The God Particle
Oddly enough for this blog, this has nothing to do with religion. This is about physics. There is a missing particle in the universe, and it’s known in the trade as the God particle.
“A missing particle?” You ask? Um… yes. You see, ever since the late 19th century, something called gauge theories were shown to explain how things like electromagnetic fields were related to charged particles. It’s mathematically a rather simple transformation, akin to looking at something from two different points of view, and seeing how the background has changed. What this did was make fields (points of space where something was going on that could be measured, but the something-being-measured had a direction associated with it as well as a value) look mathematically like particles. Forces then were just the passing of that “gauge particle” between two normal particles. A good example is the electromagnetic field and the photon which “carries” it between two places.
Oddly, sometimes there were fields with no corresponding gauge particles. This usually lead to a search for the missing particle, which was usually done by breaking apart the nuclei of atoms with high-energy charged particles, like protons, to see what fell out. One by one the missing gauge particles were found in the debris, and usually had just the right mass to agree with what has become known as the standard model of particle physics. Except for one, the Higgs Boson.
The Higgs, it turns out, gives mass to normal particles. At least, in theory it does. The difficulty in finding it is that it’s heavy, and therefore requires more energy than the most powerful “atom smasher” could deliver to produce it, so far. Without the Higgs, the standard model (aka, The Rock upon which the Church of Physics is built) [I thought you said that you’d keep religion out of this. – ed]is more than incomplete. It’s a table with three legs. The LHC can’t prove that the Standard Model is correct (it can’t prove a negative, after all). But it sure can prove that it’s wrong, or at least, suspect and in need of revision.
Enter the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and physicist Steven Weinberg at the University of Texas at Austin.
The biggest experiment in particle physics, the Large Hadron Collider, starts this summer in Switzerland. The goal is to find signs of an elusive particle called the Higgs boson—also known as the “God particle” because it might ultimately lead to a grand theory of the universe.
The Q and A begins:
After this experiment, will we have a final theory of how the universe was created?
It is possible that this experiment will give theoretical physicists a brilliant new idea that will explain all the particles and all the forces that we know and bring everything together in a beautiful mathematically consistent theory. But it is very unlikely that a final theory will come just from this experiment. If had to bet, I would bet it won’t be that easy.
As we come closer to developing an ultimate theory of the universe, how will this impact religion?
As science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations. Originally, in the history of human beings, everything was mysterious. Fire, rain, birth, death, all seemed to require the action of some kind of divine being. As time has passed, we have explained more and more in a purely naturalistic way. This doesn’t contradict religion, but it does takes away one of the original motivations for religion.
Interesting point of view. While the current understanding of physics can be toppled, in theory, by the LHC, Weinberg senses that religion is not going away, even if the standard model (or some successor) is proven out. He just thinks it’s boxed into a tighter corner. But the way he says it makes it seems like such a modest project…
But won’t some people expect to find the presence of a grand designer in that final theory?
That’s what was thought at the beginning, but we see less and less possibility of that. The more we learn about the universe the less sign we see of an intelligent designer. Isaac Newton thought that it would require an explanation in terms of the action of God to explain how the sun shone. Now we know that it shines because of the heat produced by the conversion of hydrogen into helium in its core. People who expect to find evidence of divine action in nature, in the origin of the universe or in the laws that govern matter, are probably going to be disappointed.
Oh. I see. His “final theory” explains the effect of a first kiss on a young person too, I imagine.
From Steven Weinberg, great physicist that he certainly is, I expected something more than “Oh yes, physics will be able to explain everything.” But beneath the modifiers “probably” and “less and less”, it’s pretty clear that he thinks it’s only a matter of time. Uh huh. Real soon now. Of course, if Dr. Weinberg was standing next to me right now, he’d probably say that I was mis-representing him, and that he goes on to say in the same interview that there will be plenty of questions we won’t be able to answer when physics explains this universe.
“Like, what about all the other universes?” he says. Okay, I’m paraphrasing. Here’s what he really says:
Yes, it is true. What will be completely satisfying will be to show that there was only one kind of nature that was logically possible and derive the laws of nature in the same way that we derived the principles of arithmetic. I don’t think that will be possible, because we can already imagine logically consistent laws of nature that don’t quite describe the world we see. We will always be somewhat disappointed.
I find it odd that he doesn’t seem to realize that he’s fallen into the old trap of replacing God with his philosophy, which is, in this case, physics. He doesn’t seem to know that he hasn’t gotten rid of God at all.
Oops. Seems like he’s brought religion into my post after all!