Friday, July 6, 2012

Why I'm Not Afraid of Higg's Boson

It’s probably not possible to know less than I do about particle physics. I’m not even sure my sense of what particle physics is is all that accurate, let alone my sense of what it’s really all about. Obviously, I took physics in eleventh grade. (Wasn’t it a required course? I think it was, at least for an academic diploma.) And, if I remember correctly, not only did I pass the Regents’ exam but I even got a relatively good grade for the class. But that’s not as relevant as you’d think. For one thing, they hadn’t exactly even invented particle physics when I was in eleventh grade. For another, to pass the final and the Regents’ basically required memorizing lists of mostly inscrutable things without necessarily understanding them in any particular depth. I have a good memory. I learned it all. I spit it all back too, and accurately, thus legitimately earning my good grade. But any teacher will tell you that depth of understanding is only peripherally related to prowess in memorizing. That’s probably true in most contexts in academic life, but it seems to me that it applies especially to the study of science. Precisely memorizing equations, I was excellent at. Profoundly understanding their implications, not so much.

Over the years, I’ve read a few books that purported to explain physics to the bewildered. I read Gary Zukov’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters when it first came out in 1979. From there, I went on to read Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which I believe was actually published before Zukov’s great book and which I also remember enjoying immensely. But I haven’t really kept up as an ever-increasing number of books intended to explain the “new” physics to laypeople such as myself has been published over the last decades. (I do however have in my possession a copy of John Gribbin’s In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality, which I am hoping to get to later this summer. But even that is not such a new book, just something I’ve been meaning to read for thirty years or so.)

All that being the case, I was surprised to note the degree to which I found myself emotionally caught up in the excitement this week surrounding the discovery of a subatomic particle that may well turn out to be the elusive Higgs boson. (And to describe the aforementioned boson as “elusive” is really to say almost nothing at all given the number of the world’s very brightest people who have spent the last several decades searching for some trace of its actual existence.) It played a crucial role in Dan Brown’s book Angels and Demons, where it appeared as the source of the mysterious antimatter that was about to blow up the Vatican, but no effort was made to go further by explaining what a Higgs boson actually is. Nor, needless to say, did the book, or Ron Howard’s subsequent movie for that matter, make it obvious why should anyone in real life who doesn’t teach physics for a living should care. (If you were in the Vatican as it was about to explode, you would obviously care. But that’s just the point: absent the possibility of being blown up by it to smithereens, why would any of us outside of movie land or book land care about the elusive Higgs boson. That’s the question no one tried to answer.)

The first part, the “Higgs” part, is easy to explain: Higgs is Peter Higgs, a Scottish physicist now eighty-three years old but only thirty-five back in 1964 when he wrote and published a groundbreaking paper in which he posited the existence of the subatomic particle he imagined would have to exist to explain why particles have mass at all. Are you lost yet? I myself can’t quite seize it—and certainly not in all its technical detail—but the point seems to be that the existence of matter itself constitutes a puzzle for physicists. Who knew? Existence—the physical existence of real things made of molecules fashioned of atoms constituted of electrons and neutrons and protons, just as they taught me in eleventh grade—feels so real, so firm, so basic that it’s hard to see it as enigmatic. And, besides, what would be the alternative?

So it turns out that nothing is as clear as it feels at first. There are lots of alternatives. For one thing, my teacher (it also turns out) left out a lot of stuff. There are the three major –ons mentioned above, but there is also a whole class of even tinier—and we’re talking really, really tiny here—particles labelled sub-atomic that also have a role to play in the existence of things, particles like quarks and leptons that I didn’t learn anything at all about in eleventh grade because they hadn’t been identified or named back then. But the question—the really big question—regarding all these incredible little things is not whether they exist but why they do, why they exist garbed in matter at all. Indeed, if all these sub-atomic particles exist merely as energy, then it makes sense (sort of) to ask why they don’t just spend their time shooting around the universe at the speed of light. Indeed, one of the basic assumptions of physicists is that electromagnetic forces shouldn’t and don’t need mass to work. Yet these particles do indeed have mass and so something, somehow, must be giving it to them and for some reason. That is the question Professor Higgs was trying to answer back in 1963. And it was his answer—his specific answer—that scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, called CERN after its French initials, seemed almost confident they had almost certainly confirmed when, just a few days ago, they managed to use their Large Hadron Collider (a hadron is another subatomic particle) to smash two protons into each other, in effect blowing up two unimaginably tiny things into their even tinier constituent bits and seeing what landed on the collider’s floor.

