The God Particle
“The Nobel-prize winning Salam-Weinberg model of the electro-weak force expressing the weak and the electro-magnetic forces in a single equation (1967) had also required that the Higgs field exist, and that it manifests itself as a new particle called Higgs boson, which carries the force associated with the Higgs field.” (Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, p. 62, Penguin 2008).
Earlier than that, several scientists had predicted that to account for the masses of the elementary particles, a field, named after one such scientist Peter Higgs, must exist along with its corresponding particle.
Accordingly, a hunt was launched for the particle fifty years ago. Theoretically, it was quite possible that the field and the associated particle should exist in nature, but, because large-scale colliders where experiments could be conducted were still in the making, and smaller laboratories were not yielding the results required, the particle remained elusive. This elusiveness exasperated an American scientist who referred to it in an article as the “God-dammed particle”.
For the media, out to exploit every situation, event, word, or a picture, to twist and create sensation, it afforded an opportunity to play its tricks. The word ‘dammed’ was dropped and it began to be mentioned as ‘the God particle,’ without any explanation to the gullible that the particle had nothing to do with God, and that, in fact, if found, it would be another occasion for some scientists to claim that God did not exist.
Thus, it is the misnomer that has ignited the debate in certain circles, whether, in view of the latest discovery, which promises to solve the mystery of how the Universe started, God exists or not?
Already it is being claimed by some scientists, that the discovery “takes us to the frontier of science,” that, “we’re reaching into the fabric of the Universe at a level we’ve never done before,” and that, “in a few year’s time, there will be nothing for physics to work on” – implying, all of nature’s secrets would have been laid bare, without the need to refer to a Supreme Power who created it. As it was said, “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, it becomes clear that you don’t need God.”
But, is that correct?
To evaluate this agenda and the hullaballoo that has been created with the discovery, we need to first ascertain what in reality this Higgs field and its associated Higgs particle are, and what does the discovery truly imply? In order to do that, we need to delve slightly deeper into the issue, otherwise, it will remain murky, and we will remain easy targets of the media, and those of the scientists who speak irresponsibly on the issue. To achieve this, perhaps we need to begin from the beginning.
From ancient times it has been known that matter (iron, timber, rocks, [and now] galaxies) could be broken down to its smallest components, called atom. It was assumed that an atom was indivisible. In fact, it happens to be so tiny that it is invisible to the eye. An atom is about one tenth of a nanometer in diameter. Forty-three million iron atoms lined up side by side would produce a line only one millimeter in length.
But by the beginning of the last century it was discovered that although there were different kinds of atoms, they were all composed of sub-atomic particles, which were named electrons, protons and neutrons. Protons and neutrons sat as a seed at the center called nucleus, while electrons rotated around the nucleus at such a high speed as if they were everywhere at any time. The electron is considered an elementary particle.
Lately it has been discovered that the electron is neither a particle, nor wave, but somehow both at a time. As a particle it rotates around its own axis, while going around the nucleus as if it was a little planet with the nucleus in the center acting as a sun. The nucleus is so tiny, that if the picture of an atom was enlarged then, if the nucleus is you, the circling electron is as far away as the earth from the sun, except that since electrons behave like waves, it would be as if that you at the nucleus had clouds (or waves) extending around you to millions of miles. Actually, most of an atom (about 99.9%) is empty space. (And so we are, as humans, mostly empty space. Surely, Allah has power over all things).
The simplest type of atom is that of hydrogen. It also happens to be a unique atom, because it has a single proton in its nucleus with a single electron circling it. It is the only element that has no neutron in its nucleus.
A look into the Atomic Table will tell you that there are over a hundred elements. Oxygen, carbon gold, copper, are all elements. One element is different from another element not in the shape of its atom, but in the number of electrons, protons and neutrons it has. Oxygen for instance, has 8 electrons, 8 protons, and 8 neutrons. Iron (Fe) has 26 electrons, 26 protons, and 30 neutrons.
It may be noted that apart from these three: electrons, protons and neutrons, there is nothing else in any atom.
In comparison to the electron, protons and neutrons are (although so far away from the circling electrons), massive particles (like the sun is so massive against the earth). Protons and neutrons have about 2,000 times more mass than an electron.
The natural question was, are these two ‘elementary particles’ or are they composed of smaller particles? There was, and is, only one way to find out: smash the atom and see what comes out. To do this the scientists began to develop apparatuses that would achieve this. The first atom-smasher was a hand held one. But, of course, it wasn’t powerful enough. Bigger ones demonstrated that the nucleus could be smashed. Following that, more powerful atom smashers were constructed. Today the largest and the most sophisticated one is in Europe which has a diameter of 17 miles.
The atom smashers (or, to be precise, Particle Accelerators) are generally circular in shape (there are hundreds in the world), consisting of a tunnel studded with magnets all around, through and through. Streams of sub-atomic particles (e.g. protons) are run through the tunnel, going round and round, until they acquire nearly the speed of light, at which point, similarly accelerated particles are smashed into them. The head-on collision breaks the protons and a variety of sub-atomic particles are let loose. Computers record their properties before they extinguish.
