Monday, 13 August 2012

The Higgs Particle

By Ian Harris     Otago Daily Times         Aug. 10, 2012

Since gold medals are in the air – and at Eton Dorney, on the water – let’s award one to Professor Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University, for coming up with the notion of a process in nature that holds the material world together: the Higgs boson, also known as the “God particle”.

While walking in the Scottish Highlands in 1964, Higgs had a bright idea about how sub-atomic particles acquired mass. This was the missing link in the standard model of the ultimately tiny, the process that caused other particles to cease whizzing freely after the Big Bang and cluster to form matter, stars, the planets – and us.

He conjectured an energy field through which particles moved and reacted in various ways, with some acquiring mass, others not. The field became known as the Higgs field. An accompanying particle or wave (Higgs prefers wave) carried the field’s effect: this was dubbed the Higgs boson. Here’s how National Geographic describes it: “Higgs’ idea was that the universe is bathed in an invisible field similar to a magnetic field. Every particle feels this field, but to varying degrees.

“If a particle can move through this field with little or no interaction, there will be no drag, and the particle will have little or no mass. Alternatively, if a particle interacts significantly with the Higgs field, it will have a higher mass. The idea of the Higgs field requires the acceptance of a related particle: the Higgs boson.”
Higgs’ imaginative leap tantalised physicists for 48 years. Then last month the European Organisation for Nuclear Research announced in Geneva that two teams of scientists, working independently, had smashed proton particles together at close to the speed of light, recreating conditions that existed a billionth of a second after the Big Bang – and confirming that the Higgs field and boson are indeed part of the mystery of the universe.
Well, near enough to confirming: the scientists are only 99.99994 per cent sure that what they saw was not a fluke. So they cautiously confirmed a new particle “consistent with the Higgs boson”.

So what has the “God particle” to do with God?  Nothing at all. Higgs’ discovery is pure science, not theology. Another physicist, Nobel prize-winning American Leon Lederman, gave the boson its moniker in his 1993 book The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? He would have preferred “the goddamn particle”, because it was proving so hard to pin down. But his publisher ruled otherwise.

Higgs, an atheist, disowns the term, and well he might. Though there are people of science and religion who muse on discerning “the mind of God”, all they are doing is projecting an image of a divine super-scientist who must always be one step ahead (or 10,000 steps ahead) of what earth-bound scientists can discover. “God” then remains eternally embedded in the gaps beyond human knowledge.  That was fair enough in past eras, when people wove myths to explain how the world came into being and why it works the way it does. Religions carry some of those stories into the present, but sensible folk no longer treat them as science.

Instead, the stories represent the attempts of our forebears to make sense of their world and its forces – stars, seasons, the cycle of life and death, the “hidden energy of things” – and find meaning for their own lives within them.   Christians who regularly affirm God as “Maker of heaven and earth” retain at least some of that pre-modern understanding, while atheists use it to dismiss religion as outmoded. The modern conflict between religion and science thrives on mutual misunderstanding.

There’s another perspective, however, which makes that conflict irrelevant. It says to scientists: “Go for it! Find out all you can about the wonders of the universe and of life. Help us to see them as they are, for scientific truth can never be at odds with the religious search for meaning or the life-enhancing values which good religion carries. Its insights stem from centuries of reflection on human experience. Its truths have nothing to do with analysing atoms.”

That same perspective dispenses with the need for a theistic God who is creator and first cause. Instead, it offers a glimpse of God in contemporary terms, through a metaphorical “God particle” around which the highest, deepest and best values of humanity cluster and cohere. In the field of religion, this “God particle” is love, a solar generosity of spirit lived out in everyday life. In the Higgs field, love doesn’t figure.

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