PATHEOS – August 2012
July 4th …any and every July 4th…is firmly engrained in our American consciousness as being forever and always our nation’s major civil holiday. Over the years, we have made such a vociferous celebration of the whole thing, in fact, that much of the non-North American world is almost as aware as we are of “the Fourth” as a day of “the greatest significance.” Given that fact, one has to wonder about the events of July 4, 2012. Was the choice of that day for announcing one of “the most significant events in all of human history” deliberate or simply happenstance?
We may not ever know the answer to that one, but there’s a big part of me that hopes the choice of dates was deliberate…a big part of me that thinks that the announcement in Melbourne on July 4, 2012 of the finding of the Higgs Boson should be celebrated every year hereinafter by all of us with the same raucous reverence and joie d vivre as we apply to political independence. What better way to assure perpetuity for the actual date of the announcement about the Higgs than to tie it forever to a day that already enjoys singular stature in and of itself?
Certainly within minutes—literally—of the announcement by the Research Director of CERN [European Center for Nuclear Research] to the physicists gathered at the International Conference on High Energy Physics in Melbourne that the Higgs’ presence had been confirmed at last, the internet was crackling with messages flying back and forth around the world. Within minutes thereafter the e-mail in-boxes of armchair scientists and even ordinary citizens like me began likewise to be inundated. The presence of what had been postulated for decades and of what all of the Standard Model of contemporary physics rests on had been established. The Higgs is the cornerstone of creation, the particle that makes mass, the explicating structure behind everything from why the stars and sun can shine to why there is anything at all. The Higgs that had to be, indeed was, and at last we could prove it! It would take us into the very depths of creation, to the very moment of the beginning….
I, like all the millions of others of us who haunted the net in those first few days, rejoiced in the exhilaration of it all. Those days enjoyed a headiness that neither I nor millions of the rest of us will ever forget. But as the days after the Fourth progressed and we moved farther away from the initial exhilaration, I found myself almost as fascinated by what the venerable, but less nimble, print media had to say. After all, we had been looking for the Higgs since it was first postulated in 1964, and those intervening years had, in many ways, been the heyday of the print periodical.
Some of what happened was so predictable that it was wonderful in and of itself. The New Yorker, for example, kept absolute faith with its own tradition by running a cartoon…a somewhat dorky one, in fact…in its July 23 issue. Others indulged in some breathless prose about Higgs-teria and a few produced some over-the-top science that might be best forgotten. But it was TIME and Newsweek, the two stalwarts of the medium, that drew my attention.
TIME, in its July 23 issue, gave two full pages to what it titled as “The Cathedral of Science.” Jeffrey Kluger, who has long been noted for his ability to articulate with great clarity the intricacies of hard science to lay and popular audiences, wrote the essay and, after describing the excitement of the preceding few days, concluded his coverage by saying:
The boson found in the deep tunnels at CERN goes to the very essence of everything. And in a matter as primal as the particles themselves, we seemed to grasp that…we stopped for a moment to contemplate something far, far bigger then ourselves. And when that happened, faith and physics—which don’t often shake hands—shared an embrace.”
Those are powerful words. So, too, were the words run by Newsweek, albeit they were very different.
In its July 16 issue, the magazine featured a full-page NewsBeat essay entitled “The Godless Particle,” obviously playing off of the Higgs’ better known and more popular name of “the God Particle.” The piece itself was by Lawrence M. Krauss, the widely-read and well-credentialed author of several works in the field of physical science, the most recent being A Universe from Nothing.
In concluding his very fine review of what the Higgs is and of what establishing its existence means, Krauss writes that:
Humans, with their remarkable tools and their remarkable brains, may have just taken a giant step toward replacing metaphysical speculation with empirically verifiable knowledge. The Higgs particle is now arguably more relevant than God.
The thing that initially arrested my attention was how diametrically opposite one conclusion was from the other, not only in content, but also in tone. Beyond that, though, I was more taken by the fact that, secular though both men and both magazines may be, they still could not take on the Higgs without throwing God into their mix. No neutral coverage here, no non-theistic conversation. Why?
The Why of the thing seems to me to be caught in the fact that Jeffrey Kluger is at least partially wrong. It is more likely, I would submit, that physics and faith have always suspected they were ultimately going to have to embrace…have always feared that at some point, if we pushed far enough, we’d hit the spot where the two of them once shared the same womb….have always known, though resolutely never said, that after faith got through trying to explain with words everything it knows to be true and after physics got through trying to explain with formulae everything it knows to be true, the two of them–and humanity with them–would run smack dab into the aming:ising:areing of an unconjugated and unconjugatable verb.