The Higgs Boson (a.k.a. the God Particle) and Why God Had Nothing to Do With It—A Short History of Quantum Mechanics
Quantum Mechanics has given us a new look at ourselves, our surroundings, and our universe. Until the beginning of the 20th Century our view has been that of Sir Isaac Newton, which he described in his three volume Opus Magnus Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica published in 1687. It details and explains the world that we see around us in terms of the theories of numbers and equations. “What goes up, must come down” Gravity. “A body at rest, stays at rest” Motion. “Every particle attracts every other particle using a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distances between them” Universal Gravitation. Newton was a genius but still had human foibles that pointed to a dark side. He spent more time in his “research” to find a way to convert lead into gold than on his forte, Mathematics. He had a nemesis, who haunted him and critiqued him constantly, a Swiss mathematician, who started to get uncomfortably under Newton’s skin. At one point Newton was so angry at him that he penned a vicious letter that was a fierce ad hominem attack on this man who had dared to criticize the great Newton on one of his mathematical theories. His attacker was a small and frail man who had a severe hunchback, and weak, drooping shoulders as a consequence. Newton quoted the now famous line “We stand on the shoulders of giants!” implying the obvious, that this weakling was not one counted among those giants. Newton used it as a personal insult. They never corresponded after that. Newton’s view of nature stood for over 200 years unchallenged.
It was in 1900 that Max Planck changed the game. He invented/discovered Quantum Filed Theory. In 1905 Albert Einstein integrated it with his Special Theory of Relativity that joined mass and energy as just different forms of the same substance (E=mc²). He followed-up with his General Theory of Relativity in 1915. In that same year he came up with the explanation of what makes certain metals yield electrons when hit by light, the photoelectric effect, which earned him the Nobel Prize for Physics, and now allows us to harvest electricity from the sun. This theory was substantiated by the physical evidence of Sir Arthur Eddington that light was bent by the gravitational pull of the sun. The General Theory of Relativity equates Space and Time. Max Planck was the genius that figured out that the atom is not indivisible (which is what the Greek word “atom” means- not divisible). So far there are 18 particles actually found that make up the atom. There are two groups of particles: 12 Fermions further divided into 6 Quarks and 6 Leptons. The other group is Bosons also 6 of them. The 6 Quarks, a rather odd name, are given equally mysterious titles, Up Quark, Down Quark, Bottom Quark, Top Quark, Strange Quark, and Charm Quark. The names are rather arbitrary, except for the last two. The Charm Quark’s naming is rather charming, and gives you an insight into the humor of physicists. That particular Quark has the amazingly long life span of one trillionth of a second. By calculations it should only exist for a billionth of a trillionth of a second, outliving its life expectancy by a billion times. Charming, don’t you think. I will leave discovering the story of the naming of the Strange Quark to the reader. Parroting its name, it likewise has a strange origin.
Planck was a professor at the University of Berlin when he decided to take a year off to travel around Europe to explain his Quantum Theory to the physics world. Despite that he was a genius of extraordinary stature he could not drive a car. He hired a chauffeur to drive him to all his lectures around the continent. When he returned to Munich, his AlmaMater, to present his lecture he was suffering from a bad flu syndrome. At that time the press was not yet so photographically endowed and very few people actually knew what Max Planck looked like. He decided he had to cancel his lecture. His chauffeur, who had heard the lecture a thousand times, convinced Max that he could give the lecture in the place of the esteemed professor. The lecture went well, until at the end one of the physicists in the audience rose to ask a question. The chauffeur was a bit stunned, but being fast on his feet came back with, “I am shocked that such a simple question should be asked by this astute audience in this city so renowned for its physics literacy, and to prove the point, I am going to let my chauffeur, who is in the audience answer the question.”
Much of Quantum Mechanics has been worked out but much remains. It was an Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, who discovered that subatomic particles behave in a dual fashion as a wave and as a particle. Photons (light) are both a wave and a particle. As a wave it can be compressed or stretched, as when light moves away from the observer the wave is stretched out, just like when an ambulance with its sirens blasting as it approaches the pitch is higher than when it has passed by and now is receding, it changes, dropping its tone by an octave. The amplitude of light waves are stretched out and as a consequence shift to the red spectrum when its source recedes from the observer. Yet when it passes by a larger mass light reveals its particle nature and will be attracted to that large mass just like any object (Gravitational Lensing). Those 18 particles have been confirmed but there is a whole zoo of particles that are just theoretical. They ought to be there by doing the math but so far have not been found. The way these particles are looked for is by smashing parts of atoms (Hadrons) into each other and seeing what is left. In order to do just that, larger and larger Hadron Colliders have been developed. The largest one so far came on-line in 2007 in Cern, Switzerland. It is a circular tunnel 175 feet beneath the French-Swiss border and is 17 miles in circumference. It serves the same function as grave robbers served for the early anatomists that stole bodies from graves in order to cut them up and find out what they were made of.
