The CERN Supercollider – God’s new altar?
For you “deepthink” visitors to Marking Time– or crossover visitors from Quantum Pork (a science and religion site I contribute to… see blogroll) –today’s important CNN story about the possible discovery of the Higgs boson (or “God particle”) will be very exciting. It may not be Kardashian baby-bump exciting, but for anyone with their eyes on the prize of understanding the inner workings of the universe, it’s likely to be this century’s version of splitting the atom, or discovering penicillin.
On the other hand, for the much larger majority of the world’s scientifically-challenged population, for better or worse, I expect your response will be more like, “Huh? Eh, okay. Whatever. Now bring on the fireworks, and the REAL party!”
I’ve written about advanced science here before, and its philosophic and religious relevance, because I truly believe these principles are on the cutting edge for intelligent, civilized people. Whether or not you believe in God, in advanced applied mathematics, or in some bizarre blending of the two that we can safely call The Mystery (a blend that’s probably closest to “the truth”, IMHO), theoretical physics is the ultimate testing ground for what matters in the Big Picture.
Four or five hundred years ago, scientific pioneers started making distinctions between good science and bad juju (i.e. oppressive beliefs and utter hogwash, in every culture, as opposed to genuine life-giving beliefs and community-stabilizing religion). These distinctions and “hard science” discoveries are what propelled mankind (on some continents, anyway) out of the Dark Ages and into relative prosperity, not to mention great cultural and industrial advancement. Universities, medicine, machines, literature… these were the applications of our growing intelligence as a species. Then we discovered gunpowder and it all went to hell… but that’s a tale for another day.
Of course, being big-brained humans whose ethics can never quite catch up, we have also generally tended to overextend ourselves, get too big for our britches, and play the know-it-all. Today’s discovery is no different. We likely are on the verge of some great leaps forward… but that is not to say we have arrived at godlike power or understanding. Nor can we ever. Get over it. We’re pretty awesome as is, without all those cumbersome and unrealistic aspirations to absolute power, perfection or immortality.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to spoil the party, so let’s get back to the Higgs boson and take a quick look at why it’s so exciting.
The best way to start is with a question:
The God Particle: What is it?!
For my jumping off point, I’m excerpting portions of an older CNN.com article (from December 2011, so not that old), just because I find the scientist comments there more intriguing and the descriptive, teachable imagery (i.e. the “party”) more fun as an idea to play with. Here’s an article excerpt:
Imagine the universe like a party. Relatively unknown guests at the party can pass quickly through the room unnoticed; more popular guests will attract groups of people (the Higgs bosons) who will then slow their movement through the room.
The speed of particles moving through the Higgs field works much in the same way. Certain particles will attract larger clusters of Higgs bosons – and the more Higgs bosons a particle attracts, the greater its mass will be.
Why is finding the Higgs boson so important?
While finding the Higgs boson won’t tell us everything we need to know about how the universe works, it will fill in a huge hole in the Standard Model that has existed for more than 50 years, according to experts.
“The Higgs boson is the last missing piece of our current understanding of the most fundamental nature of the universe,” Martin Archer, a physicist at Imperial College in London, told CNN.
“Only now with the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] are we able to really tick that box off and say ‘This is how the universe works, or at least how we think it does‘.”
Note the two phrases I have indicated above in red. These are the slightly buried, somewhat proud and presumptuous social, metaphysical and/or theological assumptions that such great scientific discoveries can lead toward, if we allow ourselves to be led…which I for one will not allow. Yes, I will admit to wanting to know how the universe works. That’s the kind of scientific or academic ambition that leads to great discoveries in every generation. But can I know this fully? Doubtful. Can I repeat the process, or apply such powerful knowledge in the pursuit of aims that are wholly unselfish… again, highly doubtful.
Christian and Jewish scripture says that God made humans “just slightly lower than the angels”. I believe it. But that also means God was setting limits on us, not just that God elevated us above all other biological entities (entities that we KNOW of, that is… but again, that’s a tale for another day).
The unasked or inadequately answered question in any scientific process, and in almost every case where science moves toward the metaphysical explanations of reality, is the question of WHY? Why does the Higgs boson attract other particles? Is it cooler than the others, the Brangelina of the particle party? More beautiful? Does it emit the subatomic equivalent of pheromones to attract mates and create mass?
