By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP, Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, and Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Chapman University
The possible discovery of the Higgs boson would not have been splashed across every major media if the tag "God particle" weren't attached to it. Physicists hate the term, but they love the publicity. There are huge government grants at stake as well as the prestige of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. After you read the headline, however, there's little doubt that a general reader cannot actually grasp what a Higgs boson is (or a large hadron accelerator, either).
If you watch enough PBS programs and listen to a few physicists, some clarity emerges that a non-physicist can understand. The Higgs boson discovery adds validation to a mathematical model of force fields in the universe. It attaches a real particle to an expectation, the expectation that buried inside force fields was the key to why subatomic particles have mass. Mass would be acquired as a particle meets with resistance when it moves through the vacuum of space, a kind of "molasses" that slows it down.
This molasses is very elusive. It took many billions of colliding protons in the huge CERN accelerator, backed up by 100,000 computers around the world, to analyze the data before the discovery seemed real. Even then, most physicists are guarded about whether this new particle actually is a Higgs boson. They are equally guarded about whether its properties will uphold the Standard Model of force fields or in fact create more problems.
But behind all the hoopla and uncertainty, the news flew around the world that a basic building block of the universe has been uncovered, bringing quantum physics closer to its triumphant goal of explaining creation -- hence the inflated and rather silly label of God particle. Yet from another perspective, nothing like an explanation of the universe is emerging at all. Physics may be getting closer to the day, in fact, when the way it views the universe classically reaches a dead end.
Here we will refer to some technical matters, but stick with us. The preliminary discovery comes as a culmination of many years of both theoretical and experimental work, since 1964 when the British physicist Peter Higgs, along with Robert Brout, François Englert, Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen, and Tom Kibble, hypothesized the existence of a field, filling all vacuum. They used symmetry breaking (which would allow particles to acquire their masses without violating other aspects of theory that were correct). This ubiquitous Higgs field would allow all particles in the universe to acquire mass through interactions with it, through a kind of dragging as they move in space. High energy proton collisions at the LHC should, in principle, reveal the elusive Higgs. The Higgs, unlike the photon, has a mass, expected to be in the approximate range of 125 (or more) times the mass of the proton.
The Higgs boson is the last, missing link in the highly successful quantum theory of particles, called the Standard Model. It is also highly unstable, very elusive. To detect it, one has to observe many, many high energy collisions of protons and build up the statistics. In the LHC collider, particles are accelerated through a tunnel, brought together at speeds close to the speed of light, producing showers of particles, with high energies, capable to generate the Higgs particle. It exists for only a tiny fraction of a second before breaking up into many other particles and can be detected only indirectly by identifying the results of its immediate decay and analyzing them to show they were probably produced from a Higgs boson.
Even in its lowest energy state, the Higgs field filling all vacuum has non-zero values everywhere. In fact, ripples or waves in the quantum Higgs field, create for fleeting moments the Higgs particles. The Higgs boson is itself very massive, and it must interact with itself. It itself mediates interactions with the Higgs field and is itself an excitation of the Higgs field.
The full properties of the Higgs (or whatever was observed by the teams) are not yet known. In fact, the signature of what they observed may be multiple Higgs bosons with the properties required by the next theory that the Standard Model would extend into supersymmetry.
Particle physicists are not the only ones excited by the prospect of finding the missing link in the theory: Cosmologists seem to agree that all the luminous matter in the universe makes up only 4 percent of whatever there is in the universe. All the hundreds of billions of galaxies composed of many billions of stars make up just 4 percent of everything! The rest of it may be in the form of dark matter and even more exotic (but unknown) dark energy. So if the "Higgs-like" particle discovered at CERN turns out to be more exotic form, it could help us understand at least dark energy.
These possible future developments could get us closer to what particle physicists call the Theory of Everything, a rather particle-centered view of the cosmos, because their theory of everything, as envisaged, says nothing and in fact cannot say anything about life, evolution and the phenomena of mind and awareness. It is not even clear how gravity, the last of the four forces of nature, will fit into Standard Model, developing into supersymmetry and perhaps developing into superstring theory. But it would be a start.
With no lucrative grants but a lot of far-reaching thought, a band of cosmologists and other physicists sees that the materialist view of the universe doesn't hold water. It hasn't for quite a long time, because quantum theory demolished the solid, reassuring physical universe almost a century ago. Once it was discovered that matter is made up of invisible clouds of energy, once photons were found to behave like particles in one mode and energy waves in another, once the Uncertainty Principle turned actual existence into virtual existence, the blows to materialism became decisive. The great quantum pioneers noted definitively that all other fundamental particles have no fixed physical attributes at all. Instead, particles are pure potential existing in a quantum force field, and they collapse into being a particle you can see and measure only when observed by the scientist who is measuring them.
None of that is in dispute. In fact, more demolition work to the physicalist view of the universe has been done since then (physicalist seems to be the preferred replacement for materialist). We now know, again without dispute, that two particles can be entangled, which means that when one displays a certain value, its partner will instantaneously display a complementary value, even if the two are separated by billions of light years. This simultaneous linkage defies the speed of light. Another crack in the physicalist model is called reverse causation, in which an event can create effects on particles that appear to be going backward instead of forward in time -- thus the common-sense notion of cause and effect is undermined.
With all this demolition work at hand, why do the vast majority of physicists hold on to any kind of physicalist explanations? First, because the mathematics works. Second, because the alternative isn't taught in grad school. The alternative is to include consciousness in the mix. If the observer makes the difference between a wave and a particle, and if the universe displays itself to us as matter (which is all particles), then perhaps the observer is needed to make the universe appear as we see it. This possibility is logical and by no means outlandish. It occurred to some quantum pioneers (although not Einstein) almost a century ago, because in some ways consciousness is inescapable.
The universe does need molasses, or even glue, as forces holding protons together are sometimes called. There are huge complexities and mysteries that we are skipping over, yet the existence of the universe isn't a technical question open only to specialists with advanced scientific degrees. "Why are we here?" is a universal question, and to answer it, you must ask "Why are we conscious? Where did mind come from?" After all, if the observer plays such a key role in turning waves into particles, you can't get very far if you don't know what the observer is actually doing.
In the alternative explanation, the entire universe is imbued with consciousness. Just as there are force fields, invisible but all-pervasive, a consciousness field can exist to uphold the activity we call "mind." The universe evolves, regulates itself, takes creative leaps, and exhibits exquisite mathematical rigor and beauty. The hallmarks of intelligence are there, waiting for the next paradigm shift. At the moment, the word "intelligence" brings up the red herring of intelligent design, which no one except religious fundamentalists wants to be associated with. "Consciousness" gives us a less-tainted word, and there is a growing community of theorists seriously thinking about a conscious universe.
If it exists, then you and I are embedded in the consciousness field. It is the source of our own consciousness. Which means that we are not alone. As one physicist said, "The universe knew that we were coming." An infinite consciousness that spans all of creation sounds like a new definition of God. If so, then we are part of God's mind, and that includes science. The whole argument leads to a wild conclusion by most people's standards: It is God who is discovering the God particle. Infinite consciousness has created individual consciousness to go out into creation and look around. As it does, individual consciousness -- meaning you and I -- has been given free will and choice. We don't have to see our link to the infinite consciousness field. We can take our time discovering who we are and where we come from. But the day seems very near when it will seem quite real and quite natural to say that the conscious universe saw us coming.