Higgs Boson musings
A few months ago, it was announced that a sub-atomic particle called the Higgs Boson may have been discovered at the Large Hadron Collider atom smashing machine near Geneva. After 50 years of trying to track down the elusive particle, the breakthrough was not only a momentous one for science – purportedly on par with the splitting of the atom and the unravelling of DNA – but also a potentially game-changing development in the history of humanity and our study of the universe.
Put as simply as possible, the Higgs Boson is the last missing cornerstone of the Standard Model of Physics, which explains the composition of the universe. It is the particle that is supposed to give matter mass, thereby holding the fabric of the universe together. Without mass, fundamental particles – the building blocks of the universe – would simply zip around in space at the speed of light and never form into stars and planets.
For those who place their faith in science to explain the mysteries of the universe and life itself, the Higgs Boson brings them a tantalising step closer to understanding the Big Bang theory and the forces that brought our universe into being and are still causing it to expand. Mathematics and the laws of physics are the foundations on which their reasoning is based.
Even for scientists, trying to comprehend the vastness of an ever-expanding universe by reducing its properties to numbers and equations is a massively daunting task. And the non-scientific layman may well consider this an exercise in futility, as, for the average person, any attempt to conceptualise infinity is a mind-blowing exercise. This probably goes a long way to accounting for the fact that most people place their faith in a supreme being to explain the origins of the universe and to make sense of the imponderables of the human condition.
It is, therefore, not without some irony that the Higgs Boson is called the “God Particle” and that Professor Peter Higgs, the man who has given his name to it, is an atheist. It is not, however, our intention to spark off a contentious debate about religion and science, as we are once again seeing in the news from abroad, how religious belief, especially when exploited by extremists, continues to be one of the most emotive issues in the world.
We would not presume to try to answer the big questions about origins and existence, life and death. Rather, we would prefer to tend towards the argument of “non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA),” espoused by the famous Harvard palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), in which he pragmatically posited that science and religion each have “a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority,” though many of us would perhaps disagree with his overly diplomatic view that these two domains do not overlap.
After all, people have always needed to believe in something, whether it be religion or science, or both – for not all scientists are agnostics or atheists and not all adherents of religion reject science. Indeed, it is a natural human compulsion to crave faith, of one kind or another, in the face of the cruel illogic of existence. Faith protects us all from doubt and the despair of nihilism. It is, on the level of religion, an almost instinctive response to those aspects of existence that cannot be easily or rationally explained – the essential amorality of the universe, the certainty of death, the mysteries surrounding our origins, and the meaning of our life, or lack thereof.
Religious faith is perhaps the emotional response to all this and scientific faith may be the intellectual response. These two branches of faith may not be incompatible for some people but the choice of whether to privilege one over the other with regard to the origins of the universe and of life is entirely a personal one.
It is entirely conceivable that, once the discovery of the Higgs Boson is confirmed definitively and as its implications become clearer, we will be somewhat closer to the truth. But like the universe itself, humankind’s exploration of the truth may well be an infinite task.