

      Sohrab, I’m not trying to “pin” anything to God. Nor am I trying to pin God to anything. I simply don’t think any scientific discovery can push God out of the picture–because science can never jump across the physical to the meta-physical. That’s just not what science does.

      • asd

        Supernatural is just a word made up to escape the need to present evidence. It explains nothing. Like I said we should stop claiming for things we don’t really understand. I’m quite sure you don’t know how it looks like or if it even exist. Yet you put it on top of science, on top of all the human knowledge accumulated by our ancestors, including to this present day. Yet it’s the very reason your holding on to your belief? That’s not a well thought out position on your part. It’s just a two probably? Wishful thinking? Your not pinning god into anything? Oh yes you are! If you want to live a legit life. You will do more research about this with open eyes and mind.

  • asd

    I would have loved the article but dropping the bible verse killed it. Surely there are better quotes are out there. This is like something a Christian would do to calm himself up. Your just invoking the god of the gaps argument. The world would be better place, if people will stop claiming for things they don’t really understand. I challenge you to read the entire bible and interpret it yourself. Try to figure out which should be taken as allegory or literally. Then think how can you believe it. It’s not on the same footing with the claims made by science and faith is not a virtue.

  • Sanjay

    It is certain that nothing exists in this world without a purpose but we do not know what it is. Why we exist. Scientists believe that by trying to find the smallest of the particle they can unfold the mystery of matter, how it is created but they still are in darkness. So, I believe if we can find out the real purpose of the existence of matter then the secret of its creation will be solved spontaneously.

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