Encounters With the God Particle: Higgs boson, the pope, and the curious interaction between organized religion and big science
This is the season when many minds are tuned in to the concept of “God” and origins and fundamentals. I am reminded of a papal visit in the spring of 1982, when Pope John Paul II came to CERN, the European center where I was engaged in physics research on basic physical law. He spoke to the staff about “prodigious things,” world peace, and how he hoped the science discovered at CERN should be subject to the constraints of conscience, quoting Genesis 1:31 (“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”). In reply, the CERN director spoke of a fecund dialogue between science and religion. I am sure most of my colleagues—a good portion of them Jewish, many European agnostics, many Catholics—kept these two categories in separate mental compartments. But undoubtedly the need for good public relations on CERN’s part and the need for an open mind on scientific research on the church’s part played some role in this curious interaction between organized religion and big science.
Up to the middle of the last millennium, of course, with the exception of some considerable accomplishment by the ancient Greeks, the search for rules that govern that physical universe was largely religious in nature. But around the time of Galileo things took a fruitful turn. The search for physical law became more of a game of proposition, prediction, and test by experiment. We accepted a modus of working on what was accessible to our instruments or detectors. We went after laws at large scales—Newton’s gravitation, say, or the laws of friction. We studied and systemized electricity and magnetism. We learned about atoms and with the additional knowledge of electrical forces got access to the laws of chemistry. By the end of the 19th century we were breaking down atoms, learning over a 50-year span about the construction of the nucleus and sub-nuclear structure.
Physics experiments today are often done by colliding constituents of matter with one another at ever-higher energies and studying the debris. The highest-energy facilities—today, as then, at CERN—are huge and expensive, but they work at the frontier of the research that led us this summer to the much-noted announcement of the discovery at CERN of the so-called “god particle,” a particle associated with how all other particles get their masses. (In fact, the phrase “god particle” does not convey much information, but it is a fine way to attract attention, and it helped to sell a 1993 book when it was coined.) The “god particle” is only one piece of an elaborate structure known as the standard model.