Saturday, June 13, 2009

So, Is God a Particle or a Wave?

If the universe is the answer, what is the question?

Photons are tricky little things. You can show that they are particles by catching one, and you can show that they are waves because they have the ability to pass through two slots at the same time. Even weirder, they only do it if we're not watching. (What?) Two of them can even become "entangled" so that across vast distances a change in one of them will be instantly mirrored by the other.

All the other basic constituents of matter and energy are equally strange and unique. But perhaps the weirdest one is the one we haven't found yet. Right now the news is full of reports on the new particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider and how it may be able to discover the ultimate missing link in the form of the mystical (and perhaps imaginary) Higgs boson, which has garnered the unfortunate nickname of "the God particle." Its original namesake, Peter Higgs, is supposedly an atheist who hates the nickname. But even Leon Lederman, who dubbed it that in his book title (The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?), had no intention of ascribing divinity to the particle. He only meant that it would possibly complete our understanding of the universe.

According to what is now called "The Standard Model," the Higgs boson is the only remaining fundamental particle which has not been seen -- by which we mean, caught in the act of nano-second transformation following a spectacular crash of two larger particles. The Higgs was proposed to complete the array of known fundamental particles, because without it there is no way to explain why anything in the universe has mass -- which, if you consider any large object, is obviously a key component of existence. Much as scientists earlier filled in the missing spots in the periodic table of the elements, they are now filling in the gaps in a similar table of subatomic components of those atoms.

The Standard Model really needs this missing particle, because even if it exists the theory still has to jump through hoops to explain things like the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, and the expansion and shape of the universe. If the Higgs boson cannot be found, or if it can be proved NOT to exist, then the Standard Model may be done for, and it will be up to one of the newer competing theories to explain why things are the way they are.

All of which is by way of explanation that the God Particle is not supposed to be God, or even a particle of God, any more or less than the rest of the swarm of particles that form the physical universe. So those who are up in arms about it can just settle down, and Dan Brown can desist from having his Vatican-obsessed characters ascribe nefarious implications to it. All the discovery will do, assuming it happens, is to give us a better handle on reality, which is what science is all about.

The wonderful thing about the universe is the way it continues to exist regardless of how good a handle we may or may not have on it. Objects from atoms to galaxies have a remarkable quality of persistence. They go about their business with delightful disregard for the way we think they ought to behave. You might conclude that it doesn't matter what we think about it. But then why do those pesky photons seem to know when we're watching and change their behavior accordingly?

We have been blessed (or cursed) with this need to know, and an amazing ability to figure things out which has already surpassed the expectations of anyone who lived up till about a century ago. Think we'll never get to the bottom of the Cosmic Riddle? Consider what Charles Darwin had to say, presciently, about the mystery of our own origins:

It has often and confidently been asserted that man's origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
From The Descent of Man


  1. Michael2:19 AM

    This makes me think of my own favorite hypothesized substance, phlogiston. Phlogiston was dreamed up in the wake of early biophysical experiments on flame, and mice, and things of that nature – by the mid seventeenth century it was clearly understood that if a lit candle, or a mouse, was enclosed in an airtight space it would be extinguished in the case of the flame, or get real quiet in the case of the mouse. So…how come? The phlogistonites hypothesized a substance that had no taste, odor, or volume, but had the property of facilitating fire, or life….It was a damn good theory – wrong, but based on accurate empirical observation and effective in creating a new set of experiments that ultimately led to the discovery that air is actually made up of different elements, including a highly breathable/combustible one, oxygen. A great example of the scientific method’s ability to ferret out its own false starts, no!

    The guy who discovered the composite nature of air, good old Lavoisier, was executed during the French Revolution, one of the horrifying consequences of the Revolution predicted so accurately by Edmund Burke in his brilliant denunciation of that event. Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, actually used Lavoisier’s theory of “wild gases” as a metaphor for the destructiveness of rebellion!

  2. It also reminds me of the 19th century theory of the ether, which empty space was supposed to be full of. Einstein did away with that, but now we have dark matter and dark energy to contend with, and in some sense the ether may turn out to exist, or at least empty space will prove not to be completely empty after all.