Through the magic of Internet streaming, I got to watch most of the presentation from Switzerland about the evidence for the Higgs boson. Unless I missed it, none of the scientists used the popular moniker of "God particle." Closest I heard was Fabiola Gianotti thanking "nature" for apparently making the Higgs just the right size for her detector to best detect it.
But most of the media coverage included at least a nod to the popular name for the putative particle: 'God particle' unveiled? Super-collider scientists declare victory. 'God particle' likely exists. God particle's discovery 'biggest leap in physics'.
And so on. The way the Higgs got the divine title is something of a joke in the world of physics. Originally, the story goes, they called it the "goddamn" particle because it was so freakin' hard to find. But then there was this book, written by Nobel Prize laureate physicist Leon Lederman. His publishers balked at the blasphemy. So the future bestseller was titled "The God Particle" -- and the public bit bigtime.
The name had its value because of how important the Higgs is to modern physics theory. You can find plenty of highly detailed official explanations elsewhere. I'll offer my best version before getting back to the confluence of the language of the godly and high-level physics.
Why is there mass? Likely not a question you've wondered about. But it is a topic that's bedeviled physicists for many decades. Without mass, there'd be no gravity, no matter, no us. Pretty fundamental.
If you move a piece of iron near a magnet, you feel a force acting on the iron. Scientists can explain some of that: an unseen magnetic field affects some kinds of things in particular ways. Lots of experiments can probe and measure that sort of field and the stuff it affects.
Almost 50 years ago, a young Scottish physicist named Peter Higgs suggested a field a little bit like the one around a magnet. Except this one is the same everywhere in the universe and explains mass. What does it do? If you've ever walked in shallow water, you know the water seems to grab you. But fish seem to be less grabbed as they squirt through. And waterstriders skate across the top with no effect on them at all.
Higgs' field would operate something like that on subatomic particles, and the effect is what we call mass. But the field can't be directly measured or perceived in any way. Back to the water: if you splash hard enough, droplets fly off. And if the Higgs field is whacked hard enough, "droplets" of a very specific size should pop out: the Higgs boson.
If not, lots of the most accepted theories of physics -- the so-called Standard Model -- are wrong at the core.
The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland was designed to whack particles together hard enough -- no simple goal -- to maybe spray off Higgs bosons. Which are not directly detectible, even if they exist. (See how "goddam" fiendish?) But a Higgs boson would almost instantly dissolve into a very specific spray of other particles. Those particles can be detected, and the collider is equipped with enormous devices to do that detecting.
Imagine an entire kitchen of crockery being tossed at a wall. And using blurry photos of the shards to decide if a particular kind of cup had originally been in the cupboard. Multiply that times a bazillion. That's the sort of challenge faced by researchers searching for evidence of the Higgs. Which is why scientists cheered like a sports crowd at Wednesday's presentation that showed very strong evidence that something Higgs-like has been spraying out of the powerful collisions inside the LHC.
So where is God in this discussion? Scientists over the centuries have reached high on the rhetorical shelf when trying to explain large topics. This doesn't necessarily mean they actually believe in God. What's actually going on is more likely a useful metaphor that grabs the public imagination better than a terabyte of science texts. (For instance, Dan Brown, proving his use of physics is no more, ahem, orthodox than his use of theology, mentions the Higgs in his extremely fictional book Angels and Demons.)
Other examples of symbolic faithtalk in science are easy to find.
A couple of decades ago, research into faint radiation left behind from the Big Bang moved into religious language. The theory was that the primal explosion wasn't totally uniform. So the remnants of the hotter and cooler parts might still be detectible. In 1992, astronomer George Smoot was among the first to see the processed satellite data that showed exactly the predicted fluctuations.
It was, he said, "like seeing the face of God." A phrase that grabbed headlines just like the "God Particle" title did some years later. But Smoot meant nothing literal.
Stephen Hawking's attitude toward religion ranges from apathetic to actively hostile. And yet in his bestseller A Brief History of Time he offers this line: "If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God."
He didn't mean it that way, either.
Maybe the most famous science/religion quotes belong to Albert Einstein. Among the best known is this one: "God does not play at dice with the world." It was his objection to the then-new theory of quantum mechanics -- a theory that depends on uncertain probabilities Einstein didn't much like. (And Einstein almost certainly turned out to be wrong.)
What did Einstein mean by "God?" Certainly nothing that most theologians would accept. In the book The World As I See It, there's an essay he wrote about religion. Here's a key excerpt:
"You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a peculiar religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religion of the naive man. For the latter, God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a child for its father, a being to whom one stands to some extent in personal relation, however deeply it may be tinged with awe.
"But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection."
Which sounds a bit like Gianotti's comments Wednesday. She was presenting the results from one of those huge detectors inside the LHC, speaking for a massive team of researchers. She paused and told the audience that she would speak for a moment only on her own behalf. She reflected on the coincidence that the predicted mass of the Higgs fit so well into the design of her instrument:
"It is very nice for the Standard Model Higgs boson to be at that mass. Because that mass we can measure at the LHC in [a] huge number of final states. Thanks, nature!"
And everybody laughed.
Jeffrey Weiss, a veteran religion writer based in Dallas, wrote this column for Real Clear Religion. It's used here with permission.