Humans have always loved to simplify complex theories and ideas with nicknames. Physicist Fred Boyle referred to the theory that the universe expanded from a singularity with the derogatory phrase “the Big Bang.” Einstein referred colloquially to the phenomenon of “quantum entanglement” as “spooky action at a distance.” In 1993 physicist Leon Lederman wrote a book to explain another idea in physics, the Higgs field. The concept, originally named for British physicist Peter Higgs, needed a splashier name: the “God particle” was born.
Of course the Higgs field and the elementary particles that presumably constitute it, Higgs bosons, don’t have anything particular to do with a god or gods. One Israeli scientist, Professor Eliezer Rabinovici, recently quipped:
I recommend that every particle hire the PR people who came up with the name ‘God particle’ for the Higgs boson… That name has done more for its reputation than its science ever could. In truth, if you believe in God, they’re all ‘God particles,’ since He created them all, and if you don’t believe in God, the name is meaningless. [endnote 1]
A Primer in Quantum Mechanics
If you have the time, there is a cool video on the internet that carefully explains what the Higgs field, and a Higgs boson, is. You can see it here (below). For those who prefer a written explanation, read on.
Since the early 20th century scientists have realized that the basic building blocks of the universe are not, in fact, blocks at all. Most people know that matter – things like you, me and the computer keyboard – are made up of atoms. Those atoms, in turn, are made up of electrons, neutrons and protons. The neutrons and protons, it turns out, are made up things called quarks (remember the nickname thing?). These quarks come in different flavors (and yes, that is the technical term): a proton is made up of two up quarks and a down quark, for example. So far, so good. But what are quarks and electrons, exactly?
It turns out that quarks and electrons are not like teenie, tiny versions of things around us. They don’t behave, for example, like a desk does. I know exactly where my desk is right now: it’s under my keyboard. And I know how fast it is traveling right now, relative to the earth: not at all (thank goodness). But if I take a magic knife and cut off a piece of table, and cut that piece up, and keep cutting until a get a molecule of dead wood, and then to an atom that made up that molecule, until I get to an electron of that atom, something weird happens. I can know where that electron is, but not how fast it’s going. Or I can know how fast it’s going, but not where it is.
That’s not because I don’t have powerful enough instruments to figure it out, but because knowing both the speed and position of a fundamental particle like an electron is fundamentally impossible. You have to believe this, because it was a Lutheran physicist, Werner Heisenberg, who worked it out. Just kidding: even Lutherans can get things wrong when it comes to science. But this basic principle, known as the “uncertainty principle,” is a key part of what we call quantum mechanical theory.
The Beauty of Symmetry
What does this have to do with the Higgs boson or a Higgs field? It’s important because, when it comes to the basic structure of the universe, things we take for granted in our everyday life don’t seem to apply. The “uncertainty principle” is one of those things. Another one, which has led people to look for evidence of a Higgs field (which I will explain in a moment), is that the universe at its most fundamental level is beautiful, symmetrical, and makes sense.
Yes, you heard right. No one would be out looking for a Higgs field or Higgs boson if there wasn’t a – well, let’s just come right out and the use the word – “belief” – that the universe is logical. In the words of physicist Brian Greene:
If [the Higgs boson] is found, the event will be a triumph for theoretical physics: it will confirm the power of symmetry to correctly shape our mathematical reasoning as we venture forth into the unknown. [endnote 2]
Symmetry and the Higgs Field
Most of modern physics is driven by mathematics, not by direct observation. The equations come first, the smashing of atoms in giant supercolliders under the Alps comes later. To understand the Higgs field, consider two kinds of field we already know about. The first are force fields. Electromagnetic fields power our communication devices and heat our homes. Photons are the elemental particles that make up electromagnetic fields. Gravitional fields would be another kind of “force field.” Theoretically (they haven’t been found yet) gravitons would be the gravitational counterpart to photons.
The second kind of field is a matter field, which is a way of thinking about elementary particles and the probability of their being located in certain areas (remember the “uncertainty principle” described above?) An electron isn’t like a little piece of lint. It’s more like a ketchup stain, where there is more ketchup in some places and less in others.
Peter Higgs and others like him felt driven by logic and mathematics to believe a third kind of field, which gives elementary particles like quarks their mass, or inertia, also exists. Just as photons are the basic constituent of electromagnetic fields, so the Higgs boson would be the basic constituent of the Higgs field. But unlike force fields and matter fields that vary over time and space, the Higgs field exists everywhere, throughout the universe, at basically the same value. Finding photons is fairly easy. Finding a Higgs boson, to prove that the Higgs field actually exists, would require a lot more work – and a lot more energy! The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland was designed to get the job done. In July of 2012, a particle with many of the characteristics of a Higgs boson was discovered, which lends great support to the idea that the Higgs field really exists.
The Higgs Field and Theology
What does any of this have to do with our Christian faith? On the one hand, not much. When Newton formulated his concept of gravity, did that negate the idea of God? Or when Maxwell discovered the laws governing electromagnetism, did that do away with religious belief? Of course not. The creation is not the Creator. When we study what makes the universe tick, we are studying the mechanics of the universe, not the mechanics of the one who created it. God is not made up of particles – if he were, we would be pantheists or panentheists, believing that the universe and God are one and the same, or that God is immediately accessible through observation of the universe.
On the other hand, our ability to discern the fabric of the universe based on laws of logic and mathematics is a profound mystery. Paul in Romans 1 says that God’s attributes are visible within the universe, provided we are not observing the universe through the fog of sin [Romans 1:19-21]. We can know what kind of God there is, even though we cannot know God himself. Christians created anew by God’s Spirit know that an orderly universe proceeds from an orderly God, the God who sent his own Son Jesus Christ to bring “life and immortality to light.” [2 Timothy 1:10] Discovery of the Higgs field only further established the beauty and symmetry underlying the cosmos. Physicist Paul Davies has said that…
…to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour. Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are? …The favorite reply is, ‘There is no reason they are what they are–they just are. [endnote 3]
If we were to tell an atheist that she should believe God exists “just because,” she would laugh us out of the room. Yet scientists accept on faith that the universe is orderly, symmetrical, even beautiful, just because it is. The discovery of the Higgs boson should raise the same theological question all scientific discoveries do: if there is no reason for anything, why is everything so fundamentally reasonable? And if everything is so reasonable, why shouldn’t there be a Reason for it?
 Brian Greene. The Fabric of the Cosmos. (Alfred A. Knopf: New York) p.269
Associate Editor’s Note: With this post we introduce Pastor Charles St-Onge as a regular contributor here at BJS. Pastor St-Onge will be writing for us in the category “Steadfast in Science” where he will work to theologically interact with current scientific trends and news. We welcome requests in this category from our readers. Here is some more on Pastor St-Onge:
Rev. Charles St-Onge grew up in New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec, Canada before moving to the United States in his mid-twenties. He completed a Bachelor of Applied Science in Civil Engineering from the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Canada, and received a national scholarship to study human behavior and its impact on travel patterns at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. After completing his Master of Science he worked for two years for Science Applications International outside Washington, DC on contract with the US government. In 1999 Pastor St-Onge began work toward a Master of Divinity at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, before transferring to Concordia Theological Seminary and the LCMS in the spring of 2000.
Pr. St-Onge writes a regular column for the Houston Chronicle’s religion website, “houstonbelief.com,” has served as host and guest for numerous radio programs dealing with science and religion issues, and has spoken on the topic at several Higher Things gatherings and retreats. Pastor St-Onge serves as associate pastor of Memorial Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas, is married to Deborah, and has two daughters.