July 5, 2012

"God Particle" Discovered - Really?

Higgs event.  Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Much has been reported in the news the past few days about the discovery at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe of a new sub-atomic particle.  The media is often referring to this yet to be definitively identified particle as the "God particle," with some writers using the qualifier that it is not a description liked by most scientists.

Such media usage of the term "the God particle" might persuade you think/believe that this discovery has something to do with the Christian biblical claim that a deity created all the mass we observe in the universe.  The rationale for such a view is something like the following:  These subatomic particles spontaneously come together in space to form clumps of matter that have mass, that this process led to the formation of atoms, and that gravity gave rise to all the more complex matter that followed.  So far, so good.  This is what leading theoretical physicists believe happened in the formation of our universe and all that is in it, including us.  Here is where the science stops and journalist conjecture and license, much to the delight of many believers, begins - that such a process of matter formation as described by scientists can only be explained as a creation act of God.

I am reminded of the hoopla that arose a few years back over the so-called discovery of the "God gene."  See my post The God Gene? on what became of that hyperbolic claim.

Why is the purported Higgs boson or particle being called the "God particle?"  Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

From the Wikipedia article, "Higgs boson"
The Higgs boson is often referred to as the "God particle" by individuals outside the scientific community, after the title of Leon Lederman's popular science book on particle physics, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?. While use of this term may have contributed to increased media interest, many scientists dislike it, since it overstates the particle's importance, not least since its discovery would still leave unanswered questions about the unification of quantum chromodynamics, the electroweak interaction, and gravity, as well as the ultimate origin of the universe. Higgs, an atheist himself, is displeased that the Higgs particle is nicknamed the "God particle", because the term "might offend people who are religious".
Lederman said he gave it the nickname "the God particle" because the particle is "so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive," but jokingly added that a second reason was because "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."
A renaming competition conducted by the science correspondent for the British Guardian newspaper chose the name "the champagne bottle boson" as the best from among their submissions: "The bottom of a champagne bottle is in the shape of the Higgs potential and is often used as an illustration in physics lectures. So it's not an embarrassingly grandiose name, it is memorable, and [it] has some physics connection too."

Don't be lulled by this widespread usage of the term "God particle" into thinking that this important discovery of what psysicists believe may be the "Higgs boson" or "Higgs particle" pertains to science having finally proven that God exists.  It doesn't.  Here are two excellent references that explain what physicists, not journalists, believers, or theologians, mean by the term "Higgs particle" or "Higgs boson:"

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality by Brian Greene.  This book was also the subject of a PBS-NOVA science miniseries:  Fabric of the Cosmos, viewable online, free.

A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss
How the Higgs Boson Posits a New Story of Our Creation by Lawrence M. Krauss, Newsweek, July 9, 2012
A Blip That Speaks of Our Place in the Universe by Lawrence M. Krauss, The New York Times, Science, July 9, 2012
Nothing Is Negligible: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing by Michael Shermer, eSkeptic, July 11, 2012

I found Greene's and Krauss' books difficult to read but nevertheless was greatly rewarded for my efforts to push through them by the knowledge I gained.

No points lost if you go for the PBS-NOVA miniseries which is an excellent visual, verbal explanation of this complex subject.

Wishing you smooth sailing on the "Higgs ocean!"  We live in an extraordinary time of scientific discovery.  Embrace it!

2 comments:

Christopher Sears said...

"Such media usage might persuade you think/believe that this massless and perhaps tiniest of all sub-atomic particles is the product of a supernatural being."

You may want to double check your physics on this one. The new particle is much larger than the other subatomic particles.

This is from the CERN press release:

“We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma, in the mass region around 126 GeV. The outstanding performance of the LHC and ATLAS and the huge efforts of many people have brought us to this exciting stage,” said ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti, “but a little more time is needed to prepare these results for publication.”

"The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found,”

For reference, a proton is around 1 GeV.

For the record, I have yet to hear anybody use this discovery as proof of the existence of any supernatural beings. Please share any references to such claims.

Jim Lassiter said...

Christopher,

Thank you for pointing out my error. I have corrected my original statement. As for anybody using this discovery as proof of the existence of any supernatural beings, I made no such claim. The following, however, is a tiny sampling of links you might find interesting that show how various believers are interpreting the discovery.

“God and the God Particle”
http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/07/06/faqs-god-and-the-god-particle/ "The Higgs boson may be responsible for holding the universe together, but Jesus holds the "God particle" in its place."

“Scientists Discover ‘The God Particle’, As Clerics Insist It Represents God” http://www.tribune.com.ng/sun/church-features/7805-scientists-discover-the-god-particle-as-clerics-insist-it-represents-god "It (the discovery) shows that it is establishing the fact that there was a force behind creation in such a way that God was behind it. Those particles did not just happen. It was the spoken word of God that caused the collision that resulted in creation."

“Vatican Astronomer Says 'God Particle' Misnamed, But Exciting” http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/vatican-astronomer-says-god-particle-is-misnamed-but-exciting/ "...if there was a particle that could exist that could explain all the little things we wanted to explain, it would be a gift from God."

Mine is a cautionary post on the use of the term "God particle." Veteran journalist Charles Pierce (Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free) explains how the glorification of ignorance and supernaturalism in modern America came about and how it is sustained through what he calls the “Three Great Premises of Idiot America”: 1) Any theory (or idea) is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units; 2) Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it; and, 3) Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough. According to Pierce, then, if journalists keep using the “God particle” in association with this important scientific discovery, many in America and around the world will very likely conflate the two.

See my earlier post, a review of Pierce's book: http://jameselassiter.blogspot.com/2010/09/ever-wonder-why-so-many-americans-hate.html

Jim