The God Particle?

March 2016 Pulse

According to particle physics, our universe came about as the result of elementary particles and forces.

One of the most important theories in particle physics today is called the Standard Model, which postulates that there are 16 fundamental particles – 12 particles of matter and four force carrier particles.

In the Standard Model of particle physics, the Higgs boson is hypothesised to explain how particles acquire mass. According to this theory, particles acquire mass by interaction with an all-pervading field – called the Higgs field – that is carried by the Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson is named after Peter Higgs, emeritus professor of theoretical physics at the University of Edinburgh, who presented his theory in a seminal paper published in 1964. But Higgs was not the only one to advance the theory.

Two other papers were independently submitted presenting similar hypotheses at about the same time.

Although scientists have been working on the assumptions of the theory since 1960s, the actual existence of the Higgs boson is difficult to demonstrate and prove of its existence has eluded them. This is because unlike other particles, the Higgs boson is very difficult to create, requiring huge amounts of energy.

It is therefore not difficult to understand the sense of triumph within the scientific community when the scientists from the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, were able to catch a glimpse of what looked like the Higgs boson on 4 July 2012 by using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an instrument that cost US$1 billion to build.

In 1994, Leon Lederman in his popular book on particle physics nicknamed the Higgs boson the ‘God particle’.

There is no real theological significance to this term. Lederman used it simply because he thought that the Higgs was something like God: everywhere, but at the same time mysteriously hidden.

Peter Higgs hated the term because he was an atheist. Scientists brushed it off, and seldom used it. But, as to be expected, the press loved it, and the term gradually became more common, especially in popular books and articles on physics.

The discovery of the Higgs boson and the results of further experiments that may be conducted using the LHC will not be of great significance theologically.

It should be pointed out, that while the new LHC is able to produce the conditions that prevailed less than a millionth of a second after the Big Bang – which is truly remarkable – it is unable to replicate what scientists have called Planck time 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang, where, scientists believe, General Relativity breaks down, and when the universe was 100 million trillion times smaller than a proton. Some scientists are certain that it is not possible to create enough energy to replicate that era.

But even if it were possible to reproduce those conditions, the results of such experiments would not be theologically significant.

These findings do not, for example, challenge the biblical teaching that God had created the universe ‘out of nothing’ (creatio ex nihilo). In fact, they show that the universe indeed had a beginning.

Incidentally, the first scientist who proposed the idea of the ‘Big Bang’ was the astronomer and physicist Georges Lamaitre, an ordained clergy.

Of course scientists like Daniel Dennett have argued that the universe created itself. In his book, Breaking the Spell Dennett speculates that the universe may be said to have performed a ‘version of the ultimate bootstrapping trick; it creates itself ex nihilo. Or at any rate out of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all’.

But back in the thirteenth century, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas has already shown that self-creation is a metaphysical absurdity. This is because no-thing (a thing which does not exist) cannot cause something to come into existence.

Thus, in order for the universe to cause itself to come into being, the universe must have already existed. The idea that the universe created itself is therefore not only philosophically absurd, it is also chronologically incoherent.

Scientific discoveries can help Christians to further appreciate just how intricate and beautiful is the created order that God has brought into being. The insights that particle physics gives us on the structure of sub-atomic particles and the way in which genetic science has enabled us to understand the human genome should cause Christians to be in awe of the Creator.

The way in which everything must be just right for the universe such as ours to be possible should also help Christians to appreciate the greatness of God. For example, scientists believe that if there is an change in the ratio of expansion and contraction forces by as little as 1 part in 1055 in Planck time (10-43 seconds after the beginning of the universe), the rate of expansion would either be too rapid so that no galaxies could form or too slow so that the universe would almost immediately collapse.

Ours is such a fine-tuned universe that it is more sensible to believe that it was created by God rather than something that just pop up by chance.

In light of how science has enabled us to better understand our beautiful and complex universe, Christians can therefore sing in chorus with the ancient psalmists of Israel that ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Psalm 19:1).

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.