Public Lives

The ‘God particle’


A few days ago, my 11-year-old granddaughter, Julia, who is in Grade 6 at Miriam, a Catholic school, came up to me asking: “Lolo, why did God create the world?” It was a question her teacher in Christian Living Education had given to the class to think about over the weekend. “Hmm, let me see,” I said, quite flustered, but trying not to show it.

“I’m the wrong person to ask,” I muttered to myself. For, just then, by sheer coincidence, I happened to be reading a news report on the fascinating discovery of what appeared to be the “Higgs boson”—the missing subatomic particle that could explain the origin of the world.  So crucial is the Higgs boson to accounts of the formation of mass that it has sometimes been referred to as the “God particle.”

After some thought, I managed to offer my granddaughter what I figured to be a decent answer: “Perhaps God,” I said, “created the world so that human beings would have somewhere they could love, work, play, and live happily in.” But, I really am not sure, I quickly added. “There’s also the possibility that God did not create the world, that the world came into being by itself.”

“How is that?” she pressed. I was careful not to draw her into a discussion that could give her problems at school. But I could not resist telling her about the Higgs boson.

I told her about the largest scientific experiment being conducted at present at a research center somewhere in Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider is a 17-mile-long machine created by physicists, where trillions of protons are made to collide with one another at mind-boggling speed in the hope that from the debris of these collisions scientists may spot the elusive particle that would explain the formation of the stars and the planets.

This experiment is guided by the theory associated with the British physicist Peter Higgs who, with five other physicists, proposed in a paper in 1964 that space is permeated by a force field. This invisible field, a kind of “cosmic molasses,” coats other particles when they pass through it and gives them the mass that allows them to combine into bigger forms of matter. You can’t see the molasses, but it should be possible to establish its presence by the traces it leaves behind. The Higgs boson is its manifestation, but even this eludes observation. Someone said that looking for the Higgs boson is like tracking down a snow leopard, its presence signified only by the paw prints it leaves on the soft snow. Not being a physicist, I quickly ran out of words. I fell back on the metaphors that those who report on scientific matters for the lay public are better at inventing.

“Without the Higgs field as it is known…” says a New York Times report, “all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight. There would be neither atoms nor life.” Six thousand physicists who were involved in this amazing experiment hailed the discovery of the Higgs boson, or what looked like it, as a milestone in the quest to understand nature. Their colleagues from all over the world held vigils in anticipation of the announcement, and uncorked bottles of champagne to celebrate the event. Peter Higgs, now 83, was invited and treated to a sustained ovation like a rock star. The same NYT article says why: “The finding affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws—but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry.”

My granddaughter was wide-eyed as I read this to her. Even as she takes her faith seriously, she also shows a strong inclination for science, always ready to open her computer to access information about the world around her, including the birds and the insects she finds in our garden. Kids of her generation are wired in such a way that no subject intimidates them. Every question is a puzzle that activates everything about them—their logic, their character, their tastes, their faith, and their reason. In this, they are modern in every way.

That is not how the Higgs boson was greeted by the proverbial man on the street. In the streets of New York, people were randomly picked and asked by a magazine if they knew what the Higgs boson was. These were among the replies they gave: an animal, a building, an art installation, a metal band, a brand of clothes, a concert venue, a drug, a bird, and “a little particle that they discovered in that Hadron collider.” The last reply was given by a woman who said she had read about in the newspaper. She was promptly mocked by her companions as “nerdy.”

I was glad that my geeky granddaughter, who has not yet had physics but knows about the Big Bang, was undeterred by her initial cluelessness on the subject. She spent the rest of the day googling Peter Higgs, the Large Hadron Collider, bosons, protons, and the origin of the universe. But, in between, she also finished her homework on religion.

So, what was the correct answer to why God created the world? I asked her later. “Well,” she gently informed me, “the answer you gave was okay, but it wasn’t the best answer. The right answer is: God created the world so that human beings would have something to take care of.”

“Oh, yes,” I said, “I forgot about your school’s strong advocacy for the protection of the environment.”

Suspicious that Julia might be too young to be reading stuff that might contradict her faith, her mother asked her to explain what she’d been reading about the Higgs boson. “It’s a very small particle from which everything began,” Julia answered.

Her mother shot back: “Ok, my child, just do not forget who created that particle.”

* * *


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