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Dec 20 2011

Can we stop calling science things “God Something”?

Let’s play a little game of quantum compare/contrast.

“Oh, sure,” you object; “because quantum stuff is so easy to find and examine in situ!”

But that’s pretty much exactly the point — quantum ISN’T easy to do that with. What IS easy to compare/contrast is stuff in macro — stuff at the “human size scale”. Like, how humans are reacting variously to news that CERN may just have gotten a taste at around 125GeV of the Higgs boson, also known as “The God Particle.”

Mind you, it’s only also known as that TO IDIOTS.

The repeated misuse of this phrase, coined by physicist Leon Lederman, has led to some pretty laughable theological arguments where the mere nickname of the particle is latched onto by apologists the world over as a defense for their specific monotheistic deity. And I mean it has to be, otherwise they wouldn’t NAME him right in the name of the particle, would they? Right guys?

So because Leon Lederman, an extraordinarily clever man, named his book about the Higgs so very cleverly by calling it “The God Particle”, he’s attracted a ton of media attention and by extension unleashed a torrent of poorly argued theological fluff pieces from a thousand different sources all waxing pontifical about what could be the most important discovery in particle physics, ever. Sure, it’s a clever trick, getting the rubes to pay attention to particle physics by mentioning God poetically. And maybe Lederman really did want to call it “The Goddamn Particle” but his editor talked him down and convinced him to play it as Albert Einstein once did with “God does not play dice with the universe”. But it’s a cheap trick either way, and one that I lament every time it’s done.

Readers, keep me honest here, I’m but a simple layman, explaining it as best I understand it, and I could have it very wrong. The Higgs field is theorized because without something to give particles mass, everything would apparently zip around at the speed of light forever. In the Standard Model of particle physics, developed throughout much of the 20th century and finalized in 1970, a certain symmetry exists between the electroweak forces such that all particles are massless above a certain temperature. When the temperature drops below that point, called EWSB or ElectroWeak Symmetry Breaking, some particles suddenly get massive. Not massive like hyperbolicly large, massive like it gets mass. It’s like below that temperature, suddenly some particles are capable of interacting with a background field that provides some “drag” on the stuff in the universe and makes it such that the more massive it is — the more it interacts with that field — the more energy it takes to move it. That background field is the theorized Higgs field, and it can only exist if another particle also theorized in the Standard Model, the Higgs boson, exists.

This Higgs boson is the particle that gives other particles mass and allows them to interact with one another. This universe happens to have rules of nature that allow it to exist in the form we see — with matter that interacts the way it does. Other universes might not. If this universe turns out to be a Higgs boson kind of universe, who’s to say that some other universe elsewhere/when/etc doesn’t run via one of the other theorized and mathematically plausible Higgsless models? And if this turns out to be a Higgsless universe, we’ll figure that out too, through science.

What we won’t do, however, is postulate that a Higgs field exists then never search for it. Or, worse, assume it’s there and never bother to check for any evidence whatsoever that anything else about the Standard Model is correct. We could have simply built a mathematical model for the universe totally in absence of any empirical evidence, and called that our new religion, and taken it on faith that it’s exactly right. But some large subsection of humankind is actually interested in building a reasonably accurate model of this universe so we can do things like provide instant map directions via satellite-enabled global positioning systems, using technology derived from that accurate model of the universe to make the laity’s lives easier. Science doesn’t work like religion, and woe betide anyone who suggest it should.

Like the Globe and Mail, for instance.

With Tuesday’s announcement, it seems the God particle is more aptly nicknamed than perhaps was originally thought. It got the name because it is the theoretical glue that makes life in the universe possible. But now it is apparent that, like the gods of many monotheistic religions, it appears to be everywhere but is never quite detectable. All we humans can do is narrow the places we look, and if we don’t find it, look elsewhere. We could also lose faith and abandon the search, or consider the Higgs boson a fairy tale and never look at all, but that is not in keeping with Shakespeare’s noble, reasoning creature, “in apprehension how like a god!”

To paraphrase Psalm 14, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no Higgs boson.” Tuesday’s announcement is a testament to our constant search for meaning and understanding, and proof that whether we look for answers inside an atom or inside a place of worship, it is the search that makes us divine.

What utter pap. Seriously, gag me.

What’ll happen if we conclude our search successfully and super-symmetry and the Standard Model turn out to be correct? Have we then found God, and some subsect of scientists will splinter and claim that we should worship it? How is merely searching for truth a divine attribute of humankind, especially if most are content to “find truth” in some practiced liars’ very fancy houses where they talk to you about what truth is, demand that you accept it without evidence, then demand tithes to keep those very fancy houses in good condition? Should we give money to scientists and never demand that they actually do anything with it but make stories up, or should the bar be high enough that these same scientists have to build technologies to better our lives with those discoveries once they’ve actually made them and duplicated them to the point that they’re absolutely certain that they’ve better modeled some aspect of reality than those musty old books from a few thousand years ago happened to manage?

If we find the Higgs boson, it’s because we went looking, not because we have opened our hearts to the divine thought that if we only believe hard enough, the Higgs boson will give us some supernatural boon. The fact that Lederman got some press by naming it the God Particle does not make the hunt have anything to do with God. And with your twisted understanding of your supernatural deities, I’m sure you religious folks could find a parallel between anything and your imagined deity if only we add the word God to the front. If I refer to my computer as The God Box, how does it stack up? If I eat The God Burger tomorrow at lunch, how much searching did I have to do then? If I sit on The God Couch and play The God Videogame, what am I really doing — am I proving myself divine by searching for the perfect pass-time?

And if we don’t find the Higgs boson, again, it’s because we went looking, and we narrowed down where it could be one room at a time, and concluded that our physics model is wrong because it doesn’t match reality. And yet, I expect that won’t be the outcome in this case. All the evidence is suggesting otherwise.

Now how does your religion stack up against science in the “going looking” department, exactly? Find God yet? At what power level? (Over 9000?) Because science totally narrowed the Higgs down to between 115 and 130GeV, and we’ve pretty much figured out that it’s going to be around 125GeV or so. We’re in the right neighborhood and we’re closing in on the Higgs’ house. Better catch up, if you expect to win this particular race!

6 comments

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  1. 1
    DuWayne

    Would you be ok with “The Cthulu Particle?”

    Not that it really matters. He’s going to eat you regardless. (Kind of nice, a god like being like Cthulu. You always know where you…and everyone else stands with Cthulu. Only by stand, I meant slides down the gullet of.)

  2. 2
    grumpyoldfart

    Thanks, I learned a few things.

  3. 3
    Worldtraveller

    I still think we should call it….oh, I don’t know, maybe…. SATAN!! [/church lady]

  4. 4
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    This bit was actually OK:

    like the gods of many monotheistic religions, it appears to be everywhere but is never quite detectable.

    But at least there is a chance of detecting and confirming this boson, as we did the intermediate vector bosons.

    The fact that people can latch onto the Higgs to yammer on about religion only serves to demonstrate their tenuous grip on reality.

  5. 5
    Greg Laden

    As I recently said somewhere, I think that if it turns out to not exist we should call it the God Particle. That would work fine. If it turns out to exist, we can stick with The Higgs.

    Or, perhaps, Mr. Higgs.

  6. 6
    sinned34

    If I sit on The God Couch and play The God Videogame, what am I really doing

    You’re playing Black And White at my grandfather’s house. Oh, the crazy things my giant anthropomorphic bovine did in that game!

  1. 7
    Humans Originated Near Rivers, Evidence Suggests (LiveScience.com) | News online music movies sport

    [...] Can we stop calling science things “God Something”? | Lousy Canuck [...]

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