One important thing did happen this week: one of the most interesting searches in physics, launched 48 years ago, hit the jackpot. For fundamental physics as we conceive it today to stand the test, a certain kind of a force field (the Higgs field) had to exist; and if it existed, then a certain kind of particle (the Higgs boson) could be measured under very specific conditions. The only trouble was, when the prediction was made, it was almost unimaginable that humans could ever recreate those conditions. This week, two separate groups of physicists announced that the Higgs boson, or something very much like it, does exist. In fact, they met the highest standard humans have ever held up for knowledge: the odds of their being wrong are less than one in 3.5 million.
If you share any of the amazement of the great discoveries of science, this one will grab your attention. It's high-stakes either way: If the Higgs boson didn't appear, then particle physics couldn't explain why anything in the universe has mass -- a rather devastating shortcoming! On the other side, once we can detect signs of the Higgs field, we stand on the threshold of host of new discoveries about the fundamentals of physics.
And what did we learn this week about the relationship between science and religion? Ah, now there's an interesting question.
Strong religious and anti-religious language has swirled around the search for the Higgs boson. One group took to calling it "the God particle." After all, they said, the Higgs boson is the foundation on which the standard model of physics rests. Not only that; the Higgs field adds real mass to pure energy, so it's like the moment of creation. "Baloney!" replied the other group; we should just call it "the God-damn particle," since it's been so bloody difficult to detect over so many years.
In the huge hype that has broken out over the last few days, you can see the whole pattern of religion-science discussions in microcosm:
- Scientists make an important discovery. They are exuberant -- and rightfully so: people work a lifetime for moments like this.
- Scientists start saying big things about where this takes science. The first comments are about breakthroughs in particle physics. But as the champagne kicks in, you start to hear slurry-tongued statements about how the Higgs search shows the superiority of physics over all other forms of knowledge.
- Then the pundits step in. "No," says the one group, "the God-particle reminds us that creation is ultimately in the hands of God; we will never overcome the fundamental mystery of our origins." "Wrong," retorts the other group, "this week represents the triumph of humanism. There is absolutely no need for God in the age of science."
- All hell breaks lose. "There's no God (damn) particle," writes Tony Phillips. "The Higgs boson is another nail in the coffin of religion," expounds Oxford's Peter Atkins on BBC. "Will the Higgs boson give rise to a new religion, a new god?" asks the Hindustan Times.
"Why does it have to be an attack on my God?" Colbert asks. "There's just no evidence for God," replies Krauss, "All I've said is that you don't need Him." Colbert, as always, gets the last word, however. Suppose that something always comes from nothing. "If there is no God, no 'thing' called God, if He is nothing," concludes Colbert, then by your own theory "can't something come from Him?"
When they announced the discovery of physics' most elusive particle this week, scientists didn't overreach. They just did damn good science. The fans and the foes of religion, by contrast, are overreaching on both sides. The quest for the Higgs boson, and its ultimate discovery, neither proves nor disproves God.
"The poor you will always have with you," Jesus is reputed to have said. He could have added, "and debates about science and religion as well." The quest for the Higgs came to a decisive end this week. The quest to understand science and God will not end as abruptly.