Seeing the light: this portrait of Peter Higgs by Ken Currie hangs in the Edinburgh University physics department
So we have been told this morning of a historic announcement at CERN in Switzerland that a sub-atomic particle that behaves like the Higgs Boson has been observed with ’5 sigma certainty’. Formally, it’s known as the Higgs Boson, informally its called the ‘God Particle’. The proper name comes from an Edinburgh based physicist, Peter Higgs, who conceived of it while walking in Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains in 1964. When I was a theology undergraduate here in Edinburgh 15 years ago, one of my professors, Dr James Mackey, was personal friends with Peter Higgs. He used to go on about it in theology lectures,, none of us had heard of it then, but its certainly become famous since. It became the God particle due to editorial anxiety – originally called the “Goddamn Particle” by Leon Lederman since it was seemingly impossible to isolate. Lederman, a leading researcher in the field, wanted to title his book “The Goddamn Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?” But his editor decided that the title was too controversial and convinced Lederman to change the title to “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?”
Over the last few months there have been numerous articles, programmes anticipating this discovery. However as much attention has been given to its name, as to what it means in Physics (which is beyond most of us). Many scientist have expressed irritation that it being called the ‘God Particle’ by a lazy media. To give you a flavour of this - Pauline Gagnon, a Canadian member of CERN’s team, told Reuters: “I hate that ‘God particle’ term…. The Higgs is not endowed with any religious meaning. It is ridiculous to call it that.” James Gillies, spokesman for CERN, said “Of course it has nothing to do with God whatsoever… But I can understand why people go that way because the Higgs is so important to our understanding of nature.” Oliver Buchmueller, another Higgs hunter, said: “Calling it the ‘God particle’ is completely inappropriate… It’s not doing justice to the Higgs and what we think its role in the universe is. It has nothing to do with God.” Whilst I can understand their frustration about snappy soundbites that are often misleading, I think this also shows a certain shortsightedness. From a religious perspective and schooled in a Spiritual Tradition that endeavours to see God in all things, only an atheist can say with any conviction that a building block of the universe has nothing to do with God. Especially when we are told that without (the Higgs Boson), or something like it, particles would just have remained whizzing around the universe at the speed of light… no galaxies or planets would have been formed. When we look at the wonderful things we now know thanks to science, it seems incredible that life has emerged. Some scientists are happy to call it a fluke, but that seems a bit lame to me, when you spend your life trying to understand the universe, making connections, spotting patterns, developing and testing hypotheses, fluke or sheer chance does not seem to be an adequate answer. The fact that the universe is intelligible would suggest that there is reason behind it.
The concept of a ‘finely tuned universe‘ has been argued most convincingly by English physicist Paul Davies who is chair of the SETI programme (Search for Extra-Terrestial Intelligence). The finely tuned thesis points to certain fundamentals of the universe, called fundamental physical constants , which are necessary for the evolution of galaxies and solar systems that can support life. These constants include the speed of light, gravitational force, even the charge of electrons – and shows that if their values were slightly different the universe could not support life. Basically the odds on life emerging at all are incredibly thin. Faced with this, surely the least you expect is that one should keep an open mind about a higher power existing . Unfortunately some popular scientists now talk about all religious belief as stupid, they claim that it can’t be defended rationally. The underlying question is how can we know anything? The danger is, at least in popular culture, that we create a binary system where the only two types of knowing are empirical science or fundamentalist religion. This is not true – there is a middle way where empirical science recognises its limits and that we keep our minds open to the awe and wonder of the universe and the possibility of a way of knowing that is balanced by faith and reason.
Thinking Faith published an interesting article on this last year – click here to read it.