Tag Archives: Big Bang

The Icing on the Cake

12 Jul

There are some things that I don’t understand in the often acrimonious debate that takes place around the subject of evolution. And I am not talking about geology or genetics. The lines between scientific fact, the subjective interpretation of objective data and deeply held personal convictions sometimes appear a little too blurred for respectful debate. Proponents of one metaphysical agenda or another appear to be seeking that which will uphold their own view rather than engaging in dialogue as such. Proofs and counter-proofs are lobbed backwards and forwards but, like WWI trench warfare which left millions dead with no real territorial gain, nothing of any import moves.

It is natural that we want to understand where we came from and how life began. That’s what science is about, the search for understanding. And in that search “God did it” will never be a satisfactory answer, always inviting the subsequent question “OK, but how did God do it?”. At this present time at least, whether one accepts spontaneous abiogenesis or insists on the need for a transcendent creator remains essentially a philosophical question; an end to the evolution-creation debate would not appear to be in sight.

For me, though, it is the wrong place to start. It’s like disputes about the icing (frosting, for US readers) forgetting that there is a cake. No cake, no icing. Argue as much as you like about the icing, but unless you understand the cake, it really is a secondary issue.

Life itself, including the complex life-forms that inhabit planet earth, needs an environment conducive to life. Sounds obvious, I know, but is often left out of the equation. Without Higgs bosons (yes, it’s them again – they have kept me inspired for the best part of a week now), one of the many particles that sprang into existence in the first milliseconds of the big bang, we have no cake. And I’ll say it again – no cake, no icing.

The balance that exists in and between all the other fundamental particles and forces that emerged from the void – if we can call it that, as before that moment there was not even empty space, no space, no nothing – is beyond calculation. Even the most optimistic probability theory defines such figures as, quite simply, impossible.

N49, the brightest supernova remnant in the Large Magellanic Cloud.
Image credit: NASA/CXC/STScI/JPL-Caltech/UIUC/Univ. of Minn.

Following the laws that govern how matter and energy behave, the building blocks of life were then formed over billions of years of intergalactic history. In the process known as stellar nucleosynthesis, stars became production lines of heavier elements, some of them turning supernova and spewing their innards across space, seeding the gas clouds that would later condense into stars and planetary systems such as ours with the atoms needed for life. Next time you are eating a banana, spare a thought for the generous self-sacrificing red giant turned supernova for the magnesium it contributed! All of the elements needed for living organisms exist, here and now, because of the way the universe is constructed and how it has thus been able to develop.

With all this in mind, for many, we are looking at something which lies beyond the realms of chance; by the constraints of any normal rational process, the universe would seem to have been designed for life. Perhaps this is why it is significantly easier for physicists to believe in a transcendent creator than for molecular biologists.

Others, however, prefer to posit the existence of an infinite number of parallel universes to explain why, in this one at least, we exist. Anything and everything will have occurred in one of these infinite gardens of possibility; who knows, in one of them, Andy Murray may even have beaten Federer at Wimbledon. Of course, no proof can ever exist for these alternative worlds. But likewise, neither will science ever be able to penetrate the all-but infinite heat and pressure of the split-second explosion that brought our universe into being and tell us what lay behind it, creator or otherwise. As Robert Jastrow says:

At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. (God and the Astronomers, 2nd edition, p.107.)

This is where we come back to faith and philosophical conviction. Whichever side of the debate we choose to stand on, we are left with the need to choose a “reasonable faith”, a conviction that most resonates with the world as we see it. And again, whichever side of the debate we stand, we will never have ultimate “proof” for our belief. However much evidence points one way or the other, the final word is spoken in faith. For this faith – either in the existence or the non-existence of God – is not in and of itself subject to scientific enquiry.

So please do not make the evolution-creation “icing” into the be-all and end-all, the touch-stone on which all else depends; salvation is by faith, not faith in Jesus and young-earth creationism. There is an astrophysical “cake” that carries, in my mind at least, a whole lot more weight. And remember – no cake, no icing.

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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