The God particle

Recently, the scientific world has been all a-Twitter about the discovery of the so-called Higgs boson, a subatomic particle which previously had existed only in theory.  If you’re like me, you barely know the difference between a boson and a bison (hint: the latter are larger and shaggier).  True, I did read a handful of books on theoretical physics back in the day, trying to wrap my mind around such concepts as wave-particle duality and the Heisenberg Principle.  But after a while, you just go back to watching Star Trek, where you simply accept the technospeak (“Captain, subspace sensors are picking up an unusual concentration of chroniton particles, 500 meters off the port bow”), realign your phase inducers, and move on.

Why all the fuss?  Physicists want to explain realities that most of us take for granted–including such fundamental questions as, “What is mass?”  The Higgs boson is an important piece of the puzzle, providing confirmation of current theory and a stepping stone toward explaining such grand mysteries as what holds the galaxies together.

What I find fascinating, though, is the religious language that surrounds the discovery (and keep in mind that here, the word “discovery” means a clear and highly probable inference from the data, not something as tangible as unearthing of a piece of pottery in an archaeological dig).  It begins with the Higgs boson’s more popular name: “the God particle.”  But it doesn’t stop there.

A recent Time article by Jeff Kluger, for example, is entitled “The Cathedral of Science.”  Kluger tells how Fabiola Gianotti, one of the lead physicists on the project, read the data confirming the existence of the Higgs and leapt to her feet exclaiming, “My God!”  At a later press conference, she made the more politically correct amendment: “Thanks, nature!”  Writes Kluger:

But it was too late; the cat was out of the bag.  She and her colleagues were grappling with something bigger than mere physics, something that defies the mathematical and brushes up…against the spiritual. …Despite our fleeting attention span, we stopped for a moment to contemplate something far, far bigger than ourselves.  And when that happened, faith and physics–which don’t often shake hands–shared an embrace.

These days, the word “spirituality” often surfaces when confronting The Big Mysteries.  For Kluger to say that the physicists discovered something that “defies the mathematical” isn’t quite right; without mathematical confirmation, there would be no “discovery.”  What he means, I take it, is the sense of encountering something to which our mathematics might point but cannot contain.

On the one hand, I welcome the introduction of spiritual language into the conversation.  Despite some stereotypes to the contrary, scientists (especially physicists and cosmologists) are not an inherently anti-religious lot, and are not squeamish about the meta-physical.  Many have followed in the footsteps of Isaac Newton, seeing confirmation of a Creator in the orderliness described by science.

Yet on the other hand, I worry about the truncated understanding of God this can imply.  Here, too, we might use Newton as an example; he is said to have patched up the holes in his theories by invoking divine intervention.  To that move, the French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon LaPlace famously replied: “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

It is, I think, part of our God-given nature to want to explain things, to search out the secrets of existence, to break through the walls beyond which our minds can’t currently penetrate.  Our theories about creation can and should point us toward the Creator.

The question is whether the process of exploration and explanation takes on a life of its own, a tribute more to human ingenuity and cleverness than to the God that is revealed by nature.  As long as the Higgs boson was a mysterious entity, eluding actual observation, we could call it “the God particle.”  But now that another mystery has fallen to the dogged persistence of scientific research, will the existence of God, in the eyes of many, fall another notch in credibility?

Isaac Newton seemed to have approached his explanations from the standpoint of faith: as sociologist Rodney Stark has put it, he and others like him did their work “for the glory of God.”  It’s a mistake, though, to invoke God too blithely to cover what we can’t explain–in science or in life.  For as LaPlace’s dictum suggests, when an explanation is found, people may demote God to the role of an unnecessary idea.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that God doesn’t miraculously intervene in human circumstances; I, like you, have my own stories to tell.  I am not saying that science is always the preferred explanation; I know enough about science to know some of its practical and logical limitations.

But I am saying that a god who only reveals himself at the margins of what we can know and explain is not the biblical God.  Or perhaps more accurately, this is not how God wants to be known: not the god of the periphery, but the God who is the center.

David Horsey, writing in the Los Angeles Times, says this:

The news about the “God particle” is one of those challenging bits of information that can make everything else feel terrifyingly insignificant. … We are dust in the wind, utterly inconsequential in the dark expanse of time and space.  At least that’s one way to look at it. Another way to see it is that, in all that vastness, only we are aware of the awesome complexity. Only we strive to know and understand. All the rest is mere physical phenomena. What we do in our brief lives on this small planet may be the only thing that matters.  Thus, it behooves us to use our sliver of time well. … We can squander it being petty, cruel, selfish or destructive, or we can be creative, compassionate, kind and just. The Higgs boson may glue this universe together, but we are the ones who give it meaning.

Some may respond to the discovery by becoming even more proud of what we know; others may become more terrified at what we don’t know.  Horsey does a little of both: beginning with an Ecclesiastes-like despair, he takes refuge in the nobility conferred by the human drive to understand and to make existence meaningful.

I offer this alternative: Even “mere physical phenomena” are wonders that come from the hand of a Creator who loves his work.  By his design, the Higgs boson may indeed be what glues the physical universe together.  But it is God who gives it meaning; what we do matters because what he does matters, and we should therefore use our sliver of time in service to him.