MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Why Higgs boson matters

with 4 comments

Photo: CERN

Photo: CERN

On Oct. 8 Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of Britain won the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics for their theory on how matter acquires mass.

This work — which they began researching in the 1960s — was confirmed last year by the discovery of the Higgs boson (a subatomic particle nicknamed “the God particle”) at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva.

If this has anyone scratching their heads or wondering how it fits in with their faith, then it’s time to check back with what a Catholic physicist and a Catholic astronomer had to say about this mysterious particle during the summer.

U.S. Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican astronomer, told Catholic News Service that the particle finding “indicates that reality is deeper and more rich and strange than our everyday life.”

When people go about their everyday business working or relaxing, they don’t think about the tiniest building blocks of physical matter, but “without these underlying little things, we wouldn’t be here,” he added.

Brother Consolmagno said the Higgs boson had been nicknamed “the God particle” as “a joke” in an attempt to depict the particle as “almost like a gift from God to help explain how reality works in the sub-atomic world.”

Because the particle is believed to be what gives mass to matter, it was assigned the godlike status of being able to create something out of nothing, he added.

These conjectures are not only bad reasons to believe in God, they are also bad science, he told CNS.

“You’ll look foolish, in say 2050, when they discover the real reason” for a phenomenon that was explained away earlier by the hand of God, he said.

But he did point out that faith and hope can exist in the scientific community. For example, “no one would have built this enormous experiment,” tapping the time and talents of thousands of scientists around the world, “without faith they would find something,” he said.

“My belief in God gives me the courage to look at the physical universe and to expect to find order and beauty,” he said. “It’s my faith that inspires me to do science.”

Father Andrew Pinsent, a former particle physicist who worked on an experiment at the previously mentioned CERN, wrote a column about the Higgs boson finding this summer for the Catholic Herald in England. The priest, currently a research director at Oxford University, said the discovery has “no obvious implications for theology” but said it is still “worth reviewing its implications for the human quest to understand life, the universe and everything.”

The priest pointed out that the research that went into discovering this subatomic particle was done in part to “fulfill one of the most noble human aspirations: to know the causes of things.”

He said the Higgs boson finding “is a piece of the puzzle of how (not why) the universe works” but he also said it was “scarcely a final answer.”

– Carol Zimmerman

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Written by MattAndJojang

October 11, 2013 at 1:13 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Very interesting. I became interested in what I secretly think of as “the poetry of physics” by reading Annie Dillard. I don’t have the math and science background to understand all this, but I certainly can appreciate it!

    shoreacres

    October 12, 2013 at 10:11 am

  2. Yes, Linda, quite an interesting article.

    I’ve always been interested in the interplay between science and religion, faith and reason. However, there are people who take the position that science and religion are incompatible. Glad that in my own particular faith-tradition the dialogue between faith and reason is encouraged. In fact, we even have priests, nuns, and religious brothers who are scientists, two of which are mentioned in the article – Fr. Pinsent and the Vatican astronomer, Br. Consolmagno.

    My own position is that religion teaches us the ‘why’ of life, that is, the ‘why’ or the purpose of existence; while science is about the ‘how’ of the universe, that is, what the universe is made of and how they work together. Properly understood faith and science are not incompatible. In fact, our understanding of science can enrich our knowledge of religion and vice-versa.

    “The poetry of physics” – love the way you put it. Though some people who look at science as a cut-and-dried affair would wonder what it means. But I agree with you: there is beauty in science and technology. When I was a software developer, I saw to it that when I wrote computer code that it wasn’t only functional, but also beautiful. Yes, there’s an almost poetic quality to computer code when it is properly written.

    I have also a special interest in physics, especially quantum mechanics.(Became interested in quantum physics because of the parallels between the experiences of the great mystics and the theories of quantum mechanics.) Although I was a computer science major in college and took a lot of math courses, even advanced and esoteric math subjects like calculus and differential equations, the math behind the physics of quantum mechanics is also beyond me. But having read books about physics written for the interested layperson, I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of the elegant ideas behind quantum mechanics.

    Again, speaking of “the poetry of physics” and the beauty of math and science, I am reminded of what John Polkinghorne, a physicist and an Anglican priest, said:

    “Well, beauty is a very interesting thing, and a form of beauty that is important to me is mathematical beauty. That’s a rather austere form of aesthetic pleasure, but those of us who work in that area and speak that language can recognize it and agree about it. And we’ve found in theoretical physics that the fundamental laws of nature are always mathematically beautiful. In fact, if you’ve got some ugly equations, almost certainly you haven’t got it right and you should think again. So beauty is the key to unlocking the secrets of the physical world.”

    ~Matt

    MattAndJojang

    October 12, 2013 at 8:00 pm

  3. I have some other thoughts that I’ll save for another evening when I have a little time to think. Just now, I’m going to share this post with Bill of White Flint Farm, who just has posted a relevant and quite interesting quotation from Augustine about such things. Thanks for your thought-provoking response!

    shoreacres

    October 15, 2013 at 11:13 am

  4. You’re welcome, Linda.

    Read too Bill’s Augustine’s quote and your comment. That missionary was right: “Go told us to evangelize the world, and not to beat it into submission.” It’s precisely for this reason – people who force their beliefs on others – which, sad to say, turns off people to religion. Unfortunately, because of this, they fail to see the relevance and beauty of religion.

    As for me, to make sense to the modern person, religion must be intelligent and sensible – open to other cultures and belief systems, ready to listen, dialogue, and learn from other areas of knowledge, such as science and art. Otherwise, religion will be dismissed as something irrelevant, only for the ignorant, the narrow-minded, and, even, in the words of Karl Marx, as an “opiate for the masses.”

    Thanks, by the way, for sharing this post with Bill.

    ~ Matt

    MattAndJojang

    October 15, 2013 at 12:38 pm


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