Monday, July 16, 2012

Buntings and Bosons

Buntings and Bosons? Could any title be more unusual?

In the world of particle physics, the Higgs boson is a current news mainstay. Seldom does such pure science news make it to page one headlines. Indeed, the world is abuzz with news about one of the most well known animals populating the “zoo of fundamental particles” as one writer spiced his description. Jeff Zweerink, Reasons to Believe scholar, in a recent article characterizes bosons as able to “mediate the electromagnetic, strong and weak nuclear forces.” In addition, the widely anticipated Higgs boson would cap a fifty-year search for understanding particle mass. Zweerink claims “scientists want to know how all of the four fundamental forces unify under one common theoretical umbrella.” Hundreds of scientists are asking the same questions as are hundreds of reporting science journalists. But do the little birds called indigo buntings populating our residential neighborhood have any application to these recent discoveries? We’ll try to make the connection.

When I was a secondary school science teacher some of my students tended to perceive my interests outside the school setting as singularly science. Perhaps I inadvertently fostered this misperception because I sometimes attached a science application to many of my exchanges with students. Science teachers were often challenged to make sure their subject areas related to the interests of the “whole person.” Had the purported Higgs boson discovery flashed across the news when I made my living as a classroom teacher, science teachers may have been hard pressed to relate the mysterious and obscure news to everyday phenomena in the lives of their students. Some would ask, hadn’t we settled on the concepts of weight, gravity, and mass long ago?

After all, had not our students dealt with elementary concepts such as weight, gravity, and mass in early classroom lessons? Did our students not understand that fellow classmates’ weights vary according to how much gravity pulls on them, especially if they are assigned to positions on the football team or different weight classes as wrestlers? Had our students been instructed that astronauts on the initial manned moon exploration weighed only one-sixth as much after landing on the moon? Did they know that on their way to the moon landing there was virtually no gravity because the effect of gravity was cancelled out completely by the balancing forces? Finally, early definitions of mass as merely the “amount of matter” in an object, long ago settled, are being raised again.

The particle called the Higgs boson reveals there are unusual and wonderful properties we really do not understand about matter. For example, we might report that the Higgs boson gives matter its mass similar to the way, according to one colorful description, swimmers moving through a pool of water get wet. One must ask if such humorous imagery really addresses the questions we have. The standard model may need an extra particle to be added, but physicist Jonas Strandberg from the ATLAS experiment at CERN, states that the standard model doesn’t have gravity in it. Gravity is still not well understood. There are many other questions unanswered, such as the mediations between electromagnetic, strong, and weak nuclear forces.

Science professionals and educators have pored over reports from CERN spokesmen where the LHC findings have generated this breaking news. To readers not engaged at the professional level the Higgs news appears to provide ready answers to questions posed for almost fifty years. On the other hand, scientists who have recognized important discoveries such as the Higgs boson have already generated many more questions and research opportunities than had been asked. This principle is true not only in science but extends to human knowledge in other fields.

While the buzz about bosons has built to a fever pitch over the last few weeks, an annual repeating event in my front yard for the past three years has been attracting the attention of me, my wife, my grandchildren, and anyone else willing to listen. A little bird called the indigo bunting has returned to one lone bare hickory branch for the third straight year, singing mightily as if to reclaim that temporarily abandoned branch while he spent the winters in southern Mexico or the Caribbean. This bunting has many other stories of interest which we will pick up in another post. Suffice to say that indigos possess unique electromagnetic properties as they display their plumage. The connection with the standard model of particle physics may be a stretch, but we’ll make the connection nevertheless.

Nature is interconnected with the wonder possessed by humans created in God’s image. Some scientists chafe at the suggestion that the complexity of matter in the Standard Model of particle physics is an occasion to give God the glory for designing such a complex and functional physical system. The majority of scientists seem to prefer naturalistic explanations for what we observe in the laboratory, even the laboratory of the LHC on the Swiss border, not to mention the behavior of everyday living things and matter in our front yards.

Fabiola Gianotti, head of one LHC branch of 3,000 CERN scientists, exulted in the new Higgs boson discovery, giving credit to “nature.” In one sense, this credit is deserved were we to understand the authorship of “nature.” Gianotti said, “Thanks, nature!” evoking laughs from the crowd.

For the Christian who sees Jesus as the Creator with God in the beginning according to the truth revealed in the first few verses of the Gospel of John, we acknowledge Him as the author of nature. All of nature’s traits speak thanks and praise to God. A centuries-old hymn bears witness to this truth: “Fairest Lord Jesus: Ruler of all nature, O Thou of God and man the Son. Thee will I cherish; Thee will I honor, Thou my soul’s glory, joy, and crown.”