Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The "God Particle"

Last week physicists confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, known popularly as the "God Particle."  I'm no physicist, but I am a theologian (a person who studies God), so when I heard this announced on my cable news channel, I took notice. I took to the internet to try to understand what all this was about.

The so-called "God Particle" was theorized way back in the 60s by a British physicist named Peter Higgs. Its actual name is the Higgs boson. Now as best as I can figure this out--don't quote me here--the idea is that sub-atomic particles don't have any mass in and of themselves. Without mass, they'd never come together and form atoms, and without atoms, you'd never have molecules, and without molecules, you'd never have ... anything. So something's got to give the particles mass. That's where the "Higgs field" comes in. The Higgs field is like molasses. When the other sub-atomic particles pass through it, it slows them down and they start to develop mass. Then they can start to form atoms, etc. etc.

Also, as I understand it, gravity and a whole bunch of other laws of nature are dependent on the presence of this particle known as the Higgs boson.

So that's why it's called the "God Particle." So much else depends on it. It's one of the secrets of how the universe came to be.

Peter Higgs
It's important to notice that actual scientists don't like the term "the God particle." In fact, Peter Higgs himself, who first theorized the thing, has said that the term is overreaching and "may offend some people." Other scientists are quick to point out that while this discovery is a huge step forward, it's still just one piece of a puzzle, not the entire thing. "The God Particle" is the name of a popular-level book that the media grabbed hold of because it sounds provocative. Even the author of that book is not so crazy about the term! 

So when you see headlines throwing that term around, keep it in perspective.

An Oxford professor said on the BBC that this discovery is "another nail in the coffin of religion" -- i.e., it's one more reason not to believe in God. Well, maybe. If you're disinclined to believe in God anyway, this discovery can add one more argument to your arsenal. But for me, the discoveries of science don't disprove or discount God; rather, they demonstrate God's awesomeness. And for many scientifically-minded people, new discoveries point towards (rather than away from) an intelligent being guiding the amazing and highly unlikely processes that resulted in the universe and life as we know it. 

One more thought about the discovery/observation/confirmation of the Higgs boson. (I am now using its proper name.) It was discovered/observed/confirmed (I'm not sure which of those terms is the right one) in a humongous, miles-long underground tunnel between the borders of France and Switzerland called the Large Hadran Collider. Almost 3000 scientists have worked on this for I-don't-know-how-many-years. The project has cost billions and billions of dollars. 

Wouldn't that time and money been better spent on something that alleviates the suffering of actual human beings? All those brilliant minds. Maybe if they had put their heads together they could have figured out how to cure cancer. That's a here-and-now problem, not a theoretical question about how the universe came to be. And all that money. Experts say it would only take around $13 billion a year to solve the world hunger problem. 25,000 people die every day because of hunger and hunger-related conditions. Why won't somebody invest 3000 scientists and billions of dollars into figuring out how to make that stop?

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