Particle man, particle man
Doing the things a particle can
What’s he like? It’s not important
Is he a dot or is he a speck?
When he’s underwater does he get wet?
Or does the water get him instead?
Nobody knows, particle man
~ “Particle Man,” They Might Be Giants
As much as I love having TMBG as the soundtrack to my understanding of science, that last line is not quite so true today, at least when it comes to one particular—and particularly elusive—particle. After a massive Armageddon of particle collisions (“we must destroy the particle to discover it”), physicists in Geneva today announced that they have, just in time to meet their self-imposed deadline of July 4, recorded evidence of the existence of the heretofore theoretical subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson, which may account for matter’s having mass, or weight—and therefore physical existence.
Having given up my childhood dream of becoming a physicist when I learned that there was no way to use physics to achieve time travel (my real goal) that didn’t involve math, I now cheer for scientific breakthroughs like this one the way I cheer for most sports teams or individual athletes: when it counts, in the Masters or the Superbowl or the Olympics or the NCAA Tournament. With the exception of UD men’s basketball and the Dodgers, I don’t follow anybody in sports closely through the year, but I’m right there screaming on the sidelines when the final goes to overtime or extra innings. In both science and sports, though, I’m more into the color commentary than the play-by-play.
If you want the play-by-play on this morning’s score out of Geneva, I’ll send you to our in-house expert, Leah Libresco. I can sense and share the pure joy in Leah’s post, even though I have no idea what most of it is about. (She had me til statistics. ) The color, though—that’s the real draw. In fact, the news was enough of a particle collision to knock me out of a 5-day slump that started as Too Much Else Going On (deadlines for bishop and Botox, storms full of flying trees and downed power lines, helping to get The Merchant of Venice on its fabulous feet in time for the opening of the tour on the 19th, this damned insufferable heat) and progressed rapidly to OMG I Have Nothing to Say. I love this Higgs boson, even though before today I would have said a boson was the guy on the ship who sings “Heave away! Haul away!” I love it even though when I first heard, on NPR, that scientists were getting close to answering the question of what makes things weigh, I suggested they might want to watch Supersize Me instead of a supercollider.
See, I love the Higgs boson—which physicists, including Higgs himself, agree they just might have caught “sight” of, oh so briefly, even though it didn’t quite exceed the 5-sigma standard deviation, whatever that is when it’s at home—because of what the color commentators have nicknamed it. They’re calling it “the God particle.” Leah, of course, eschews such nonsense, whether because she is a scientist, or because her transition from atheism to Catholicity is still several innings short of a full game, or both, or neither. Play-by-play callers almost never fall into the nickname trap that color commentators do, in any case. But it’s an irresistible headline: SCIENTISTS FIND GOD.
And there are some lovely, though utterly unscientific (outside of theology, the Queen of Sciences), points to that nickname. Reflecting on these, and offering them for your reflection, lit the sparklers again for me, so I’m grateful. Consider:
1. All Things, Visible and Invisible
The existence of the Higgs boson, according to what physicists call the Standard Model, accounts for the existence of everything. As Ker Than writes for National Geographic News:
According to the standard model, if the Higgs field didn’t exist, the universe would be a very different place, said SLAC’s Peskin, who isn’t involved in the LHC experiments.
“It would be very difficult to form atoms,” Peskin said. “So our orderly world, where matter is made of atoms, and electrons form chemical bonds—we wouldn’t have that if we did not have the Higgs field.”
In other words: no galaxies, no stars, no planets, no life on Earth.
That’s pretty close to Aquinas’s Argument from Contingency, one of the “five ways” of reasoning the existence of God.
Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.
(Ah, Thomas. Not all men. Not even then. But still.)
2. The Still, Small Voice
The Higgs boson, like Divine Providence, is recognized best by its effects—not the flashy miracles, the big bangs and the pillars of fire, but the billion infinitesimal nudges by which it keeps the galaxies spinning, while having, itself, no spin at all. And its presence is all too often drowned out by the world’s clamor. Ker Than again:
In reality the Higgs appears to transform into relatively commonplace decay products such as quarks, which are produced by the millions at the LHC.
“It just so happens that nature is really nasty to us, and the range that we’ve narrowed [the Higgs] down to is the range that makes it most difficult to find,” ALICE’s Evans said.
To detect the Higgs’s signal amid this high background noise, scientists must calculate very precisely what the distribution of a particular decay particle for a collision will be at a given energy, and how many extras of that particle they’d expect to see if a Higgs boson has been created.
I don’t know about you, but I am always having a hard time listening for God’s presence through the high background noise, especially that of human nature (i.e, my own), which can be really nasty. And like the frustrated physicists, I would prefer that revelation crank itself up to 11 to make it a little easier. But Elijah learned differently in his own wilderness slump, hiding out on Mt Horeb and wishing God would speak up, for God’s sake:
Then the LORD said, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.” A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD—but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13)
The Higgs boson is the tiny whisper at the heart of the universe. Shhhhh, listen.
3. It Surrounds and Penetrates Us
As is true of important subatomic bits, Higgs is not only a particle but also a field. Ker Than:
Higgs’s idea was that the universe is bathed in an invisible field similar to a magnetic field. Every particle feels this field—now known as the Higgs field—but to varying degrees.
If a particle can move through this field with little or no interaction, there will be no drag, and that particle will have little or no mass. Alternatively, if a particle interacts significantly with the Higgs field, it will have a higher mass.
The idea of the Higgs field requires the acceptance of a related particle: the Higgs boson.
That field we all feel in every particle—sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together. (Star Wars [The Real One])
The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17:24-28)
All particles “feel” the influence of the Higgs boson, but interact with it only by means of the weak force. That’s God-like, too: we particles have free will, and are never forced or bullied into the dance.
Of course, all these reflections work well within the Standard Model that is the monotheistic Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. In the Patheos spirit of conversation, I hasten to point out that physicists have made clear that this need not be the only model. There could be more than one Higgs boson, for example; Pagans and Hindus might be comfortable reflecting on a God/desses particle. There are models that account for our never knowing: Agnostic particles that may or may not exist. And there are models outside the Standard Model that don’t require a God particle at all, so atheists can set off fireworks today, too, because nothing’s really proven beyond the 5-sigma boundary of doubt.
4. Everybody Is Offended
One last proof that talking about the Higgs boson is like talking about religion: it has the power to offend. From the combox of the L.A. Times article on this morning’s announcement:
The media are the only ones to call it a God particle. That’s an absurd name that scientists would never use. It’s offensive to everyone and I wish the media would realize this.
The peeps at Patheos have been hashing out the issue of what constitutes offense in a diverse community all week (see The Anchoress and Timothy Dalrymple, among others), sometimes with a collision level as high as that generated by the Large Hadron Collider, so there’s another connection worth exploring.
I trust I haven’t offended anyone by my musings, and I wish you all a happy Independence Day—or, as it’s known in my family, My Sister’s Birthday. (For most of her childhood, she believed the world lit sparklers and the Boston Pops played in her personal Yankee Doodle Dandy honor. It made her an essentially happy and celebratory person. For what it made me, cf. envy.) Most of all, I am glad and grateful to be off the blog bench, and to have reason to celebrate yet again the God whose mysteries we only begin to fathom. Here’s something to sing, Particle People, as we set off the rockets and thrill to new evidence of what those old science newsreels used to call Our Fantastic Universe: