No it is Not a “God Particle”! (RJS)

But it is Still Very Interesting…

 

The Higgs Boson has been making the news lately – the “discovery” of the particle at 125-126 GeV was reported last week following analysis of data obtained in the ATLAS and CMS experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.  It is not the God Particle, and the observation has little, if anything, to do with the interface of science and faith. In fact all it really does is give more confidence in science (which predicted the existence of the particle after all) and the Standard Model in particular. The observation also provides an energy for the Higgs Boson. Before LHC there was a range in which it was expected, but the value was not known. Knowledge of the value may help distinguish between different proposals in String Theory and M Theory. This was big news among many of my friends and colleagues as we have a significant share and investment in the ATLAS project.

BioLogos has two posts on the Higgs this week – Naming The God Particle by Faith Tucker, a Project Coordinator for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s program on the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, and What is the Higgs Boson? by Gerald Cleaver, an Associate Professor of Physics at Baylor University and a member of the High Energy Physics group there. The latter in particular provides a much better explanation than I could put together. If you are interested give it a look.

In this post I will turn to some videos for an explanation of LHC and the Higgs Boson. Here is one of my favorite explanations of the LHC in the form of an LHC rap (the Higgs is discussed at about 2:40):

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OK – that doesn’t provide much of an explanation of the Higgs Boson, but it does demonstrate that physicists can have both talent and a sense of humor.

This video provides a better explanation of the Higgs Boson and the search for the Higgs at the LHC. (By the way PHD Comics are worth a look in general.)

And finally the musical touch to help bring the data to life. Perhaps this will convince you that physicists do have both imagination and talent. The Big Bang Theory isn’t the whole picture (and this Thursday isn’t Nerdsday).

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You can read more about this last video here: The Music of the Higgs Boson.

Without getting into the cost of this project (which was and continues to be rather large), I would like to start a bit of a discussion on attitudes toward scientific discoveries and theories. A great deal of effort went into the design and construction of a method to detect the Higgs Boson, the last missing particle in the Standard Model of particle physics. The effort, it appears, was successful and the confidence in our understanding of elementary physics has increased. There are still questions and mysteries, but this observation provides a confirmation of the basic outline.

Does this finding increase your confidence in science and scientists?

Is high energy physics an atheist conspiracy?

Particle physics is relatively uncontroversial. Scripture doesn’t really speak to the building blocks of matter. Very few are likely to claim that it is all a conspiracy against Christian faith. Evolution is a different case. Many Christians are skeptical of evolutionary theories. And the claim of atheist conspiracy is often made (although not by most readers of this blog). Yet the basic physics and chemistry behind evolutionary theory is as well established as particle physics. There are predictions and observations that are entirely in accord with the outline of the basic theory. The precise values and histories remain determined by observation and are modified as new observations are made. The community of scientists involved in evolutionary biology, like that involved in high energy physics, is large and characterized by self-checking skepticism. Yet 46% of Americans still doubt the conclusions of evolutionary biology, at least with respect to human origins.

Why do many find it reasonable to think that evolution is a conspiracy and these scientists unworthy of trust?

What makes this different from the findings of particle physics?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    Scot, I am certain you are right in suggesting that the difference in opinion about evolutionary biology and particle physics has nothing to do with the quality and veracity of the science or the character of the scientists involved. It surely is simply that the first is seen as a threat to biblical truth and the second is not.

    There is no conspiracy to support evolutionary ideas by cheating or cooking the books, nor even an unwillingness to see the counter evidence. Indeed, there is almost no counter evidence to look at! Much that is presented as counter evidence is based on faulty (and flimsy) notions of how science is done and the principles underlying it.

    To answer your specific questions…

    Does this finding increase your confidence in science and scientists? – Not by much, simply because my confidence is already very high. I must declare an interest. I was a professional biologist fpor many years (though not studying evolution).

    Is high energy physics an atheist conspiracy? – I’m absolutely sure it is not.

    Why do many find it reasonable to think that evolution is a conspiracy and these scientists unworthy of trust? – Because such a lot seems to be at stake. People are looking for any reason to distrust the science and the scientists. See my initial comments above.