What are the qualitative features here, as opposed to the quantitative ones? Is that particle-to-particle attraction due to the presence of something as unscientific as Love, acting like a “wild” (or perhaps very intentional, even divine) sub-subatomic energy force that draws and holds everything together?
I’m stretching here. I know. But that’s the nature and purpose of Mystery and faith, as well as of science: to stretch both our minds AND our hearts into new territory, to help us grow inwardly and to bring us together outwardly.
For the philosophic and faith-minded, these complex questions, and the reasons to be excited about the Higgs boson, are different but no less worthwhile. Again, I will return to that December 2011 CNN article, to explain how this advanced scientific theory got lumped in with the Creator of the Universe in the first place.
Why is the Higgs boson called the “God particle?”
The popular nickname for the elusive particle was created for the title of a book by Nobel Prize winning physicist Leon Lederman [Ed. note: check this guy out… he’s awesome] – reportedly against his will, as Lederman has said he wanted to call it the “Goddamn Particle” because “nobody could find the thing.”
“‘God particle’ is a nickname I don’t really like,” says Archer. “It’s nothing to do with religion – the only (theoretical) similarity is you’re seeing something that’s a field that’s everywhere, in all spaces.”
Note the red again. Did this moron really just say that “something that is a field that’s everywhere” has nothing to do with religion? Adherents to several Eastern religions, many Muslims, many Orthodox and ancient contemplative Christian traditions, and even the best postmodern evangelical theologies are all coming to a basic agreement by now that God or some godlike and compassionate Presence is in fact the Ground of ALL Being. Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like “a field that’s everywhere”?
In any theory, in any experiment, and in every socially-derived belief system, there are bound to be holes. Complete control and awareness are impossibilities. There are always going to be vagaries, red-herring distractions, unacknowledged biases, unasked questions, unwanted costs, unexpected benefits, and unforeseen new challenges raised by the answering of the initial scientific inquiry. (Anyone been to the nuclear power plant site in Japan lately?)
In short, humans are great, but we’re fallible. That means unmeasured or uncontrolled outside influences to throw off our calculations, PLUS misunderstood, half-understood, or unseen realities behind the reality we can perceive and test and try to prove.
Add in somebody up to no good –maybe trying to seize power or make a buck or take a shortcut –and you end up at the crossroads that Judeo-Christian theology calls “sin”, complete with all the hard admissions that inevitably come with accepting sin as a woven-in part of the human condition.
But that stuff behind reality is what we’re aiming at when we ask the Why question. “Why?”… which also tends to be the first and best question we learn to ask as toddlers, in every culture.
That, my friends, is no accident, either. I think that the inherent, non-scientific curiosity of “Why?” is our greatest family resemblance to the Creator. It is basically our rational mind reaching toward what philosophers call the transrational. We know it’s not magic. There is a reason for it all, …and causes, and effects, and all that good rational stuff. But it goes beyond all that, and it goes well beyond our capacity to comprehend the fullness of the universe.
A famous author once said “I could never believe in a God that I could completely understand.” (Sorry, I can’t find the quote at the moment, to give credit…) That’s where the relationship between God and science begins, and ends.
The attraction of Higgs bosons, the firmity and mass and existence of matter itself, the growth or death of the planet… these are not entirely the result of a random or even predictable chain of events in the evolution of the universe. Love and the ultimate Lover set up the system, and Love is intimately involved in it all along the way.
Love made the Big Bang go. Love set the rules, taught us how to operate the machinery, and pops in regularly to make repairs, or steer us in a new direction. Love is always trying to reveal itself to us more completely, by exposing these amazing inner workings of the universe more and more, with each new generation. It’s something to shoot off fireworks and throw a party about, to be sure. But where it all leads, and how and when and if it will all end, those are questions beyond the reach of even our best science. Oh, and let’s not forget “why”. (Did I mention why already?)
Nevertheless, “man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” (to quote the poet Robert Browning… yet another essential non-scientist, we soulful ones with the other half of the answer key for this Test that we call Life)
Reach on, particle physicists! I applaud you. But keep your hands off my soul. It belongs to me, and to Someone Else.
- Truimph at Cern as Large Hadron Collider scientists announce discovery of Higgs boson ‘God particle’ (independent.co.uk)