Physics is grand. It's the grandest of the many achievements of our species -- greater than music, greater than art, greater than our omni-present consumer marketplace with its daily provision of ever-smarter phones and ever-stupider advertisements.
When physics shows up on our doorstep, as it does when we purchase a mysterious new piece of electronics containing lasers, memory chips and magical glass, we get a stir of excitement. But that stir is little more than the buzz created by magicians, circus performers or Olympic gymnasts doing mysterious things that we can't comprehend.
Underneath the glitter and magic of high tech toys made possible by physics are deep ideas about the fundamental nature of the world. Without an understanding of these deep ideas there would be no magical products. Reflect on the fact that almost all the physics of the 20th century is validated every time your smart phone powers up. If just one of those physics laws disappeared, or changed a little bit, much of our civilization would shut down.
As remarkable as our progress has been in understanding the deep laws of physics, mysteries persist. Under each layer of understanding lies a new layer of questions. As soon as the chemists organized the periodic table of the elements -- one of the great achievements of 19th century science -- questions arose about the underlying reasons for the organizational scheme. Why, exactly, was sodium so much like potassium -- so similar that you can swap it out and make sodium-free salt with potassium?
Physicists answered these questions. They figured how nature had built the entire periodic table of the elements from protons, electrons and neutrons. The explanation was called quantum mechanics and it was an elegant advance in our knowledge, perhaps the greatest discovery of the first half of the 20th century. Atoms were the way they were because they were composed of smaller particles. But why were these smaller particles the way they were? Why, for example, were electrons so light and protons almost 2,000 times heavier? Why were electrons point particles with zero diameter but protons and neutrons had "size"? Such questions were answered when it was discovered that the proton and the neutron were composed of quarks. The electron was a member of a family of particles called leptons that did not have any internal constituents -- a feature that made them both lighter and without diameters.
Patterns within the respective families of quarks and leptons -- there is six of each and they relate to each other in interesting ways -- raised questions about the nature of those patterns -- the same sort of questions once asked about the periodic table. One of the questions was how the particles got their particular masses, charges and other properties. (These properties include charm, strangeness, upness, downness, as well as some less esoteric magnetic features.)
Just as quantum mechanics unlocked the secrets of the organizational structure of the periodic table, a theory called the Standard Model unlocked the secrets of the of organizational structure of the quarks and leptons, providing deep insights into their nature.
Perhaps the most ambitious explanatory component of the Standard Model was its explanation for the origin of mass. Why do particles have mass in the first place? Some particles, like photons, have no mass -- technically no rest mass -- and thus can buzz about at the speed of light. But electrons and quarks have mass and cannot travel at the speed of light, a fact gloriously confirmed by the resolution of recent experiments that hinted otherwise.
The Standard Model explained the origin of mass as the result of a field existing everywhere -- a sort of universal fog through which moving particles have to plough. This fog -- if it exists -- impedes moving particles, like millions of tiny arms reaching out and grabbing at the particles as they pass. The slowing created by this creates the phenomenon of mass.
The universal fog is known as the Higgs Field. But is it real? How do we know this field exists and does what the Standard Model claims? How do we know, for example, that particles didn't get their mass from God at the creation? Or maybe from tiny mass fairies riding on them?
Enter the Higgs Boson. Fields in physics have particles associated with them and the existence of the particles provides evidence that the fields are real. The familiar photon is evidence for the electromagnetic field. Peter Higgs, and some colleagues, predicted the existence of his namesake boson in 1964. For decades physicists have been devising experiments to make the elusive mass-giving particle show itself and, after several months of peeking its head around corners at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, the particle has been definitively sighted.
The buzz about the discovery of the Higgs Boson reminds us once again that we are progressing in our understanding the deeper features of the world. Such progress can seem like a scientific intrusion onto theological turf. Are we not now claiming that mass is created by the Higgs Field and not by God? Is this not why the new boson is called The God Particle?
Such concerns are exacerbated by a misunderstanding created by a joke, when physicist Leon Lederman titled his book about the quest for the Higgs Boson, "The God Particle." (Publishers discovered long ago that putting "God" in the title of science books helps sales; examples include "God: The Failed Hypothesis," "The Mind of God," "God and the New Physics," "God's Universe." One can only guess the fate of Lederman's book had he titled it "The Quest for the Higgs Boson.") Understandably, journalists have persisted in calling the God Particle by its provocative nickname, to the dismay of most physicists including Peter Higgs.
Discovering the Higgs Boson undermines nothing in theology, however. If anything, its discovery provides more evidence of the deeply rational character of the universe, a topic I explore in more detail in my recent book, "The Wonder of the Universe." Whether God assigns mass directly to particles, or creates a field to do so is theologically irrelevant, although I would argue the latter is more elegant. Lederman even suggests as much in The God Particle, when he rewrites Scripture, and has God saying, "Let us go down, and there give them the God Particle so that they may see how beautiful is the universe I have made."