    What makes this different from the findings of particle physics? – Very little. Biology is less mathematical in approach, though evolutionary studies tend to be an exception to that exception, especially in recent decades. Both biology and physics involve predictive theories and in the case of evolution the predictions have proved generally correct when tested, much as in particle physics (as you mentioned).

  • phil_style

    I read that the whole “god particle” terminology came from a physicist describing it as “that god-damned particle” a number of years back. It never had anything to do with theology.. somewhere along the way, the media got involved, and everything turned into populist-controversy-custard.

  • RJS

    phil_style,

    The article by Faith Tucker goes into this pretty well.

  • Bev Mitchell

    The “God” particle is just a good way to get attention. We should be familiar enough with this approach to all kinds of advertising by now.

    Evolution is more threatening to some Christians because we understand something about animals, being one such species (I don’t think “creationists” would worry overmuch if we only spoke of plants evolving). Also, some Christians think the Scriptures are attempting to tell us how God created. As for particle physics, all of us outside the field are really quite dependent on those in the field to understand much if anything. Furthermore, most people  see no connection between particle physics and big bad evolution. This is one reason for the lack of controversy.

    Sooner or later, as Christians who take the Bible as one of God’s major revelations to humanity, we are going to have to deal with the big idea that both particle physics, chemistry and biological evolution speak to. That is, we are going to have to be brave enough to consider the words, self assembly. This is what matter is able to do. The environment matter finds itself in sets the limits on what self assembly can do. In turn, the results of self assembly make the environment different, opening new possibilities. And so it goes- a kind of energy/matter-chemo-biological bootstrap process (at least in the early going). 

    Our idea of God needs to be grand enough to be completely unthreatened by these realities if physical and, by extension, living reality. God is not threatened by this, why should we be? As Christians, it seems we should be the least concerned of all people for we get to call God Father before we call him Creator. 

  • Bev Mitchell

    Whoops! “in physical” not “if physical” Could make a difference. :)

  • Paul D.

    A Higgs Boson particle entered a nearby Catholic Church.
    The priest said, “I’m sorry but you’ll have to leave; we cannot serve your kind here.”
    To which the Higgs Boson replied, “But without me, you can’t have mass.”

  • AHH

    For Paul D. @6, the latest insult among geeks:
    “Yo’ momma’s so fat, she gives mass to Higgs bosons.”

  • Rick

    Ladies and Gentleman, Paul D. and AHH will be here all week for your entertainment.

  • RJS

    Rick,

    I think the LHC rap is at least as entertaining…

    Pop quiz (for all, not just Rick) … what is a boson?

  • Rick

    RJS-

    I cheated, looked it up, tried to understand it- and my head exploded!

  • http://jmsmith.org JM Smith

    I don’t think the two fields of study can so readily be compared, can they? Particle physics experiments are observable and repeatable. Evolutionary biology at a macro level is neither and can only be observed in small scale changes and then extrapolated from there. This of course doesn’t mean it’s wrong; but I think comparing the two is not as straightforward as this post suggests.

  • Bev Mitchell

    JM (11)
    I’m not so sure. Have a look at the penultimate paragraph in (4) above. It needs editing, but the point is clear. What do you think?

    PS Since we are not overloaded with comments on this thread, I’ll take the liberty of posting an edited version right here. :)

    Sooner or later, as Christians who believe the Bible is one of God’s major revelations to humanity, we are going to have to deal with the big idea that particle physics, chemistry and biological evolution,taken together, point toward. That is, we are going to have to consider the reality  of self assembly. This is what matter is able to do. The environment matter finds itself in sets the limits on what self assembly can do at any moment. In turn, the results (products) of self assembly alter the environment opening new possibilities. And so it goes- a kind of energy/matter-chemo-biological bootstrap process leading to greater and greater complexity. Christians believe that this is all made possible by God, but science is the way we get closer to understanding all the working parts and how they interact. It’s great to have a higher level of confidence in the Standard Model because of these new data.

