God is apparently a particle, not a wave. He’s therefore not even as versatile as a photon, and only exists for nanoseconds at a time, and is only detectable by humans through what is speculated the detritus of proton collisions should contain, if he in fact exists at all. But if God hadn’t existed, scientists would have had to create him. And actually, that’s just what they did, devising a God-like particle to fit the only spot remaining in the Standard Model of physics’ jigsaw puzzle of the very small. Without the God particle, none of the rest of the model would have fit together in an intellectually-satisfying manner, and considering that the edifice was mainly built from the intellectual abstractions of the human mind, proving that the God particle actually existed was profoundly important.
Or so, that’s what theoretical physicists would like the world to believe, especially those of them employed or engaged in experimentation at the CERN particle accelerator, where it was revealed, on July 4th 2012, that they had found evidence of the existence of the Higgs boson, i.e., the “God” particle. The Standard Model of physics had been profitably employed (in so far as anything concerning quarks and leptons–excepting electrons–has profitable applications) in explaining the universe of the small for nearly half a century before the Higgs boson was finally, maybe, proved to exist.
Physicists had to invent Higgs in order to explain the massiveness of two other bosons, the W and Z, which carry the weak nuclear force responsible for radioactive decay. Bosons in the Standard Model are supposed to be massless, just as the other of the bosons, the photon (carrying the electromagnetic force) and the gluon (carrying the strong nuclear force holding together atomic nuclei) each are. Without Higgs to explain the massiveness (greater than 100 protons each) of the W and Z bosons, the Model would be logically inconsistent, causing it fail of its essential purpose of explaining the fundamental nature of the very small in an intellectually satisfying manner.
(Keep in mind that the model fails anyway at explaining the whole of reality because it does not account for gravity, which as anyone who’s had an apple fall on their head whilst sitting under a tree well knows, is a pretty important thing to know and understand about the universe. Of course, General Relativity doesn’t do so good a job at explaining gravity either, considering it requires 96% of the universe be undetectable to humans, but I’ll leave that story for another day.)
A graphical depiction of what the physicists have come up with as the Standard Model of particle physics follows:
What you see is a chart portraying what scientists believe are the constituent elements and the forces presumed to act upon them, of the protons, neutrons, electrons and photons which you were taught in high school chemistry comprise the building blocks of the universe (the electron and photon are considered indivisible, so are depicted here). Slot in the Higgs boson below the W boson, and the model is, at least superficially, complete.
The purple rows and columns indicate the various types of quarks, which comprise the constituent elements of protons and neutrons. Quarks are never seen alone, and in fact, have never been seen at all, their existence being only deducible from the observable behaviors of the particles they comprise, i.e., the protons and neutrons. Some scientists don’t “believe” they really exist, except as an abstraction in the mind of the scientists devising the models. Quarks are subject to all the forces of nature, i.e., electromagnetic, strong nuclear, weak nuclear and gravitation. Gravitation is not depicted on the chart as no one really knows whether there is a particle (the “graviton”) for carrying it, and in any case, gravity must mainly be ignored for the Standard Model to work.
The green rows and columns are the leptons, the only one of which that holds any real significance to human affairs being the electron. The leptons interact with all the forces except the strong nuclear force, presumably explaining why electrons don’t fall into the nuclei of the atoms they orbit, or perhaps I’ve got it backward, and the leptons were created as not interacting with the strong nuclear force in order to explain why electrons don’t crash into atomic nuclei. Except for the electron, no other lepton is stable. The rest only appear for minute fractions of a second before decaying into another particle, if they in fact appear at all. According to the Standard Model theory, leptons would be massless, like the photon and gluon, except for their interaction with the Higgs field created by the Higgs boson.
The red column depicts the bosons, i.e., the force carriers, and is the category to which the Higgs boson (not depicted) belongs, if it exists.
Theoretical particle physicists have spent nearly a century and untold billions of dollars creating the Standard Model. For the last half century or so, the basic method for adding animals to what has become a Standard Model particle zoo (most of the particles created from the combinations of these basic quarks and leptons, i.e., protons, neutrons, etc., are not depicted in the graph) has been to imagine a particle into existence, and then smash together particles about which the properties are known and understood to see if something falls out of the collision that will serve to prove their intuition correct. Some particles, like quarks (and possibly, Higgs bosons), are never directly observed, but their existence is only presumed by interpreting the products of the collisions. Yet a great many particles that were only intuited into being have time and again been proved to actually exist, if only for a nanosecond.
