Very few ordinary people seem to be overflowing with passion for quantum physics, as the field involves a high degree of abstraction and relatively complicated mathematical equations.
Still, it could be that precisely because its mysteries are elusive for the average man, this inaccessibility generates a paradoxical public interest in this imposing science, just as, more than a hundred years ago, Hegel became famous overnight for publishing works that no one understood.
On October 8th, 2013, Professor Staffan Normark, Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, announced the Nobel Laureates in Physics, the Belgian François Englert and the British Peter W. Higgs, “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider”. Beyond technical language, people understood that the two scientists were being rewarded for discovering the “Higgs Boson“, or “the God particle“.
What is this particle and what does it have to do with God?
In the popular imagination, Einstein became the symbol of the modern scientist, competing with theatre and film stars, interviewed as an oracle on a variety of topics by journalists of his time, listened to with interest by the rulers of nations, and later used as a positive character in science jokes. Schrodinger’s cat found a place in popular culture and film titles. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle has entered into the collective consciousness, even though its meaning is often distorted, as is the theory of relativity.
In recent years, the “God particle” has once again drawn ordinary people’s attention to this sophisticated branch of physics, and news of the results coming out of the CERN laboratory stirred up inner vibrations, even if few understood the connection between this particle and God. To understand what this is about, we should take a step back in time, going as far back as Democritus, or maybe even earlier.
Democritus invents the atom
Ever since laying eyes on the harmony of the cosmos from the galaxies and around them, humans have asked themselves questions; at first they were simple, then deeper and deeper. Soon enough, questions about the composition of matter and the laws that govern nature were asked. It is known that the Greeks were some of the first people recorded to have marvelled and philosophised about the world around them. Two ancient Greeks, an obscure figure named Leucippus and his much more famous disciple, Democritus, developed a philosophical theory of the composition of matter, in which atoms played a central role. Unlike others before them, who had argued that non-being does not exist, Leucippus argued that being and non-being coexist, and the universe consists of atoms and void (emptiness, or a vacuum).
Roughly translated, the word atom means “uncuttable” in ancient Greek.
The idea was that one could cut any portion of matter or object into smaller and smaller pieces: half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and so on; at some point, there are portions of matter so small that they can no longer be cut: according to Leucippus and Democritus, this was the atom. But Democritus, who wasn’t really a modest person (when he arrived in Athens he was a little upset to find that no one had heard of him), had more complex ideas about atoms, which he conceived not only as indivisible, but also as eternal and unchanging, in continuous motion, colliding with each other and being able to form temporary connections. Moreover, Democritus intuited what chemistry would later confirm: some substances are made up of a single kind of atom (what we now call elements), and others are a combination of several kinds of atoms (what we now call compounds).
Leucippus argued that being and non-being coexist, and the universe consists of atoms and void (emptiness, or a vacuum).
After centuries of Democritus’ theories and the problem of atoms having marginal relevance in scientific affairs, which were dominated instead by Aristotelian theories, the seventeenth century witnessed a rebirth of atomic philosophical theories and the emergence of a related theory, René Descartes’ corpuscular theory of light.
While philosophers were preoccupied with philosophy, a group of spirited minds passionately sought the “philosopher’s stone”. These were the alchemists. They were convinced that the stone existed and could convert ordinary metal into gold, and some thought that the coveted stone was the “elixir of life” itself, which could keep you healthy or even make you immortal. They never managed to find it, but many of their failed experiments laid the foundations of modern chemistry. In the 18th century, real chemists appeared, such as the tragic Lavoisier or Joseph Louis Proust, who no longer chased after myths, but tried to understand matter. In this context, the atom was converted from a purely philosophical concept into a scientific one; John Dalton, a self-taught Quaker, was the first to formulate a modern, coherent theory of atoms in the early 19th century.
Democritus missed the mark
Needless to say, Dalton’s theory was imperfect, and the next two centuries constantly reshaped it. Perhaps the biggest surprise and change in the ideas borrowed from Democritus was that the atom is divisible. Although its very name suggests that the atom cannot be cut into smaller parts, it would gradually come to be understood as consisting of electrons (the first fundamental particle discovered in the structure of the atom), protons (the second fundamental particle) and neutrons, all of which, through experiments and ingenious calculations, were determined to have a mass and an electric charge.
Quantum mechanics theories would grow to describe increasingly complex models of the organization of these particles inside the atom. And, since the beginning of the twentieth century, when Joseph John Thomson, a brilliant mathematician and experimenter, proved the existence of electrons as parts of the atom, scientists have subsequently identified hundreds of subatomic particles. A reorganization was necessary, and two researchers proposed, independently of one another, the existence of a new elementary particle of matter, a kind of atom for the atom.
Murray Gell-Mann, borrowing a word from the novel Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (onomatopoeic word, describing the cry of a seagull), proposed that “quark” be the name for this elementary subatomic particle. According to quark theory, several such elementary particles, which have fractional charges (positive or negative, of one-third or two-thirds), combine with each other to form subatomic particles. Six types (or “flavours”) of quarks have been proposed. However, electrons are not made up of quarks, but of another category of elementary particles called leptons (also of six types), which can be neutral or electrically charged. Together, quarks and leptons are known as fermions.
