Big Physics News Due July 4th

A big announcement is scheduled for Wednesday from the scientists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). The internet scuttlebut is that they finally have proof of the existence of the Higgs boson,  the particle which gives all other particles their mass. They allegedly have a “four sigma level” (about 99.99%) certainty of the particle’s existence.

Let the misreporting commence!

The Higgs boson has come to be known as “the God particle,” after the unfortunate title of a book by Leon Lederman. One would imagine that a particle known everywhere as “the God particle” would have some theological relevance, so let me take a moment to explain:

It has no theological relevance whatsoever.

It doesn’t have to do with God at all. If I recall correctly, the title came from the fact that the existence of the Higgs boson, like the existence of God, was hard to prove. In the mind of the public, however, it’s become the particle that either proves (or disproves) the existence of God. I think even Lederman regrets that the name stuck.

The name will certainly confuse the issue, and with the help of shoddy science reporting people will jump straight to the wrong connection between the discovery and religion. So let me say again: there is no connection.

Here’s the simplest description I can manage of what the Higgs boson does, if it exists: it gives mass to other particles. If the Higgs boson did not exist, particles would just zip through the universe at the speed of light. They would not be able to form into the atoms which comprise the material universe.

The problem is that the Higgs boson exists for such a brief period that we’ve never been able to prove it does exist. Enter the Large Hadron Collider, which was created (at a cost of about $9 billion) largely to “find” the Higgs boson. The collider is a vast underground loop which fires proton beams in opposite directions, so they “collide.” The scientists then observe the collision of particles within these beams, looking for some measurable reaction.

What does the proof of the Higgs boson mean to the layperson? Not much, really. It’s interesting, but its relevance right now is largely confined to the realm of theoretical physics. Wired is headlining their story about announcement “How the discovery of the Higgs boson could break physics,” which is just headline link-bait for an article that’s actually pretty interesting. Wired’s take is that the particle is looking “too ordinary,” which means it doesn’t seem “unruly” enough to fit into a final “theory of everything.”

Wired focuses on the idea that a simple Higgs boson doesn’t do much to fill in the gaps of the standard model of particle physics, and focuses on its problems for the theory of supersymmetry. Since I just about grasp the standard model, I’m not going to go any further into the supersymmetry issue (maybe Leah Libresco will tackle the issue), but Wired does a decent job of explaining it and what the July 4th announcement might mean.

Anyway, here’s your handy-dandy one-stop guide for dumb headlines on Thursday. If they say “Does new discovery prove that God does/doesn’t exist?”  the answer is no for both. It proves the Higgs boson exists, which we already suspected since particles have, y’know, mass. Proof is nice. Additional data about the nature of the particle is even better. The implications for theoretical physics are huge. The implications for the rest us? Not so huge. It’s not going to open a door to another universe and let the Elder Gods through (long have I waited for you, Cthulhu!) or allow us to create a time machine or a sonic screwdriver or anything cool like that.

If you need to imagine a relevant theological analogy, then try this: if we think of the universe as the book written by God, and atoms as the paper and ink, then the proof of the Higgs boson tells us a bit about the composition and elemental nature of that paper and ink. It’s not a great analogy, but it will do.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Gary Chapin

    I’ve often wondered why physicists feel this need to have a “theory of everything.” I missed the memo that said the universe had to be elegant. I thought it merely had to work. I also agree that “the God Particle” is unfortunate as a name. I can’t even figure out the logical construct that would make people believe this could prove God’s existence. Also, if everything gets its mass from the Higgs Bosson, where does the Higgs Bosson get its mass. From the turtles?

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I think the search for a “Theory of Everything” is in itself a religious impulse. Remember that many of the most militant materialists/atheists believe that philosophy is a discredited and useless discipline, which is why so many of them have such a poor grounding in elementary philosophical issues. Thus, we have scientists saying we don’t need God to explain the universe because we have gravity/the laws of physics/turtles/whatever, without stopping to ask: and these things came from … where, exactly? The law of gravity makes God redundant? Really? And the law of gravity just kind of created itself one slow afternoon?

  • Gary Chapin

    Y’know. You’re lying around. Bored. Gravity? Why not?

    I agree, absolutely, that the “Theory of Everything” is a religious impulse, as is the desire that scientific theories be aesthetically appealing.

  • Thinkling

    I have heard that even acknowledging Lederman’s book, the monker “God particle” is still wrong. He actually intended the phrase “Godd**n particle” because it was so challenging to do research on, but the publisher didn’t go for it.

    So the real question to watch out for is, does the proof of its existence mean that H*ll exists? (or not?) Same answer, no and no.

  • Mike

    This will finally answer a question I marvelled at since the 1950′s while reading a science book for children. What is inertia? What is mass? Newton studied it, and science has used momentum and mass ever since in its formulas. Einstein built our description deeper, but no one was able to say what caused mass to exist as a property of matter. Now we know. Sort of. Exciting times.

    All nature is a reflection of God, who created it. But God is far beyond and above creation. How much does the Higgs say about God? This discovery tells us as much about God as a coloring book all by itself tells us about the life of the child who used it.

  • Ron19

    What I’ve never understood, or even seen explained by anyone, is how the supermassive Higgs Boson gives mass to the much, much lighter electrons and quarks.

    Does anyone know?

  • Gary Chapin