Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Looking for (the) God (Particle) in all the Wrong Places

I have talked with many skeptics who claim that they do not believe in God because he has not conclusively demonstrated his existence to them. When asked how God might demonstrate his existence to their satisfaction I usually get an answer that consists of some criteria in which God would do something so spectacular that his intervention could not be denied. A classic example is that if God would miraculously regrow the limb of an amputee then the skeptic would believe in God. I addressed this issue to some extent in my post titled "Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence." I personally don't think that even such an extraordinary event would convince most skeptics of the existence of God. Would they actually have to see the limb as it grows back? Would they accept that the limb had grown back miraculously if a number of people including the person's doctor claimed that the limb was gone and now it is back?

Suppose I was to propose an experiment to test for God in which 1000 people prayed that a miracle would occur. Would that be a valid test for the existence of God? Actually, from a scientific perspective that could not, even in principle, be a valid test regardless of the results, either positive or negative, and could not be scientifically accepted. In any test involving a person with volition and the ability to make choices, the test is considered biased and invalid if the person knows she is being observed and can change her behavior to influence the test. In any test of God, he would know he is being tested and could change his behavior to influence the test. Consequently, regardless of the outcome of the test, it would be considered scientifically invalid.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Probing the God Particle

Almost six years ago headlines throughout the world declared the discovery of the "God Particle" at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The name "God Particle" is not used by any physicists but is the popular name in the press for the particle that physicists call the Higgs Boson or simply the Higgs, named after Peter Higgs, one of the theoretical physicists that proposed its existence in 1964. In an earlier post, I discussed the discovery of the Higgs Boson and its significance within the standard model of particles and fields. Although the discovery of the Higgs made international news, there has been a lot of hard work that has been done since that discovery was made. In experimental particle physics the discovery of something new is often the easiest part of the process and the hard part is trying to really understand what has been discovered. Much of my research life since 2012 has been dominated by further studies of the properties of the Higgs Boson.

Why do physicists spend so much time and effort studying something that has already been discovered? What is the motivation and the expected outcome? There is a complex and comprehensive mathematical model of nature that particle physicists use. This model makes detailed predictions about what we should expect to find in our experiments. One of the most exciting possibilities is to discover something in the data that does not fit the models. When that happens, and the discovery can be confirmed and verified, it means that we have found something new that we did not know before. That is the most thrilling outcome for an experimental physicist. It is always nice to confirm something that has already been predicted. But it is even more exciting to find something not predicted and then have to figure out what previously unknown secret of nature has been discovered.