The Standard Model and the bosons enter the scene
Four fundamental forces are exerted on all matter consisting of these fundamental particles in our universe: gravity, weak nuclear force, electromagnetic force, and strong nuclear force. Gravity, whose effects are perhaps the easiest to understand (who has not fallen victim to it at least once in their life?), is the weakest of the four fundamental forces, but it is exercised, practically, over infinite distances. The weak nuclear force (sometimes called simply the weak force, in some languages) operates over very short distances and is responsible for the radioactive decay and nuclear fusion of subatomic particles.
Like gravity, electromagnetic force is exerted over impressive distances and is much more common in everyday life than weak nuclear force. Many things, from the fact that we see in colour, to electrical and electronic devices that simplify or enrich our lives, are based on electromagnetic force. Finally, the strong nuclear force (or simply the strong force) is the strongest of all (you can get the idea of it by thinking about the energy of an atomic bomb, which involves the release of this force).
In the early 1970s, the last three of these forces were integrated, along with the elementary particles, in a single theory known as the “Standard Model”; gravity is not part of it. In a way, this paradigm fulfils, even if only in part, a dream of Einstein, who, in the latter part of his life, was obsessed with building a unifying theory that would coherently integrate the four forces of the universe.
The standard model postulates that the three fundamental forces (electromagnetic, weak and strong) are the result of an exchange of force carriers or messenger particles, called bosons. Matter particles interact with each other by transferring discrete amounts of energy in the form of an exchange of force carriers, bosons (for example photons, in the case of electromagnetic force). Thus, each fundamental force corresponds to a boson. For example, the boson of electromagnetic force is called a photon, that of a strong force is called a gluon, and in the case of a weak force there are two bosons, W and Z bosons. It is speculated that there should be a “graviton”, for the force of gravity.
The Higgs boson
The role of the Higgs boson is to explain how particles acquire mass. Interestingly, the great success that we applaud today began with a failure. Peter Higgs was very young when he wrote his article predicting the existence of the boson that bears his name today, but the Physics Letter, a scientific journal in which he set out to publish it, rejected it as having nothing to do with physics. This year, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences considered the article, published in another journal, to be indeed related to physics.
Simplifications are dangerous because they can easily lead to misunderstandings, but for most of us, an inaccurate illustration of a string of twenty very precise mathematical equations is preferable. So, to put it simply, the model postulates the existence of a universal field, in which everything that exists, the whole cosmos, is immersed, and this field is called the “Higgs field”. It is unseen, and undetected even with sophisticated instruments, but it is always present. Particles pass through this field and those that interact with it gain a large mass, those that interact easily acquire a small mass, and others, such as photons, traverse it without interacting with it and remain virtually without mass.
The role of the Higgs boson is to explain how particles acquire mass.
Twenty years ago, in an illustration that “even politicians should understand”, British professor David J. Miller of University College London exemplified the Higgs field and the Higgs boson: the Higgs field is like a room full of people, moving around at a party. When Margaret Thatcher enters the room, a crowd suddenly gathers around her, making her movement through the room much more difficult than that of the anonymous people that no one notices. People of lesser importance can form smaller groups, which move with more difficulty than the ones that are alone, but more easily than the Prime Minister herself. More recently, the Higgs field has been compared to a snowball which, while rolling, picks up objects as it does so, becoming larger and heavier, while others pass through without taking anything. Similarly, particles pass through the Higgs field and gain mass.
To date, all experimental data has confirmed the correctness of the standard model. The model predicted the existence of W and Z bosons, which were first detected in the 1980s, and the “top” quark (one of the six types of quarks) in the mid-1990s. The model also predicted the existence of a boson, the so-called “Higgs” or “God particle”, but until last year, there was no experimental evidence. The impressive laboratory of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has, meanwhile, accumulated reasonable experimental evidence to support the existence of the Higgs boson.
What has the Higgs boson got to do with God?
The phrase “God particle” entered the public consciousness after appearing as such in the title of a book on the Higgs boson, written by another Nobel laureate in physics, Leon Lederman (in collaboration with a scientific writer, Dick Teresi). “The God Particle” was a good marketing title, as Lederman (who also said that they couldn’t call it “the devil particle”) explained. In addition, its role in the standard model is related to the Big Bang theory, a theory with Biblical connotations, which explains the genesis of the universe.
As an atheist, Higgs is unhappy with the title of “The God Particle”, a title he considers a bad joke.
The confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson in the summer of 2012 stirred up controversy within both atheist and Christian circles. Some atheist voices rushed to say that the experimental highlighting of the boson “is another nail in the coffin of religion”, while some Christian apologists started to question the validity of the discovery and concluded that the CERN experiments prove nothing.
The situation is somewhat similar to attempts to discover what has been called a “Historical Jesus”, which George Tyrell, a nineteenth-century theologian, said was like mirroring in the water of a well: all who leaned over found their own face there. Everyone sees the Higgs boson as a confirmation of their own beliefs. In fact, from a Christian perspective, to speak of the Higgs boson as the “God particle” is a great exaggeration; from a Christian perspective, all particles, from one end of the universe to the other, are of God.
Robert Ancuceanu, PhD, is a professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy at the Carol Davila University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest, Romania.