The understanding and insight particle physics (quantum theory and mechanics) has provided of how protons, neutrons, electrons and photons behave has been exceptionally profitable to humanity. The development of information technologies, nuclear technologies, chemical and bio-chemical applications—basically everything that comprises the modern world—has depended on usefully being able to understand and exploit the behavior of protons, neutrons, electrons and photons, alone and in interaction. As for the rest of the Standard Model—the quarks and leptons by themselves (except the electron), and the products of their combinations (except the proton and neutron) and yes, the Higgs boson—there has been pretty much nothing of profitable application. Indeed, it has surely been immensely satisfying to imagine a particle into existence, then to employ a massive particle accelerator comprising several miles of underground tunnels constructed at enormous expense to taxpayers in order simultaneously prove the beauty of one’s mind and the existence of an intuited particle. It must feel something like scientific nirvana when a particle that has before only been imagined flashes into momentary existence upon the smashing of other particles together. But is proving how beautiful is one’s mind really worth all that much to the welfare of the human beings asked to pay for it?
The commentary on the possible discovery of the Higgs boson has been effusive and celebratory as the lead-in paragraph from the Economist magazine on the subject illustrates:
HISTORICAL events recede in importance with every passing decade. Crises, political and financial, can be seen for the blips on the path of progress that they usually are. Even the horrors of war acquire a patina of unreality. The laws of physics, though, are eternal and universal. Elucidating them is one of the triumphs of mankind. And this week has seen just such a triumphant elucidation.
I wonder which are laws of physics that qualify as eternal and universal? Is it the laws governing the Standard Model of particle physics that are not quite universal enough to account for gravity, that stuff holding the universe together? Or, is it the laws of Relativity which keep the planets, stars and galaxies in motion, but that are useless at the scale of the protons, neutrons and electrons comprising them? There is no such thing, and has never been any such thing, as an immutable, eternal, universal law of physics. The laws of physics are nothing more or less than our best guess at any particular time as to how some portion of the universe is organized and operates. They are limited by the domain and range over which they are relevant (Newton’s laws of mechanics work just fine for massive objects traveling slowly, but not so well for very small or very fast objects), and by the perceptual and cognitive constraints under which we humans necessarily labor. The only eternal and universal law of physics is that there are none. And really, crises are “blips on the paths of progress”? Oh how I loathe the progressive view of history. History is like particle acceleration in physics, best understood from a circular, rather than linear, perspective.
Human traits are more durable and universal than are physical laws. Human beings, a category into which most scientists can be assumed to fit, always suffer from cognitive bias. Humans see what they want to see, according to their survival needs. It is the very purpose for which human perceptual hardware and software has been constructed. So, when CERN announced that it had evidence of the Higgs boson good to a five sigma significance (i.e., to five standard deviations’ confidence that the data was not the outcome of a false positive reading), it was heralded as news the boson’s existence had been verified, proving the validity of the Standard Model of particle physics. Yet last year when CERN reported that it had found evidence to a six sigma confidence level of a particle moving faster than the speed of light—a finding that, if validated would destroy the theoretical foundation for General Relativity, and thereby imperil the entire theoretical physics franchise and the livelihoods of theoretical physicists the world over—the results were immediately questioned and vilified. Now CERN scientists are blaming the anomaly of a faster-than-light neutrino on a poorly-connected cable. There was a six sigma confidence (less than a 1 in 3.5 million chance) that the result was not due to an equipment anomaly, yet equipment malfunctions were almost immediately suspect when experimental results would have turned the physics applecart upside down. Though the experiments providing proof of a Higgs boson had a lower confidence level (five sigma, which is still quite significant), is there any chance scientists will discover an equipment malfunction (or anything else) to nullify its results? The existence of the Higgs boson is almost as important in the Standard Model of particle physics as light being the fastest thing in the universe is to General and Special Relativity.
But the impulse to interpret experimental results to fit theoretical constructs probably isn’t the biggest cause for concern and skepticism over CERN’s announcements. CERN and its scientists have made quite a few headlines over the course of the last year. Perhaps the headlines are the point, and the reported “discoveries” quite incidental to the main task of asserting CERN’s relevance in an increasingly austere world. It’s been since 1932 that the last important particle discovery was made (of the neutron), which didn’t require a particle accelerator for the trouble. In 2010, CERN proposed shutting down its particle accelerators (except for the newly-built Large Hadron Collider) due to budget cuts. It is now facing even more severe funding pressure from its member states due to the Euro-debt crisis. Austria has already announced it will leave the consortium. Greece certainly can’t afford to stay. Though together the two only contribute about 5% of the annual roughly $1 billion operating budget, the theoretical particle physics world views declining revenue and relevance for CERN, optimistically sold as capable of teasing out the fundamental nature of the universe, as a catastrophe, and as the debt crisis deepens, more countries will surely refuse to renew, or outright renege, on their support pledges. Germany, France and Spain, who fund the bulk of CERN’s annual budget, are all facing fiscal woes, and will undoubtedly look less favorably on paying millions of Euros (or Deutschemarks, or francs, or pieces of eight, etc. if the Euro fails) to prove the existence or not of esoteric particles which carry no practical human value except that the elusiveness of proof justifies funding the childhood fantasies of nerdy scientists.