  • AHH

    More seriously, one can of course name other areas of consensus science that are well-established but that many Christians don’t trust (like climate change), and others that are equally established but don’t currently attract Christian scorn (say, HIV causing AIDS).

    I can think of 3 factors that are intertwined parts of this:

    1) Certain findings of science (evolution, age of the Earth and universe) are opposed because they appear to undermine the fundamentalist readings of Scripture (like Genesis treated as a science textbook) that are all too common. If we insist on asking Scripture modern questions it is not trying to answer, coming at it with a presupposed philosophy of how it has to behave rather than using the Bible we actually have as a tool to point us to Jesus (can you tell I’m in the middle of reading Christian Smith’s book?) we will inevitably run into conflicts with reality.

    2) Certain findings of science become suspect because they tend to work in opposition to the (American) evangelical church’s captivity to capitalism and Ayn Rand economics. They become a part of political battles and the “culture wars”. Certainly climate change (and other environmental science) is in this category. I also think of controversial social issues where science is not always so clear-cut, where both “sides” tend to embrace science that seems to support their position and dismiss science that tends to not support it. Witness the use and abuse of studies regarding a purported link between abortion and breast cancer, or on fetal pain, or studies related to homosexuality.

    3) Related to the culture wars mentioned above, much of the Evangelical church fosters an “us versus them” mentality where we have all the truth in our perfect system and those on the outside are our enemies trying to tear down our tower. The “Truth Project” mentality. Those who fan the culture war flames tell us that evolution and climate science and environmental science are part of the demonized “them”, and many Christians react accordingly.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I find dancing and rapping female physicists somehow quite … er…. interesting :)

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    JM Smith says:
    “Evolutionary biology at a macro level is neither and can only be observed in small scale changes and then extrapolated from there.”

    Isn’t this exactly the same for the higgs boson? Can only be observed in small scale changes then extrapolated from there?

  • aaronlage

    I tend to agree with JM Smith… DRT – it is in no way the same thing.

  • RJS

    aaronlage,

    One can argue that the history isn’t certain – the precise pathway taken. The origin of life also isn’t understood. But the chemistry and physics of evolution is quite well understood, as is the evidence for the evolutionary process itself. From a scientific point of view these are essentially identical. In fact, I think the size of the community that understands and evaluates the evolutionary evidence is significantly larger than the high energy physics community. I posed the question this way because I would like people to explain why, scientifically they are different.

  • http://www.doulos.at Wolf Paul

    I think a major reason for the distrust Evangelicals (not just in the US) feel towards evolutionary biology can be found in the writings of prominent authors who propose that science has made God superfluous. They may be in the minority among scientists, but the silence of the majority lends them credibility. So does the reaction of many scientists to any suggestion of “intelligent design”. They do not just oppose the specific ideas of Behe & co., they overreact to the very idea of it (witness the reactions to Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn’s NYT piece a few years ago) and thus lend credence to the notion that evolutionary science is opposed (not just indifferent) to belief in the existence of God.

  • RJS

    Wolf Paul,

    The rather strident writing of people like Dawkins and others definitely hurts the image that evolution has among Christians. The over reaction of many – including the kinds of reactions that were expressed in the US to the appointment of Collins (a Christian … horrors) as director of NIH – feed the conflict mentality.

    But the thing to keep in mind is that these are individual (or groups of) non-Christians who are opposed to Christianity on many grounds and who use science as a tool to further their view.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Wolf Paul (18),

    You are correct. However, this won’t go away and evangelicals will have to learn not to shoot the messenger – or, to use another cliché, throw the baby out with the bathwater. Frankly, if we insist on refusing to believe the results of science until most scientists are nicer to us…….. 

    For our part, the sooner evangelicals stop looking in Scripture for evidence of how God created (ID) and become satisfied with the fact that God made it all possible and continues to do so, the better things will be. One would think we would be quite happy just knowing God’s purpose in creating, which is clearly evident all over Scripture. His purpose, as described there, should also keep us well occupied, seeing as how he has a rather big role for us to play.  :)


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