A God Particle?

You’re probably just now coming off a spontaneous and rousing celebration sparked by the apparent discovery of the elusive “God particle.” 

Okay, maybe not. But the particle, more formally known as the Higgs boson, is an important scientific discovery that has been in the news of late. And there’s got to be an unwritten rule that requires a blog like this to address something with that kind of nickname.

A British physicist named Peter Higgs initially proposed the existence of the particle in question in the 1960’s as a way of explaining why some particles have mass. And according to physics professor Michio Kaku, recent experiments conducted at the Large Hadron Collider, a 27 mile long machine that smashes protons together nearly at the speed of light, now allow scientists a 99.9999% degree of certainty that the Higgs boson in fact exists. 

Cosmic Log offers an analogy from physicist David Miller to explain how the Higgs boson works:

Imagine looking down from a balcony in a ballroom, watching a cocktail party below. When just plain folks try to go from one end of the room to the other, they can walk through easily, with no resistance from the party crowd. But when a celebrity like Justin Bieber shows up, other partygoers press around him so tightly that he can hardly move … and once he moves, the crowd moves with him in such a way that the whole group is harder to stop.

The partygoers are like Higgs bosons, the just plain folks are like massless particles, and Bieber is like a massive Z boson.

Interestingly, the Higgs boson apparently owes its nickname to another physicist, Leon Lederman, who wrote the following in his 1993 book, The God Particle:

This boson is so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet to elusive, that I have given it a nickname: The God Particle. Why God Particle? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the [G–d—] Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing. And two, there is a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one…

According to Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Lederman then “writes about the story of the Tower of Babel and the ‘curious intellectual stress’ it illustrates.”

Even so, Kaku notes why the nickname could be seen in another light as he explains, at least in part, the larger significance of the Higgs boson:

The press has dubbed the Higgs boson the “God particle,” a nickname that makes many physicists cringe. But there is some logic to it. According to the Bible, God set the universe into motion as he proclaimed “Let there be light!” In physics, the universe started off with a cosmic explosion, the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, which sent the stars and galaxies hurtling in all directions. But the key question is left unanswered: Why did it bang? The big-bang theory says nothing about how and why it banged in the first place. 

To put it another way, what was the match that set off the initial cosmic explosion? What put the “bang” in the Big Bang? In quantum physics, it was a Higgs-like particle that sparked the cosmic explosion. In other words, everything we see around us, including galaxies, stars, planets and us, owes its existence to the Higgs boson.

All that said, what should Christians think about all this? Does the existence of a God particle make God himself superfluous to the creation of the universe? Joe Carter sums up nicely:

Because of the misleading nickname and the connection to the Big Bang, some people might assume that the Higgs boson has theological—or atheological—implications. It does not. The confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson may illuminate physics but it doesn’t shed any light on metaphysics.

While the Higgs boson may help explain the mechanics of the Big Bang, it doesn’t explain the universe’s existence in the first place. Nor can it account for its own. In other words, in answer to the question, “Why did the universe go bang?” one might well say: “the Higgs boson.” But that immediately gives rise to yet another question: why is there such a thing as Higgs boson or, for that matter, a universe to begin with? 

With this in mind, it seems appropriate to understand the Higgs boson as providing another piece to the wondrous puzzle of how God brought about and structured his creation. For that reason, “God particle” might not be such a bad nickname after all.

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