I normally take a little pride in being able to boil down difficult physical concepts into simpler terminology. However, this topic is a little complicated, and I am almost certain to either make it too complicated or misrepresent something for the sake of simplicity, but here goes …
Q: What is the Higgs Boson?
A: The Higgs Boson is a particle that is predicted by the Standard Model. The Standard Model is the currently accepted model that describes the fundamental particles and forces that make up the entire universe. It predicts the existence of 12 particles. Prior to this summer, science had already discovered eleven of the twelve. The Higgs Boson, named after physicist Peter Higgs, is the last remaining piece of the puzzle and in some ways the most important. Since all the other eleven particles had been found, researchers felt pretty confident that they would find number twelve. This summer, the dream seems to have come true as scientists at CERN in Switzerland announced the discovery of a particle that meets the description of the Higgs Boson.
Q: Okay … but what IS it?
A: According to the Standard Model, particles are the excitation of quantum fields (sorry, it really is that complicated). The Higgs field is the universally present field that corresponds to mass, something like the way that electromagnetic fields produce photons (light). The Higgs Boson is the product of the Higgs field. It is a particle that relates to the quality we know as mass. All particles either have zero mass or non-zero mass. If you have zero mass, then you move at the speed of light at all times (like photons). If you have non-zero mass, then you can move or stop, etc. Mass is the quality that describes what happens when you move or stop (freight trains have high mass, mosquitoes have low mass). Believe it or not, something as taken for granted as mass has really been a dark subject for physicists until now.
Here are two great (and blissfully short) videos that explain a few more details for those that are curious (special thanks to MinutePhysics for creating these videos and then putting them on YouTube).
Q: Why is it called the “God particle”?
A: Marketing! The phrase was coined by book publishers in the 1980′s. Scientists hate the phrase because … well, it has nothing to do with God. The idea behind the phrase is that the Higgs field is an omnipresent, invisible field, and the Higgs Boson is what allows the equations that explain our very existence to be balanced. You can understand the clever comparison to God, but hopefully it is also clear that the phrase was invented for hype.
Q: So does the Higgs Boson tell us anything about God? Does it prove that God does or does not exist?
A: Absolutely not. The only thing that it might tell us, if you are of the religious persuasion, is a little about the genius of God’s creative power. However, whether you are a believer or an atheist, it apparently has very little apologetic value outside of the fact that it makes sense out of a senseless universe. Theists will argue that this beautiful arrangement is the result of God, whereas atheists will continue to argue that the Standard Model exists all on its own and does not require God. On the whole, we will be having the same argument we have always had, and the Higgs Boson has not really advanced the case for either side.
Q: But doesn’t the Higgs Boson prove the Big Bang happened?
A: Not really. I know that many are advancing that position, but it seems to be as weak an argument as most related to the Big Bang. Watch the logic …
If the Big Bang model is correct, then the Higgs Boson exists.
This is entirely true. However, the argument that is advanced from here is illogical.
- If the Big Bang model is correct, then the Higgs Boson exists.
- The Higgs Boson exists.
- The Big Bang model is correct.
This is the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. In logic, the consequent (“Then …”) is the necessary result of the antecedent (“If …”), but it is not sufficient to prove the antecedent. Consider another example from everyday life.
- If my battery is dead, then my care won’t start.
- My car won’t start.
- My battery is dead.
Notice the logical fallacy. The car not starting is a necessary result of a dead battery. However, it is not sufficient to prove that the battery is dead. Any of a variety of causes besides a dead battery might prevent your car from starting (bad fuses, bad battery connection, bad ignition switch, bad starter connection, problems with ignition coil, fuel problems, or maybe this just isn’t your car).
Likewise, the Higgs Boson is a necessary result of a Big Bang type creation event, but it is not sufficient to prove it.
Q: So does the discovery of the Higgs Boson answer all the mysteries of physics?
A: Far from it. Physicists are left with two possible outcomes.
First, it could be that the Higgs Boson is not what was predicted or expected. In that case, the neat picture of the Standard Model now has a jagged edge that leads to countless other questions that have never even been asked, let alone answered.
Second, it could be that the Higgs Boson is exactly what they expected it to be. In that case, the problem might actually be worse. The Standard Model is neat and pretty with one glaring exception … it doesn’t include gravity. The force that keeps the Earth in orbit and keeps you pinned to it day after day has no place in the Standard Model. Without a loose end provided by the Higgs Boson, science is left with the question of gravity and no place to begin in their pursuit of it. Physicists have been fretting quietly about that little problem for a long time now, and the clock is apparently ticking. They are running out of places to look for answers, and all the while gravity just keeps on doing what it does, dismissively sneering at our inability to explain it.
Q: Can you sum it all up for us?
A: Physicists have found a particle that might be the Higgs Boson. If so, it says a lot about physics and essentially nothing about theology. It will either be nothing like what they expected (which would be bad) or exactly what they expected (which might be worse). Only time will tell.
Q: Can you end this article with a Higgs Boson joke that some how also relates to religion?
A: The Higgs Boson walks into a Catholic Church. The Priest says, “What are you doing here?” Higgs Boson says, “You can’t have mass without me.”
Q: Did you really think that was funny?
A: Not at all …