Hide and seek

6 Jul

Stephen Hawking has just lost a bet. Nothing to do with Pascal’s wager this time (see Dawkins, Williams and Pascal’s Wager for that one). Nor is eternal destiny at stake – it is a mere $100 that has changed hands. The Nobel physicist Stephen Hawking losing a wager might not be so unusual if he had just bet on the result of the 4.30 at Aintree but is a little less expected as it has to do with the fundamental make-up of the universe. “I had a bet with Gordon Kane of Michigan University that the Higgs particle wouldn’t be found,” he said on Wednesday. “It seems I have just lost $100.” (See phys.org story.)

Peter Higgs

The what? The Higgs particle, a.k.a. the Higgs boson. First proposed in the 1960s by Edinburgh-based physicist Peter Higgs, it has taken some finding. And it has cost a good deal more than what Prof. Hawking lost to find the elusive particle: the CERN particle accelerator – the Large Hadron Collider to be precise, a 17 mile-around circular tunnel that gets particles such as the protons used in this experiment up to near the speed of light and then whacks them into one another to see what happens – used to make the recent discovery has cost tax payers in the region of £6 billion. All this for something that has no immediate practical application, other than solving one of the remaining mysteries that keep some scientists awake at night. It seems they were so excited about it they accidentally released a video that leaked the discovery before the “official” announcement on Wednesday, an event attended by Peter Higgs himself. Hawking says Higgs should be awarded a Nobel prize, though the largely unknown physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, who first proposed the existence of the particle itself in 1924 and who the boson is named after, should share some of the glory.

It’s hard to keep up with all this. I was told that Newton’s laws could be relied on until someone let slip that Einstein thought differently. And I’d only just got used to molecules and atoms when someone started talking about quarks (not to mention strangeness and charm); now we have to get our heads round bosons and fermions too. I say “get our heads round” in the most figurative sense possible – the realm of theoretical physics at this level is probably beyond most of us to really understand. Rather, ours is to acknowledge what scientists are portraying as the last missing piece of the jigsaw of the “standard model” of physics, the basic model that explains what the universe is actually composed of, all of its particles, forces and interactions.

For the keenies amongst you, the Higgs boson confirms the existence of the Higgs Field, which itself is what allows all the fundamental particles to have mass. Amazing, and to think that I thought that things had mass just because they did! But no, mass is dependent on this field, and without mass, there would be no gravity – or better put, gravity would have no effect. And without gravitational attraction, the whole of the content of the universe would be distinct particles flying around at near the speed of light unable to bond with anything else. No atoms, no molecules, no gas clouds, no stars, no supernovae, no planets and moons – no us. Not the kind of place that Genesis 1 talks about.

Without the Higgs boson there are no atoms, no stars, no planets, no us. Not the kind of place Genesis 1 talks about. Tweet this.

The Higgs particle is popularly known as the “God Particle”, a nickname drawn from the title of Leon Lederman’s 1993 book The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question?. Lederman explains why: the particle is “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive”. (His alternative explanation is that “the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing”.)

Well, they have found the God Particle. Not God. Not anti-God. Just a label for another part of the intricate mechanism that allows you to be sitting reading this today in a universe designed for life, designed for us. The Higgs boson is a little newer to our minds, but fundamentally no stranger than electrons, neutrinos, the weak nuclear force, or any of the other particles and forces which the cosmos is composed of.

We live in an amazing universe. Just like the “Big Bang” (which incidentally was neither big, exploding from a singularity, the smallest point that can exist, nor a bang, as there was no matter or even space for sound to be transmitted through), the God Particle does not explain anything as such. Rather, it describes what is there. It gives us understanding on how the universe holds together but does not, cannot, and never will be able to tell us why; that is quite simply altogether beyond the realm of physics.

In that split second in which our universe exploded into existence, the fundamental values – mass and energy, including that of the Higgs Boson which reportedly weighs in at around 126.5 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) – of all the fundamental particles was fixed, and in such a way that would allow the subsequent formation of gas clouds, stars, planets, and ultimately life and ourselves. Change just one of these couple of dozen values by the tiniest percentage and the universe as we know it would not be possible. And we would not be here to notice. The Australian physicist Paul Davies puts it like this (see his 2007 New Scientist article “The Flexi-laws of Physics”):

For example, if protons were 0.1 per cent heavier than neutrons, rather than the other way about, all the protons coughed out of the big bang would soon have decayed into neutrons. Without protons and their crucial electric charge, atoms could not exist and chemistry would be impossible. Physicists and cosmologists know many such examples of uncanny bio-friendly “coincidences” and fortuitous fine-tuned properties in the laws of physics. Like Baby Bear’s porridge in the story of Goldilocks, our universe seems “just right” for life.

This “fine-tuning” of the universe has led to skepticism amongst physicists about purely mechanistic views of the universe that exclude the question of the origin of this order or the apparent design it exhibits, the mark of an external intelligence. Alan Sandage, for example, winner of the Crawford prize in astronomy, finds it “quite improbable that such order came out of chaos. There has to be some organizing principle. God to me is a mystery but is the explanation for the miracle of existence, why there is something instead of nothing.” Still an agnostic, Sir Fred Hoyle famously stated that “a common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.” There are many more like this, from scientists who have not embraced the Christian faith but whose understanding of the universe leaves a void that needs filling by something or someone beyond what science can observe.

The God Particle is also beyond the bounds of observation. But like watching a game of football where the ball is invisible to those not playing, a sort of 3-D video version of Spot-the-Ball, eventually enough observation will lead us to presume that there is more to the game than first meets the eye. Rather than deducing a list of apparently arbitrary rules that cause two sets of eleven men to run around a rectangular field, occasionally stopping in response to another man’s blows on a whistle, the very occasional movement in the net might provide evidence that there is actually something else involved. Something else that brings order into the apparent chaos, that cuts through the multitude of conflicting understandings of what is really going on. A ball.

Put the ball in place and the game suddenly makes sense. The attentive observer may be led to posit the existence of such a ball even before it is detected and design experiments to demonstrate the validity of that belief, an invisible ball that just must be there. (See chapter one of Lederman’s book for his version of the football match with alien observers from the distant planet of Twilo.)

So it was with the God Particle. No other explanation made sense. And fifty years later they have finally seen the bulge in the back of the net.

And so it is with God. God minus Particle – just God, or however you prefer to refer to the one who “monkeyed with the physics” in the first place. No other explanation makes sense. Stop trying to draw up a list of rules because you can’t see the ball. Posit his existence and keep your eyes on the back of the net. (And you don’t need a £9 billion piece of equipment for this!) You might be surprised by what you see.

P.S. If all this was too much for you, try this to relieve the tension:

A Higgs boson goes into a Catholic church and the priest says, “Higgs bosons aren’t allowed in here. You call yourself the God particle, and that’s blasphemy! “If you don’t allow Higgs particles in here,” the Higgs boson replies, “how do you have mass?”

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One Response to “Hide and seek”

  1. Ian Rees July 6, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

    Nicely put. I think laymen like me need a simple explanation, so I find it helpful to think of the HB as being bit like cornflour, which adds bulk to stews that are too thin. Or perhaps a kind of cosmological Bisto. Blessings!

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