It’s not for nothing that theoretical physicists have been searching for the so-called Higgs boson for decades now. It may sound to most of us like some indescribably arcane piece of scientific trivia, and arcane it may be (at least to the layman), but trivial it definitely is not.
What is at the heart of all this is one of the most basic questions that humans can ask, namely, why is there “stuff” in the universe instead of nothing at all? Why and how did matter form in the first place? This is what is being asked. And without matter, it goes without saying, we would not have stars or galaxies or planets, or things upon planets, like animals and plants and people, and all of the things that people appear to cherish so dearly. We know that, at the time of the Big Bang, intense and unimaginably powerful energy suddenly exploded and radiated outward into space. That energy, in fact, continues to expand today at velocities that seem to exceed even the speed of light itself. So, wouldn’t it be logical to think that this energy would just keep on going and going and going, ultimately infinitely, if we can imagine such a thing? What caused some of this energy instead to slow down, to cohere, and to begin forming the molecular structures which eventually themselves bound together to form what we think of as matter today?
Physicists have long had their theories, of course. That’s in large part what physicist do, they think about such subjects and they theorize ways in which, given the currently understood laws of the physical universe, it might be logical that things could have proceeded. It was thus that the physicist Peter Higgs theorized many decades ago about an elemental particle so small that it could not be seen, even with the most sophisticated technology of his day. He further posited that this particle would travel through an energy field, subsequently called a Higgs field, and slow down, in the process taking on some of the energy from that field. The particle itself was called the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson, however, would be a highly unstable form, and would quickly disintegrate into other forms, which themselves would be more stable, and which would then go on to form the basic building blocks of molecules. Molecules would form atoms, and atoms would create the various forms which we have come to know and to love.
The problem was that it remained only an untested theory. And in the end, scientists are nothing, if not practical. If you cannot see it, not with the naked eye, of course (we can’t really see much with our eyes, at least not unaided), but with the technology that we create in order to “see more clearly,” then who was to say if Peter Higgs was right? Higgs, himself, didn’t know, couldn’t know, for sure. Maybe it was something else that “created matter,” and not his boson at all? This, by the way, is why the Higgs boson has sometimes been referred to as the “God Particle,” because in most theologies, it is God who “creates the firmament.” He (or in very old mythologies, She) it was who made something out of nothing, and brought about the world as we see and know and experience it today.
Now we know that we do not have to rely on God in order for matter to be created. Matter came into being, as it were, of its own accord, because an inconceivably tiny particle happened to travel through a certain kind of energy field, thus slowing down long enough for that energy to “stick” to it, and ultimately form what we know as matter. In my book, that is a big very deal!
But what’s an ever bigger deal is that scientists at CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research – or according to its French title, le Centre Européen de Recherche Nucléaire) have been spinning tiny particles around at enormous speeds for several years, crashing them into each other, and then focusing their powerfully sophisticated computers in order to analyze the results. The machine they used in order to do this, called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC for short, has brought about as many as 400 trillion collisions just since June. Now, 400 trillion as probably as close as I’d ever care to get to an unimaginably big number. But in the process, they found actual evidence of the Higgs boson! And that’s the big news in today’s paper, which will continue to roil the scientific world maybe for years, or even decades, to come. At this point, they know it, or something very close to it, is no longer merely an elegant theory. They know that it is actually the way things happen in nature. They have been able to peer into these processes, see them, record them, and analyze them. The theory has been proven.
So, what now? Do theoretical physicists sit back on their haunches and smoke a nice big cigar, sip a glass of champagne, and say we’ve done it? Hardly! Most scientists believe that this is really just the beginning of new and exciting research to come. It appears as though this now opens the door into other, perhaps yet unimagined, ways of exploring the mass-generating capability of the universe. And in another article, coincidentally simultaneously published in today’s same paper (the Los Angeles Times), there is a report that the bigger-picture cousins of theoretical physicists, astrophysicists, have discovered something of their own in regard to dark matter. Dark matter is that mysterious stuff which fills a far, far greater percentage of the universe than does ordinary (perceivable) matter. They have seen evidence of filaments of dark matter connecting whole galaxy clusters, and these filaments extend into many millions of light years in length. Can it in fact be a total coincidence that these two discoveries, the unimaginably small and the unimaginably big, have come about so close to each other in time? Perhaps, but then I guess it’s my bias that I’m just not so much of a believer in coincidence.
How, after all, did energy itself come about, that massless something that we in a sense intuitively understand but cannot see or fully conceive of? Why did the Big Bang bang in the first place? Is it possible that such an otherwise inconceivably enormous explosion took place on its own? Indeed, what was it that actually exploded? And is thought, and our own energy, tied in some mysterious way to all of this other energy in the universe? How could it be otherwise? We are after all, at least in our bodies, made of star stuff; and the same kinds of Higgs bosons that created us also created dark matter, to say nothing of the trillions of whirling galaxies all around us.
I don’t like to use the word God, because that appears to me to be so limited, so human in form and conception. I imagine bigger, more immense, more utterly unfathomable. The God of most religions is tiny and limited and concerned with whether or not we follow certain moral principles, which in the end are essentially man-made principles. The Higgs boson may be the God particle of the physical universe, and I have no problem accepting this. But the Divine Spirit that I see, or do not “see,” but feel and open myself to, in my own meditation is beyond any human category. Whatever we say about God can at best only be a partial truth, because whatever that is will, in the end, only be expressed within the limitations of our ordinary human understanding.
So, hurray today for the Higgs boson, and hurray, too, for limitless, inconceivable, unimaginable Spirit, who both is and is not within the compass of this, our glorious little universe.