Thursday, September 18, 2008

The God Particle

Nobel prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman wrote a book in 1993 entitled The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? Since then, “God Particle” has come to be the familiar and endearing term for the elusive Higgs boson, a missing piece of the puzzle in the “Standard Model.” This is modern scientists’ description of the fundamental particles which compose all matter. The Higgs boson was predicted in 1964 by theoretical physicist Peter Higgs.

In the past few weeks, the public’s attention has been riveted on a monumental scientific event--a heroic but costly effort to find evidence that “The God Particle” actually exists. Science journalists have thrilled their readers with reports of the most startling, bizarre, and speculative elements of the story. The event is the September 10 start-up of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the border of France and Switzerland. After two decades, billions of dollars, and the efforts of many thousands of people, the LHC has finally come on line. This is the largest and most expensive science experiment ever. It was financed and built by a consortium of European nations. A similar experiment was begun in Texas in the United States, but was cancelled by Congress in 1993 because of its enormous cost. Scientists hope the LHC will also make discoveries about dark matter, conditions at the moment of the Big Bang, the “theory of everything,” and extra dimensions.

Many adults recall learning that the fundamental particles of matter were electrons, protons, and neutrons. But starting in the 1960s, that picture changed. Protons and neutrons were found to be composed of quarks. There are six “flavors” of quarks. Matter is also composed of six different “flavors” of leptons. The familiar electron is only one of the six leptons. Finally, there are force-carrying particles for the four universal forces. This Standard Model is a very successful theory of matter which accounts for many observations we make in our physical world. If the Standard Model were represented as a jigsaw puzzle depicting a beautiful nature scene, the scene would be reasonably complete and comprehensible, save for a region where the puzzle was missing some pieces we know should fit there. Particle physicists believe the Higgs boson is the hypothetical missing Standard Model “puzzle piece” that causes other particles to have mass.

Let’s return to the popular “God particle” idea. For many scientists, discovery of the God of creation, or even concern about a Creator, takes a back seat to their discoveries about the creation itself. Their concerns are more along the lines of “What are the fundamental characteristics of matter and energy?” and “What laws govern the operation of all things, living as well as non-living?” Thousands of other questions drive scientists’ quest for knowledge in hundreds of specialized fields of investigation. They are fascinated with the unknowns, and seek to convert unknowns to knowns. But there is hardly any theological speculation within science, because the field of science has been naturalistically framed. On rare occasions, however, faint glimmers of ontological curiosity creep into their writing. Perhaps they really wonder, or perhaps such writing more effectively evokes wonder and interest for their readers. In A Brief History of Time, Steven Hawking speaks of “knowing the mind of God.” Astronomer George Smoot, after the COBE satellite revealed its startling findings in 1992, said, “It’s like looking at God.” Brian Greene in The Elegant Universe wonders if the seemingly random mass quantities for fundamental particles occurred “by some divine choice.” And even though Albert Einstein denied a personal God, he thought God brought the universe into existence.

The God Particle? Is the phrase a mere literary device? Or does it signal a more fundamental longing for mankind to understand the wonders of reality? Truth is defined as that which is “really real.” The question of what is “really real” reaches far beyond the reality of the particle itself.