“That God_____ Particle”

September 23, 2012


Genesis 1:1-5

Colossians 1:15-20


As I said during the announcements this morning, the second lecture in our science and religion series will be given this afternoon at 4:00.  Dr. Owen Gingerich, a Harvard astronomer with Iowa roots, will be speaking on “The Divine Handiwork: Evolution and the Wonder of Life.” It promises to be an inspiring and enlightening event and I invite you to join us—and bring along a friend or two.

Professor Gingerich is worshipping with some of his relatives over at First Mennonite Church this morning. Given his absence from this assembly, it seemed both appropriate and, well, safe for me to venture a few thoughts about one of  the major science news stories of this past summer: the verification of the Higgs boson—what has been called the “God Particle”—and to talk about the impact such a discovery might have on the life of faith.

One of the great questions that haunts the thoughtful soul is: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Why this universe, these stars, our galaxy, solar system, and planet?

Why this community, this church, our friends and families, those who cause our deepest and strongest love?

Why these bodies and minds that can apprehend that there is something rather than nothing?

Why is there something rather than nothing?

The opening verse of the Bible gives one answer: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” These simple and straightforward words are not a scientific statement, verified by observation and experimentation. They weren’t meant to be. What we hear is an affirmation of faith that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

A Princeton mathematician said: “One of my earliest memories is a feeling of great surprise that there is anything. It still strikes me as amazing…” The religious impulse leads us to sense a Creator who is far beyond us, brining order out of chaos, light out of darkness—something out of nothing.

This past July, the scientific community offered another answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing.

Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research announced that they had confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson—or certainly something very much like it.

Now, the Higgs boson was first suggested by Peter Higgs nearly 50 years ago. Physics as we conceive of it requires the existence of a certain kind of force field—what has been called the Higgs field—and a certain kind of particle—the Higgs boson. This particle explains why everything in the universe has mass—although I don’t claim to understand the explanation.

Briefly, it’s understood that all matter has mass. Yet subatomic particles are apparently without mass—so how do they gain this mass? The theory is that mass is derived from the Higgs boson. For the Higgs boson to exist, there first has to be the Higgs Field. Particles move through the Higgs Field with varying levels of interaction; some move at great speed, unaffected by the field. These particles have little mass. Others are slowed considerably by interacting with the Higgs field. They have a large mass. The Higgs boson within the Higgs Field causes particles to gain mass—which explains why there is something in the universe beyond energy.

This theory and discovery, of course, led to the joke: A Higgs boson walks into a church and the priest says, “We don’t believe in you.” And the Higgs boson says, “Well, you can’t have mass without me.”

The Higgs boson has been called the “God Particle,” giving the suggestion that it has something to do with the ways of the Creator in creation. Nearly 20 years ago, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Leon Lederman, wrote a book called The God Particle that described the research around the Higgs boson at the time. He said: “This boson is so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive, that I have given it a nickname: the God Particle. Why God Particle?” he asked. And answered: “[T]he publisher wouldn’t let me call it the [well, in the interest of decorum from the pulpit I’ll say “gosh darned”] Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.”[1]

Lederman was in a sense joking as well. But his lighthearted book contains an underlying sense of wonder and awe that borders on the religious. As he says, “We don’t know anything about the universe until it reaches the mature age of a billionth of a trillionth of a second—that is some very short time after creation in the Big Bang. When you read or hear anything about the birth of the universe, someone is making it up. Only God knows what happened at the Very Beginning (and so far She hasn’t let on).”

As I said, the Higgs boson explains why particles have mass. Without the Higgs boson, the universe would have no physical matter, only energy. There would not be something instead of nothing.

Lawrence Krauss, an Arizona State University theoretical physicist, found reason for rejoicing in this discovery. “Humans, with their remarkable tools and remarkable brains, may have just taken a giant step toward replacing metaphysical speculation with empirically verifiable knowledge. With enough data physics would make God obsolete. If we can describe the laws of nature back to the beginning of time without any supernatural shenanigans,” he said, “It becomes clear that you don’t need God.”

