Posted by: gcarkner | April 12, 2016

The God Particle in Physics

Finding God, … the particle.

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Haldron Collider Cern

In early 2011, deep under the Swiss-French countryside, scientists began studying the chaotic fires of high energy particle interactions using the new large hadron collider at CERN. The LHC had achieved incredibly high energies, rarely seen in the universe since the Big Bang. By July 2012 scientists excitedly announced that they had produced the massive Higgs boson, a.k.a. the “god particle.”

The divine nickname, and attendant media hype, begs the question of whether this discovery has any religious implications. At first blush, the question is almost embarrassing to scientists. It appears that the name “God particle” originated from “God-d*mn” particle, not any theological connection. The Higgs particle was the simply the last major prediction of the Standard Model (SM) of physics and its detection was the ultimate triumph. Yet, it is the very success of the SM that has potential implications for metaphysics and theology.

The Standard Model gives deep insights into nature; however, many run contrary to our common-sense view of reality. For example, according to the SM the universe is populated by both real and “virtual” particles, which are the by-products of invisible fields, such as the “Higgs field,” that span space and time. Virtual particles have a shadowy existence, randomly appearing then disappearing, yet have a measurable effect on real particles. Even real particles may be created from “nothing”. Here the physics intersects with the metaphysical discussion of the nature of matter. The SM description of continual creation (and annihilation) may also have implications for the theology of creation. Using theological language, one could describe the Higgs particle as the incarnation of the omnipresent Higgs field, in which we live and move and have our being, bequeathing to all matter the gift of mass. What this means needs to be worked out more rigorously.

The awesome technical and scientific achievement of this discovery also leads us to seriously reconsider the question of why humans, with pen and paper, computers and particle detectors, can so deeply understand the physical universe. This same question prompted Eugene Wigner to write the paper “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”. In the Standard Model, the unreasonable effectiveness of “symmetry” prompts the same question. The success of the scientific enterprise seems to point to some transcendent reality because we appear to be able to apprehend truths beyond our brains’ biochemical activity. Such a reality has always been the province of religion. Thus, the discovery of the Higgs particle invites us to explore the broader interactions between science and theology.

Barry Pointon, Ph.D

Physics Department

British Columbia Institute of Technology

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Further References on God & Physics:

John Polkinghorne, One World: the interaction of science and theology.

Denis Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix: science & faith in the 21st century.

Ard Louis, Physicist, Oxford University

Jennifer Wiseman, NASA physicist.

Tom McLeish, Faith & Wisdom in Science (OUP, 2014)

Alister McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe.


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