And what young science nerd, playing alone in his backyard, hasn’t crashed things together to see what might result? In essence, a particle accelerator is the adult expression, taken to its logical end, of the childhood fantasies of legions of budding scientists. That it might also be useful at teasing out the existence and character of quantum particles is beside the point. What useful particle has ever been discovered in a particle accelerator like the LHC? It’s just cool to smash stuff together.
As fun as is smashing things together to reveal clues about the nature of the universe, how much cooler would it be if a corollary outcome of all the smashing is to prove that God is unnecessary to the inception and operation of the universe? Theoretical physicists of both stripes, cosmological and particle, would like nothing more than to finally dispense with God as an explanation for anything, rendering belief in God an anachronism of an earlier age when mankind’s mental and physical limitations prevented today’s higher order understanding. The Higgs boson, the so-called “God” particle, does just that, causing both itself (the ontologically necessary first mover), and a host of other particles to coalesce and form. It is the particle physicist’s version of God, or actually, of proving that God is unnecessary. The cosmologists have devised a more complicated proof of the lack of God’s necessity, in their version using the cosmology of the total energy level in the universe to claim that the universe could have spontaneously come into being from nothing, not for a moment grasping the irony that a spontaneously arising universe is not a universe where cause and effect relationships could be ascertained, which is to say, is a universe looking exactly like one ruled by God should look like. (See my post, The Universe Arose Out of Nothing? Logic is Apparently Not the Life of Theoretical Physicists, Either)
The field created by the Higgs boson has been described as a sticky molasses that slows down anything coming through it, in some cases, enough to cause inherently massless forces to slow enough to particularize. The particle physics community in no way considers the sticky Higgs field to be analogous to the luminiferous aether once thought to be necessary for the propagation of light waves. The failure to detect such an aether in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity providing that light is the fastest thing in the universe, which in turn, led to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which in turn, is so powerful an explicatory tool that it now requires 96% of the universe to be undetectable dark matter and energy else its equations don’t work. But no, the Higgs is no aether, nor is it any dark matter and energy. Though it may be as hard to detect as aether and dark matter and energy, and serves to carry as much explanatory baggage as any of them, it is not any of them. The particle physicists have their God particle, and the cosmologists their dark matter and energy, and never the twain shall meet. But stop for a moment to consider—between the God particle, whose existence may or may not have recently been proved, and dark matter and energy, whose existence is beyond proof if their defining characteristics are to remain unchanged, the physicists have not only not disproved the existence of God, if anything, they’ve bulldozed an intellectual path for believers. So much of the universe is now inexplicable or undetectable that it’s easy to see how today’s theoretical physics could become the basis of tomorrow’s ecclesiastical explanations. I can almost hear the preachers now, “See, the physicists proved God exists and is mysterious in his ways—just look at their dark matter and energy, and even the Higgs boson.”
Though neither the faster-than-light neutrino episode, nor the “discovery” of the Higgs boson carry any taint of outright scandal for CERN, both have the flavor of the current LIBOR scandal, where insiders falsified data in order to protect their industry, and particularly in some cases, to enrich themselves. Besieged organizations, even loosely-defined organizations such as industrial or professional specialties, develop an “us versus them” mentality in the face of an existential threat, with “them” comprising the general public if the specialty depends on the support of the general public for its continuation and relevance. Particle physicists, dependent on government largesse provided from taxes paid by a credulous public that only sparingly understands what it is they are about, realize they must generate attention-grabbing discoveries if the money spigot is to remain open, and particularly must do so during periods of severe financial distress. Just like bankers felt justified in lying about how expensive had become their borrowing costs during the financial crisis in order to help save themselves and the industry in which they made a living, CERN’s particle physicists felt justified in closing rank and selling dubious experimental outcomes as reality-altering discoveries in order to save their industry from irrelevance and budget cuts. The lesson for the public should be to view the actions and emanations of all such specialist cabals with a gimlet eye, and particularly those dependent on the public for their continuation.
CERN and the LIBOR scandal perhaps point to the existence of one eternal and universal law, but one mainly derived from biology, not physics, and one that is a tautology implied by the theory of evolution: All discrete organizations, i.e., all discrete in space-time collections of matter and energy—be they a corporate entity such as a bank, or a scientific consortium, or cells in a body, or even particles in an accelerator—necessarily exist in order to continue existing, else they wouldn’t be around to observe. They must have the will and the ability to exist, both of which can be implied by dint of their existence (“will” being used in its most expansive possible understanding so far as particles in an accelerator are concerned). Thus, in so far as CERN exists in order to exist, which it must, as it does, it will do whatever is necessary in the premises to perpetuate its existence, or it won’t. Yes, it is a tautology, but no law of the universe could be written that isn’t one. And the law has practical value, pointing to the possible motivation behind CERN’s frenetic scrambling to appear relevant and worthy in the face of looming budget cuts.