Big news from the natural sciences this week: physicists at the European laboratory CERN in Switzerland have found evidence of a long-sought subatomic particle, the Higgs boson. This is a major development.
Physicists trying to understand the fundamental nature of the cosmos have long worked on what is called the “standard model” to describe the structure of matter and the interaction of particles. But the model, which has been generally successful in explaining observed results in conformity with mathematical predictions, at one time had a problem. Without the Higgs boson or something like it, the model would lead physicists to conclude that all particles should, like the photon (a kind of packet of light), have zero mass.
But plenty of particles do have mass, as evidenced by the tables around which scientists sat to discuss their theory. So there was a problem: if the model is right, how is it that there is something concrete, the ordinary world all around us, rather than nothing?
British physicist Peter Higgs, in the 1960s, proposed the existence of a particular kind of physical field that formed as the universe cooled after the Big Bang, thought to have occurred around 13.7 billion years ago. Particles passing through that field and, interacting with it, gain mass through that interaction.
The permeation of the hypothetical Higgs field throughout the universe, together with its central role in explaining how physical reality could exist – maybe a natural sciences version of transcendence and immanence – led to the boson’s nickname, the “God Particle.”
Much still needs to be verified, and the scientists have been generally careful in qualifying the reports. They specify that the particle is Higgs-like, but it could be an unknown new particle. Even if the observed particle is not the Higgs boson, but something similar, it is a major development as it might clarify (or complicate) the standard model.
Catholics in particular should welcome this advance in the understanding of the cosmos. “It indicates that reality is deeper and more rich and strange than our everyday life,” Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno has explained.
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, seen from above
God is not a particle, of course. God is absolute being, which is something else entirely. We now have more insight into the physical reality of God’s creation. “Basic scientific research, as well as applied research, is a significant expression of man’s dominion over creation,” the Catechism tells us. This week’s result is as basic as research can get.
Professor Gordon Kane of the University of Michigan has commented: “[Going back to Galileo and Kepler] a 400-year-old quest to describe the world that we can see has now been completed. It completes the standard model.”
One could gently point out that the quest to understand what we see around us goes back a great deal further than 400 years. The scientific method that allowed the extraordinary advances of those four centuries emerged from Catholic thinking, as Father Stanley Jaki observed.
But Professor Kane’s words are noteworthy in one very important way: he is clear that the Higgs boson and the standard model help us explain what we can see. Whether he believes that there is more to reality than the physical universe that we see, I do not know. But he at least did not leap to the claim that the standard model necessarily explains all that is to be explained.
That is a very important distinction. Some of this week’s news reports said the discovery explains “why we exist.” Well, no. It explains how we, in our bodies of matter, along with the rest of the matter in the universe, can exist where the standard model seems to work as an explanation of matter and the interactions of particles.
The “why” part of our existence is not going to come out of CERN.
The Church – and belief in the supernatural in general – are often said to be in conflict with science. Not true. But the Church is in conflict with a materialist scientism that believes all reality is empirically observable and testable, and that no other questions are worth asking.
This scientism is deadly. Walker Percy writes:
[T]he consciousness of Western man, the layman in particular, has been transformed by a curious misapprehension of the scientific method. One is tempted to use the theological term “idolatry.” This misapprehension, which is not the fault of science, but rather the inevitable consequence of the victory of the scientific worldview. . .takes the form of a radical and paradoxical loss of sovereignty by the layman and of a radical impoverishment of human relations.
So it was wonderful to hear the excitement of the scientists, to see them celebrate with the ordinary ritual of champagne, to hear of Higgs’ own amazement at the discovery within his lifetime. They were marking a success in where wonder can take us using our reason to seek truth.
My favorite among the comments of the physicists came from Maria Spiropulu of Cal Tech: “I personally do not want it to be standard model anything – I don’t want it to be simple or symmetric or as predicted. I want us all to have been dealt a complex hand that will send me (and all of us) in a (good) loop for a long time.”
The Higgs boson may have been found, but our capacity for wonder and our joy in exploring the mystery of creation go on.