The big question is why anyone should care, why I myself care. Among the many books on the subject I haven’t read is Leon Lederman’s bestseller from a few years ago, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? Now I’m slightly sorry I didn’t. Perhaps the title put me off. Or maybe I was still unsure—the book came out almost twenty years ago—if science and religion could co-exist peacefully, if intellectual and spiritual integrity could possibly complement each other in the same human breast. Or possibly I just wasn’t sufficiently impressed by the author’s Nobel Prize in physics. Whatever, I didn’t read it. But now that I have read all about the events of the last couple of days in Geneva, I’m sorry I’m as little well-read in science, and particularly in physics, as I am. I’d like to read more. From my current vantage point, however, God does seem to have much to do with it.

The Bible begins, as every Religious School child knows, with the story of the creation of the universe. But the first part of the story is not quite as clear as it could be, nor is it ever told precisely as written. The opening lines, for example, will appear this way in my forthcoming translation of the Torah:
When God set to creating the sky and the earth, the latter was awash in soupy, undifferentiated nothingness. (Indeed, there was nothing but darkness covering the limitless depths when the spirit of God first danced across the dark water.) And yet, when God said “Let there be light,” there actually was light. And God, finding this light appealing, moved forward and, after willing that it be distinct from the primordial darkness it had partially replaced, named it “day” to distinguish it from the darkness God named “night.” And so it was on the very edge of existence that there was a first day, one consisting of nighttime and daylight.

That’s a bit of a loose translation, but it captures the heart of the matter, I hope, nicely: on the first of all days, God confronted the sludge of undifferentiated reality completely shrouded in darkness and then, possessed of the urge to create, created light and willed that it alternate with darkness to create time, or some semblance of ongoing time characterized by the ongoing alternation of day and night.

But of the origin of the primordial sludge that God would eventually separate out into heaven and earth, and into dry land and sea, the Bible says nothing, just as it also says nothing of the origin of God. Scripture thus leaves us with the sense that what existed before existence merely was, that it existed as the stuff of reality before God willed reality itself to exist. (It’s not a contest, but I’m relieved to see that I can make as little sense writing about the Bible as I can writing about particle physics. It’s a gift!) But, seriously, the notion that before existence existed, before all that is e’re was, before the Creator set to creating, there was something…and that the study of that something can lead us not to haughtiness or to self-absorbedness, but to reverence—that is where particle physics and theology meet.

The thought that scientists are coming ever closer—and perhaps have actually identified—the force within the universe that is responsible for the existence of physical reality does not fill me with theological dread. If anything, I find it increasingly peculiar for people to respond to great scientific advances, be they in the fields of medicine, cosmology, anthropology, astronomy, or physics, with spiritual nervousness. The scientists at CERN themselves are not sure if they’ve found the Higgs boson or merely some “Higgslike” particle that acts in the way Higgs imagined his elusive boson would. In matters such as these, even the most “certain” conclusions must always be considered tentative. But that too is as it should be. God, as I never seem to tire of stressing when I preach, is by definition beyond the ken of human beings. And, as a result, whatever we know of God, or claim to know of God, must too be considered tentative and theoretical. We can try to know. We can ruminate productively about all sorts of unknowable things. We can even hope that we are coming ever closer to the truth, not ever more distant from it. But to confuse arrogance with piety is as ridiculous in the religious context as it is in the realm of scientific research.

The Bible begins with God surveying nothingness and willing that it be something. To understand that notion, though, requires some facility in understanding what the notion of reality absent existence could possibly mean. The CERN scientists have merely—merely!—taken a giant step forward towards a reasonable, demonstrable explanation. Why would any person possessed of faith in God find that off-putting or upsetting? I have no idea!