Monday, July 9, 2012

What to make of the Higgs Boson

[I've had more than one person ask me what they should make of the news (from last week) about the discovery of the Higgs boson. Here's my response to one of them.]

Hi J_____:

Well, yes, this is pretty exciting stuff. Ever since physicists realized that there were particles smaller--and more fundamental--than protons, neutrons, and electrons, the race has been on to identify the different kinds of these particles. The discovery of them is largely theoretical (they cannot be directly seen), but predictions are made that can be tested in huge particle accelerators (like the Large Hadron Collider, which figures prominently in the recent discoveries).

Successful predictions and classification of a number of these fundamental particles has led to a working model (usually referred to as the standard particle theory), and this model predicts (indeed, seems to depend upon) the existence of a superparticle called the Higgs boson (boson being a class of such particles and Peter Higgs being a leading theoretical physicist who first predicted this particle's existence). It is 'super' because it plays a central role in determining the mass and other characteristics of many of the other particles. The Higgs boson is predicted to be free of either electrical or color charge, and its mass has previously been narrowed down to a relatively small range. It is within this range that the recent particle-bombardment tests have been occurring.

I believe that a news release with a research update was all along scheduled for July 4 (irrespective of what the update would be). As that date neared, rumors flew that the announcement would be that evidence for the HB had been found. (Remember, up until now, its existence was only theoretical.) Evidence would have been very positive, but physicists were doubtful that discovery would be claimed (discovery requiring a greater level of conformity to predictions). However, both sets of researchers obtained the necessary level of conformity to predictions, and the announcement was, in fact, of the tentative discovery of the HB.

All this means is that the standard particle model has gained a much greater level of support. Had the HB eluded physicists (had predictive tests not yielded positive results), then eventually a different model would have been required. Yesterday's news means that physicists have probably been on the right track all along.

Theologically/metaphysically, this discovery doesn't really have much bearing. The Higgs boson--like all of the other fundamental particles, like all matter, energy, time, and space--is a created part of this universe, and functions according to physical laws put in place by the Creator. One nickname for the HB--the 'God particle'--is potentially misleading (giving naturalists/atheists the misunderstanding that discovery of this particle might somehow explain away the need for God). The HB is indeed of central importance (according to the standard model) to the workings of the other fundamental particles, and thus--like God--lies behind everything else. Additionally--again, like God--the HB is difficult to detect; it had (rightfully) attained a sort of 'holy grail' status, its discovery being the virtual proof of the accuracy of the model. But where God is necessary and uncreated, the HB is definitely contingent and created; indeed its contingency is part of its elusiveness.

So again, pretty heady stuff, but without much implication for the larger conclusions of the past 100 years of astronomy/physics... that the universe is the creation of a good, personal, necessary, self-existent, transcendent, superintelligent, superpowerful Creator. With the discovery of the Higgs boson and the further validation of standard particle theory, the cosmological and teleological arguments for God's existence are as strong as ever.

Hope you're well.


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