Thursday, January 5, 2017

The God Particle...and God

On July 4, 2012 two collaborations of over 3000 physicist each independently announced the discovery of a particle colloquially known as "The God Particle."  Where did this elusive particle get its name?  Why did its discovery make international news?  And does it have anything to do with God?

Every scientist I know dislikes the moniker "The God Particle."  Physicists, instead, have named the particle after one of the six people who predicted its existence in 1964, the British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs.  Thus, it is the "Higgs particle" or "Higgs boson."  (For those of you who don't know but care about such things, a boson is a subatomic particle with an intrinsic quantum mechanical property of spin equal to an integer value times the Planck constant, named after Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose.)

In 1993, Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, wrote a book about the search for the Higgs boson and named the book The God Particle at the urging of his publisher in order to maximize sales.  So the nickname "The God Particle" is mostly a marketing gimmick to sell books.  The name doesn't give any insight into the particle's properties or its place in the ensemble of fundamental particles.

Why did this discovery excite physicists and make international headlines?  In the early 1960's a theory of the elementary particles and forces in the universe, what eventually became known as The Standard Model of Particles and Fields, was being developed by theoretical physicists.  One of the problems was that within the theoretical framework the truly fundamental particles did not have any intrinsic mass, though it was know that they must have mass.  In 1964 three independent groups proposed a model which would give a mass to the fundamental particles, but required that a new particle should exist: the Higgs boson.  Over the last 50 years, all of the predictions of the Standard Model have been confirmed.  Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, the pieces of the model that were discovered fit perfectly.  But one piece, the Higgs boson, was still missing.  That one important piece which would finish the puzzle could not be found.  So for about 10 years, the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, built a particle collider, the Large Hadron Collider, with the primary purpose of discovering the last piece of this beautiful puzzle.  It's discovery in 2012 affirmed the validity of the Standard Model and confirmed our understanding of the mechanism which gives mass to fundamental particles.  For predicting the existence of the Higgs particle, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert shared the 2013 Nobel prize in physics. Their citation reads, in part, "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider."

The picture shown above is a computer image of one of the events in the ATLAS detector that is a candidate for a Higgs Boson decay.   The Higgs particle only exists for about 10-22 seconds and will then decay in one of many different ways.  In this picture the two large energy "spikes" are two photons from the decay of a Higgs candidate particle.  Although I am a member of the ATLAS collaboration, I was not directly working with the team that discovered the Higgs particle.  Instead, I was searching for another possible way that the Higgs might decay.

Does the discovery of the Higgs particle give us any insight into the existence or character of God?  Consider that in 1964 six physicists did mathematical calculations about the universe.  Their mathematics predicted that an undiscovered particle should exist.  Nearly 50 years later, the particle was discovered.  I find this story truly remarkable.  It amazes me that mathematics describes our universe and that we, as physicists, can trust the results of this theoretical mathematics enough to have the audacity to believe that a physical particle actually exists.  Why is that the case?  Think about a similar situation.  If an engineer is designing a building or a machine, the engineer first does mathematical calculations to make sure the building will stand up to the stresses or that the machine will function properly.  The engineers' complex math describes the final product.  How is it that math describes the universe?  Is there a designer, an engineer, behind it all?  Certainly, the analogy would suggest that there must be.

But math alone can't produce any functional product.  After design, a workforce that has the ability and the resources to implement the design must carry out the needed production.  So where does that come from in the universe?  Is there a builder who has the ability and the resources to take the complex math and then actually create a functional "product?"  All other explanations seem to be inadequate to explain our highly complex universe described by the Standard Model which includes the Higgs boson.  Though it may not be properly "The God Particle," the mathematical description and complexity of our universe, along with its actual existence, gives a clear indication of a true deity who has designed and created what we now have the privilege to observe and study.


  1. Great post! Now I'm hoping for a post on the fine-tuning of the Higgs! :)

    1. Do you mean the fine tuning of the Higgs in regards to the hierarchy problem, or do you mean the semi-stability of the vacuum due to the Higgs mass?

  2. Why God's Mathematics permits the torture and horrors of living biological systems?

    1. Certainly, the question about evil, pain, and suffering is a challenging question for any worldview. The Christian answer to much of the problem of evil, pain, and suffering is that it is a result of God's decision to give humans the ability to make choices and humanity's decision to rebel against God. Most horrors and torture are a result of human choices, not God's action. In addition, God cares deeply about the problem of evil and pain, so he did something about it when Jesus came to earth to take care of the problem of sin and evil. The Christian worldview says that God cares so much that he has set up the mechanism to take care of the problem and will completely eliminate pain, suffering, torture, and evil after he has patiently waited for humans to have an opportunity to accept his offer of love and forgiveness.