Of course, as Leon Lederman suggested, the problem is that we can’t describe the laws of nature back to the beginning of time—we can only get very, very close.

So a Vatican astronomer offered another perspective on the meaning of the discovery of the Higgs boss, saying that it showed the “personality” of God and served to remind us of a reality bigger than our day to day lives.

And Deepak Chopra mystically stated that “It only strengthens the notion that the universe comes out of a nothingness that is everything.”

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that.

Both people of religious faith and people without such faith can rejoice in this discovery. A lifetime of exploration and development led to this moment last summer. What it means for future scientific progress remains to be seen, but it was a momentous discovery.

Dr. Gingerich’s visit here is made possible because of a grant that our congregation received from the Scientists in Congregations program, which is funded by the Templeton Foundation. One of the goals of the Scientists in Congregations program is to familiarize clergy with the work and the methods of scientists. Over the past year, it has been both my privilege and my joy to meet with many of the scientists in this congregation on a regular basis to talk about some of the “big things”: faith, theology, God, the universe—and their work as scientists. In the process I have grown in my understanding of the work that some 10% of our congregation does.

As I’ve listened to these men and women speak of their work and their lives, I’ve come to understand that our knowledge grows very slowly. Scientific research takes a great deal of time. The verification of the Higgs boson took nearly fifty years.

We speak very casually about the “knowledge explosion” in our “information age.” News reports often tell of amazing discoveries in areas such as medicine or technology or psychology that seem to happen overnight.

In reality, scientific knowledge develops slowly through painstaking work. Experiments are set up to examine the results when only a small variable is changed. And these experiments often fail to prove the hypothesis that they are set up to test. When they do succeed, they are only a small step forward.

And scientists, even scientists in congregations, do all of their work under certain agreed upon conditions. Douglas Erwin, who is a paleontologist at the Smithsonian Institution says: “One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed. That’s a fundamental presumption of what we do.” While many scientists believe in God, most see science as a systematic effort to find out how the material world works, not an approach that needs to resort to otherworldly explanations.

Questions of value, of purpose, of meaning are left at the laboratory or classroom door. This has been expressed in many ways—and quite helpfully by the John Polkinghorne, a physicist and Anglican priest:

When we ask “Why is water in the tea kettle boiling?” the answer could be an explanation of the effect of heat on water, breaking up molecules and releasing gas into the air. The gas creates the bubbles in the water that we regard as a sign of it “boiling.”

Then again, the question, “Why is the water in the tea kettle boiling?” can also receive the answer: “Because I’d like a nice cup of tea.”

Or as it has been said, “Science seeks to answer the question, ‘How?’ and religion seeks to answer the question ‘Why?’”

This, of course, is not to say that scientists are people lacking values or for whom the questions of meaning have no importance. It’s just that they recognize that these are not the questions they are pursuing as scientists.

Like this congregation, scientists value doubt as well as faith. There is the recognition that science questions what we know and grows by doubt. This is the reason scientific understanding and even scientific “truths” change over time.

The end result of scientific research can tell us many things, but it cannot tell us everything.

After all of our scientific exploration and experimentation, we are still really left with that haunting question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Protestant Christians have long maintained that the knowledge of God cannot be gained simply by looking at nature. To any such observations, we must also add the knowledge of God’s saving work in Christ encountered in scripture and the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.

And yet, the Christian faith affirms that this same God has taken a human face in Jesus, whom the early hymn sings of as the image of the invisible God…before all things and in whom all things hold together—all things have been created in him and through him.

This is the God who calls us out of our narrow preoccupations into active stewardship of this world created and called good. This is the God who calls us to full involvement with people everywhere, created in the image of God.

This is the God who calls us into the joyful task of engaging this world, embracing it with God’s love, challenging it with God’s judgment.

There is something rather than nothing. And by what can only be called the grace of God we are fortunate enough—blessed enough­—to be a part of it all.

[1] Leon Lederman, The God Particle, pg. 22.