July 4, which is not a national holiday in Switzerland, was nevertheless a momentous day in Geneva and throughout the world-wide scientific community. |
Two teams of scientists at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), which had been working independent of each other, announced that had discovered a new particle with the characteristics of the much-sought-after Higgs boson. Among those present for the announcement was Dr. Derek Strom, a 2002 graduate of Augustana College who is a member of one of the teams.
Since most of us do not sit around the dinner table talking about Higgs bosons, that doesn't sound like a big deal. But in the arcane world of particle physics, it is.
For nearly half a century, scientists have been searching for a particle that Peter Higgs and five other scientists theorized is a key to understanding how
elementary particles acquire mass. (Or, to put this in completely unscientific terms, how stuff is created.) But though Higgs' theory is widely accepted, no one could actually find this particle, at least not until now.
One reason that the elusive particle was so difficult to find was that the tools physicists needed to track it down did not exist at the time that Professor Higgs wrote his benchmark paper in 1964. That changed, however, when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was built at CERN in Geneva. Because of some technical glitches, LHC, the most powerful particle accelerator ever built, did not become operational until mid-November 2009.
Professor Higgs was present at the July 4 event and reportedly wiped a tear from his eye when the two teams announced their findings.
The CERN scientists were very carefully in announcing what they had discovered. They did not claim that they had discovered the Higgs boson. Rather, they only stated that careful analysis of the data they had collected suggests a high probability of the existence of a particle with the theoretical characteristics of the Higgs boson.
Additional research is necessary to determine if that is what in fact it is.
The popular media often refer to the Higgs boson as "the God particle," the label coming from a 1993 popular science book by Nobel prize-winner Leon Lederman entitled "The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?"
Most members of the scientific community dislike this label, viewing it as media sensationalism rather that serious science. Professor Higgs, who himself is an
atheist, fears that the term might offend people who are religious.
I am among those who believe that it is preferable to refer to the particle in question by its scientific name, rather than attempt to sensationalize it by calling it "the God particle." It bears underscoring that no one, and certainly not Professor Higgs, is claiming that this particle is the creator of the world and all that exists. It is not God. Rather, the Higgs boson is a key link in the process of creation. To put this in the framework of creation theology, it is a tool that God uses in continuing the process of creation.
None of us will ever see a Higgs boson. Something that many of you have seen, however, illustrates the point -- the Grand Canyon.
As those who have been to the Grand Canyon know, it is a work in process with God using the Colorado River to carve out new features every day. In like manner, though in a far less visible way, God uses the Higgs boson to continue the process of creation.
I look forward to new discoveries about what is in God's toolbox. Theologians have much to learn from our friends and colleagues in science.
Dan Lee teaches ethics at Augustana College; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Milan, IL Details
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