In this manner, it was discovered that the protons (and neutrons) are actually ‘composite particles,’ that is, they are composed of a variety of tinier particles. These tiny particles were given the name ‘quarks.’ Each proton or neutron was found to be composed of 3 different varieties of quarks (named, for fancy), ‘up,’ ‘down,’ and ‘charm,’ etc. Thus, protons have 3 different types of quarks, and neutrons have 3 different types of quarks – totaling six. And since quarks are indivisible any further (at least for the moment), they too become elementary particles.
It was also discovered that these quarks are held together within the proton or neutron by another kind of particle. This particle has been given the name ‘gluons.’ The gluons too are further indivisible. Therefore, a gluon is another elementary particle.
Experiments upon experiments have led to the discovery of over a hundred sub-atomic particles, hidden within the atom. Tau, Muons, W and Z boson, etc. are some of the elementary particles discovered so far.
It has also been discovered that every particle has its anti-particle. For example, electron has its anti-particle called anti-electron (but better known as positron), quarks have their anti-particle called anti-quark, and so on. When regular particles and their anti-particles meet, they annihilate each other, releasing energy.
The nucleus of the atom seems to be stable, but if its electron is excited, such as, for instance, the atom heated to a certain temperature, it lets loose a tiny particle called photon. The photon breaks away to fly off at the speed of 300,000 km per second, never to be retrieved. If the excitement lasts for a while, that is, matter (iron, timber, rocks) is continuously heated then, the excited electrons of the atoms release a stream of photons, which, because of high quantity, become visible and are called light.
Photons are another of the elementary particles.
Are the 6 quarks the indivisible final entities, or, are there yet smaller fundamental particles? Various models developed to predict yet smaller particles have predicted many more particles rather than the three quarks that were expected. But the tools to further crush the quarks are not available. Therefore, the efforts have been more or less abandoned.
And it is time to recap:
Matter is made of atoms, atoms are made of electrons and nuclei, nuclei is made of protons and neutrons, and protons and neutrons are made of quarks.
Apart from matter, it has been found that there exist in nature a few fundamental forces working on matter. Without these ‘forces of nature,’ matter would not have the characteristics it has (mass, energy, etc.). These four forces are identified as: Gravitational force, electromagnetic force, and, strong and weak nuclear forces. For example, quarks stick together because of the strong nuclear force. Pluto remains in the orbit because of the gravitational force of the sun. Thus, to maintain law and order in the world of matter, down to controlling the smallest particle, the four forces of nature play their role.
On the other side, scientists had been trying to find out how the Universe could have begun. This has been a mathematical exercise, greatly aided by computers. The expansion of the universe gave them the initial clue. If the universe was so big today, it must have been smaller yesterday, still smaller day before yesterday, a year ago, a billion years ago and so on. Going back almost to the point when the universe exploded in a phenomenon called the Big-bang, they could theoretically work out, what could have been the state of matter, right at the start.
Well, it was not possible to work out what it was right at the start of the universe, but they could at least work out the situation a micro-second after the Big-bang; and the calculations and experiments revealed that it must have been nothing but energy at the start, which got converted to matter as the expanding universe cooled.
Both, experiments in the atom-smashers as well as mathematical equations revealed that there must have been a few ‘fundamental particles’ (with the 4 forces) at the start, without which it wouldn’t have worked. Some 12 of them were identified as those that would have been there for matter to come out of pure energy at the start, for stars and galaxies to come into existence later, and life to develop on the earth. These fundamental particles are grouped into two types: Leptons (i.e. light particles), and Mesons (medium-weight particles, or simply Quarks). [Bosons are heavy particles].
The scientists have worked out equations combining the 12 fundamental particles and the 4 forces of nature (but minus the gravitational force), with the help of which all physical phenomenon from ordinary matter to that which was present at the start of the universe (or near start), can be described. This is known as the Standard Model. It has been tested in every possible way, and has passed every test.
To recap the second half of our discussion, in the words of Jonathan Atteberry:
“Here’s the gist of the standard model, which was developed in the early 1970s: Our entire universe is made of 12 different matter particles and four forces. Among those 12 particles, we encounter six quarks and six leptons. Quarks make up protons and neutrons, while members of the lepton family include the electron and the electron neutrino, its neutrally charged counterpart. Scientists think that leptons and quarks are indivisible; that you can’t break them apart into smaller particles. Along with all those particles, the standard model also acknowledges four forces: gravity, electromagnetic, strong and weak forces.”
However, the Standard Model suffers some deficiencies. For example, it does not take into account the gravitational force. All efforts to accommodate this all-pervading force (which acts on every matter, to the end of the universe), have failed. Similarly, it does not account for the dark matter and dark energy (which we cannot discuss in this short article). There are other nagging problems. Scientists are hoping that a day will arrive when they can offer a complete theory, or, as they call it, the Grand Unified Theory (GUT); although a few scientists believe that might never happen.
