I decided to spend my Christmas holidays exploring a mystery. What, I wondered, is the Higgs boson about which we’ve heard so much? Having studied physics and astronomy seriously in the University, and having subsequently kept up with developments at a lay level as a lifelong reader of Scientific American I thought I knew a lot of it. Enough to know that somewhere between Schrödinger and Gell-Mann I had lost the narrative. So with the help of Wikipedia and its links I’ve been slowly putting it together. But unless you are fascinated by electro-weak theory and symmetry breaking (which are fascinating but pretty hard to understand for me) we’ll skip that.
The real story is the story of how scientists seem to think. And that narrative is simpler. It goes like this. 1. I wonder why something works the way it works. 2. I develop a theory consistent with what I’ve observed. 3. I think of an experiment that will give me more data and prove my theory right. 4. I find out a bunch of stuff that messes up my simple theory. 5. I construct a more complicated theory, or change my theory altogether. 6. Return to step 3 and repeat ad infinitum.
The ad infinitum is important. Back in 1930 the discovery that atoms consisted of protons, neutrons, and electrons led Max Born to say, “Physics as we know it will be over in six months.” He was right. And wrong. Only a year later physicists realized that it wasn’t nearly that simple. By the time we got to last year, and the first evidence that the theory of the Higgs field accurately reflected reality (with the creation of a Higgs boson) the Standard Theory of sub-atomic particles had 9 types (and their anti-particles) 3 generations of quarks and leptons, 8 colors (of gluons), and thus a total of 61 particles.
And more amazingly the scientists love that! They don’t want a final theory (and they know they probably can’t get to it anyway.) They want (to use the title of Stephen Wienberg’s classic) to dream of a final theory. They are addicted not to answers, but to wonder. Theories and experiments are just a way of raising the stakes, of getting past the easy and obvious to the complex and wondrous.
Let’s listen to the master: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSgiXGELjbc
This is suggestive to me of where a dialogue with science might go. Christians are too anxious to wrap things up, to solve problems instead of exploring their complexity. To give answers instead of wondering at the fabulous complexity of the questions.
At a time when religion and science seem increasingly at odds, and in which the importance of both steadily increases, could it be that the human capacity for wonder is something we that we share and could explore together? That it might prove some strand that could bind us in a unity?