There is only magazine or journal I read cover to cover every month, and that is Scientific American. Nor is this a new obsession. My first job out of high school was as a research assistant in a computer lab, programming in Fortran to solve complex integral equations in order to analyze satellite data. My first major was astronomy.
True, I switched to history when I realized that I neither fully understood nor enjoyed complex mathematical analysis – which is all that physics and astronomy really is – but I’ve kept up with the news.
And that’s why I was both excited and skeptical about the recent announcement that evidence of the long predicted Higgs boson was finally discovered. Excited because it really is a breakthrough in demonstrating that the current model of how our universe functions at the smallest possible level is probably right (the so-called “standard model.”) Skeptical because decades before the particle was discovered physicists already knew that far greater mysteries lay beneath that model.
The standard model is based on incredibly difficult math but a simple concept: virtually all interactions that are commonly observed at an atomic level can be explained through the interactions of group of particles that carry either mass or force at a subatomic level. Physicists have known for some time that the most elegant explanation for what they observed required a particle they had never seen, the Higgs boson. They hadn’t seen it because it was so massive and tightly bound to other particles that they never had enough energy to pry it loose. The Large Hadron Collider gave them that energy, and it was theoretically only a matter of time before they pried loose a Higgs boson and observed it independently. And sure enough they did.
This esoteric stuff is actually pretty useful to you and me. The “standard model” and its ability to understand and predict interactions on a subatomic scale is critical to building upcoming generations of computers and to the material science that will create future consumer products.
Religious people shouldn’t take in any comfort in this. Because the naive “god of the gaps” assumption that most physicists assign to theology fails to grasp that the role of God in human life isn’t to explain the inexplicable.
Were that the case religion and science would simply be competitors, with religion losing on a consistent basis. Science has proven far better than religion at explaining, predicting, and manipulating the events in the world around us. Nor do scientists intend to quite filling in the gaps in their explanatory mechanisms – not even when their own methodologies tell them that those gaps cannot be filled.
Religious people who intend to give an account of their faith may want to use the discovery of the “God particle” to reflect on the reality of God, and what God’s self-revealing means for humanity. Perhaps a starting point might be to consider humans, in our sinfulness, as the gaps in God.