Now, here comes a twist. Why do the sub-atomic particles have the masses that they have? This is crucial because, one can explain why all the energy at the start (or near-start) of the universe, but, where did mass come from? This remained an intriguing question until six scientists came up with the same solution. (They were: Francois Englert, Robert Brout, Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Hagen and Peter Higgs). They proposed the solution that intrinsically all particles have no mass. That is, they have zero mass. They acquire their mass by interacting with an invisible field that gives the particles mass as the particles interact with it. Those particles, such as the photon, that do not interact with the field, have no mass. A quark interacts strongly, and therefore, it has mass.
This field is similar to, say, the magnetic field, or the gravitational field. It is 3-dimensional and stretches in every direction, to the farthest end of the universe. The idea was proposed during the 60s and caught on the imagination of the scientists. The old idea of the aether, long abandoned, came back in the form of a field, now named the Higgs field.
But, how was the theory to be ascertained as a fact? Well, that was not difficult. If the field exists, it should have a corresponding particle (of such and such properties). Just like, if there is a magnetic field, there has to be a magnet. This corresponding (or carrier) particle was called Higgs boson (boson: because it should be very heavy, and heavy particles are called bosons).
Without this Higgs boson, the universe would have had no matter, only energy – because, at the start, it had only energy. That is why the Higgs particle is so important for the Standard Model.
As worded by Natalie Wolchover, “According to the theory, all of the particles in the newborn universe were massless and hurtled around at the speed of light. But one trillionth of a second after the big bang, the Higgs field switched on, turning the vacuum of space into a kind of cosmic glue.
However, because the Higgs particle is extremely high-energy (or, equivalently, very heavy), it was tough to excite the Higgs field enough to create one. That’s where the Large Hadron Collider came in: by smashing together high-speed protons, it generated enough power to slosh the Higgs field, producing the Higgs bosons.”
On July 4, 2012, scientists working with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) announced their discovery of a particle that behaves the way the Higgs boson should behave. The results, while published with a high degree of certainty, are still somewhat preliminary. Some researchers are calling the particle “Higgslike”.
On the other hand, some theorists suggest that the Higgs boson is not one, but multiple particles with similar masses but different electrical charges.
Researchers at Fermilab in Illinois, say they have found some evidence for this multiple-particle theory.
It could take several years for scientists to work out whether they have found the simplest kind of Higgs particle that theories predicted, or part of a more complex picture: for example, one of a larger family of Higgs bosons. The discovery of more than one kind of Higgs particle would lead to entirely new ideas in physics.
To sum up:
It is not 100% certain that the newly 1. discovered particle is the Higgs particle. It could be another exotic particle.
Higgs particle could be several, which one 2. is this?
Discovery of more than one kind of Higgs 3. particle may alter the present understanding of the universe, and how it came into being.
If the new find is Higgs boson, then, what is 4. the answer to the notion, as stated by Paul Davies, “quantum fluctuations might cause the Higgs mechanism to operate differently in different universes?” (The Mind of God, Touchstone Books, 1993, p. 219) – which would mean that the laws of nature are not the same everywhere in the visible or invisible world.
The Standard Model does not fully explain 5. the creation of the universe, nor as to why the Universe is, as it is observed now.
As it can be seen, the discovery of Higgs particle, its existence or non-existence, has nothing to do with the question of God’s existence. The Standard Model is itself incomplete without the fourth force: the gravity. Even if a ‘grand theory of everything’ is worked out, it will still not answer all the questions about the world. For example:
It will not explain where the laws governing 1. the universe came from.
It will not explain why various particles have 2. different physical properties and values.
Where did the initial energy and the Higgs 3. field come from?
Can we understand a universe in which 96% 4. of the matter is missing?
How to explain that the universe and its laws 5. seem to be fine-tuned for life?
If mathematical equations can explain the 6. universe, as the common people are led to believe, then, where did mathematics come from? Who is the mathematician without whose rigorously worked out equations, the world could neither come to existence, nor survive for a moment?
Space is expanding and pushing matter 7. (super-clusters) out; out into what?
How can the claim be made that a ‘finished’ 8. Standard Model’ is around and will explain everything, when Einstein’s general theory of relativity, stubbornly refuses to combine with the quantum theory?
Are we at the end of research, or, a new 9. phase begins with the discovery that encased within the proton are billions of point-like real or virtual quarks and gluons? Is there any end to explanations that raise newer and more difficult questions to answer, ad infinitum?
The above list of questions is not exhaustive. Depending on the depth of inquiry, there can be dozens or hundreds of unanswered questions.
The forgoing discussion demonstrates that the discovery of the Higgs boson (if it is really it), neither proves nor disproves the existence of God. Neither the Standard Model (if it succeeds) nor any other set of equations can disprove God’s existence. The hullaballoo created around the discovery was merely media hype. The Higgs particle is not the ‘God particle.’ To be sure, every particle is ‘God particle,’ because, every particle in nature has – so to say – God’s signature on it.