Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Higgs Particle: Check. Now can we stop adding "God" to theories in physics?

by Salman Hameed

Unless you have been living under a giant particle, you must have heard about the announcement of the (almost certain) detection of the Higgs boson (if not, here is the dry CERN press release, and a slightly less dry article from the BBC and NYT). Actually this is a pretty demonstration of how science works in the age of big collaborations. It is also very cool that, once again, the existence of a particle that was predicted purely from theoretical considerations has been found to be real - or as real as we can say for now. This means that some of the foundational theories (such as the Standard Model) may be more or less right. The problem is that it will still need modifications. Among other things, the Standard Model does not include gravity (the weakest of the four forces) in its solutions and does not say anything about dark matter and dark energy - the stuff that makes up 96% of the universe. But the discovery of Higgs boson shows that we may be on the right track.

So now that we have detected the Higgs particle, can we please stop calling it the "God particle"? I know that this is a tongue-in-cheek metaphor to describe the importance of the particle (the Higgs particle provides an explanation of why other particles have masses (or don't, as in the case of photons)). While the metaphor has caught public's attention, it also misrepresents the science (or scientific thinking) behind the Higgs particle - i.e. that it has nothing to do with religion - one way or the other. The discovery of the particle does not prove (or disprove) the existence of God. The same if the particle had not been found.

By the way, astronomers are also guilty of this. For example, fingers of god is an observational effect that makes clusters of galaxies appear elongated in our direction and to some it seems that cosmic fingers are pointing towards us. Okay - this may be funny (and it is) when presented in an astronomy colloquium. But it is a problematic (and even offensive for some) when conveying science to a broader audiences. Similarly, the ever so slight variations in the cosmic microwave background radiation have been dubbed be some as the Fingerprint of Creation (see this earlier post: God is in the Metaphor).

So lets celebrate the spectacular discovery of the Higgs particle. The discovery is already leading to new questions. But please, lets not add "God" or "Creator" to any of the new questions. The science is quite amazing - and lets keep it that way. Discoveries such as the Higgs particle have been possible only because of our insistence on precision in physics, mathematics and engineering. How about if we also stay careful in language and avoid sloppy metaphors as well?

So here is to the Boson and enjoy the Large Hadron Rap (it is actually quite informative) and then a bit from NOVA (tip from Laura Sizer):

Watch The Higgs Particle Matters on PBS. See more from NOVA.


Gary said...

The news of the discovery of the Higg's Boson, the so-called "God Particle" reminds me of one of Richard Dawkins claims about the non-existence of God.

In his book "The God Delusion", (pages 51-52) Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell's comparison of God to an imaginary cosmic teapot orbiting between Earth and Mars. To make proving the existence or otherwise of this teapot/God impossible Russell also makes the teapot too small to be seen by even the most powerful telescopes.

Too small it seems unless you have a Large Hadron Collider.

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