In the early 1960’s Peter Higgs postulated the existence of a particle that became known as the Higgs Boson. His calculations predicted exactly what its properties are and what its mass is. But as hard as everyone looked, it could not be found. Because this particle was deemed very important as it provided the mass of everything there is, but was so elusive a physicist with a sense of humor called it the “God Particle” as God is also very important and likewise elusive. No one, even Peter Higgs, likes the name. It is too sensationalistic said Peter. On July 4, 2012 a particle was identified at Cern that met all the criteria to be that boson. Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, a co-worker, were awarded the Nobel prize in 2013. Unfortunately, Francois could not bask in the glory as he died in 2011. He is one of the very few in the entire history of the Nobel Prize who ever got it posthumously. So the Higgs Boson is in no sense god-like or holy or anything miraculous. It was just a joke, that in retrospect missed its target audience.
Very few physicists are believers in God. But theists (believers in God) love to claim that the smartest of all physicists, Albert Einstein, was indeed a believer. The statement that Einstein made which gives them that impression is: “God does not play dice with the Universe!” Einstein believed the universe was stable and constant, and what he meant by that statement was that the Universe has a set of rules by which it runs and randomness does not play a role. Einstein was, in fact, not a believer. In 1954, a year before his death, he penned a letter to a friend on that very subject: “I do not believe in a personal God… the word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.” Not exactly the words of a devout theist. Einstein believed that the Universe was static, although his calculations said the reverse. He created a constant (the cosmologic constant which he denoted with the Greek letter lambda (λ) which gave him his desired answer. A constant is a mathematical technique whereby a particular calculated result can be modified by inserting it in the calculation which changes the original results to the answer that one thinks it should be. When he was finally convinced that the Universe was not static, but expanding, by Georges Lemaitre, an astronomer, and professor of physics and curiously also a Catholic priest, Einstein called his Cosmologic Constant the “biggest blunder of my career”. Interestingly, the more recent view of that “biggest blunder” is that it is in fact the explanation for the existence of Dark Energy. The universe should be contracting according to his calculations. He had to use the λ to explain why the universe was not contracting, as his calculations predicted. But you also need the λ (with a slightly different value) to explain why the universe is expanding, which it actually has been shown to be doing at an ever accelerating pace, and that inflation is caused by all that Dark Energy strewn about our universe. It appears that Einstein was actually right after all. However, his statement about “God not playing dice” is not backed by what is, in fact, observed and may be his actual biggest blunder. Randomness, uncertainty, and chance run deeply in the fabric of our Universe. It was another theoretical physicist that pointed that out.
Werner Heisenberg, also a Nobel Prize winner, came up with the idea that Absolute Causation of an event cannot be determined with precise certainty, as not all the variables can be elucidated precisely at the same time. His now famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that if the uncertainty of one variable diminishes, the uncertainty of the other variable must increase reciprocally. We can measure the speed of an electron but we cannot know where it is at the same moment, conversely we can determine the location of that electron, but we cannot determine its speed. Outside the world of the quantum, our life is likewise filled with random events, chance happenings resulting in unpredictability, from accidents, finding your soul mate, and even cancer. For instance, you are leaving home 30 seconds later than anticipated because your coffee was too hot to gulp down, which leads you getting to an intersection just as the light changes to yellow and a car coming from the side street, trying to make the light, hits you broadside. You arrive at the ER to meet a kind nurse, just your type, who befriends you and ten years later you share a home and four children with her. Unfortunately, you have a chromosome you inherited from your great-grandfather that makes you susceptible to lung cancer. This chromosome is further weakened by the chemicals in cigarette smoke to which you are constantly exposed because your spouse was hooked on Camels in high school. And then the final straw, a stray burst of radiation from a sun flair hits that susceptible chromosome just in the right spot to change its action to now direct that cell to divide and divide and divide again, passing this dividing trait to all the cells that came from the mother cell. This grows into a tumor that, just by chance, is resistant to all chemotherapy. Furthermore, all this occurs just as you happen to buy the winning lottery ticket at the local 7-11 which makes you a billionaire. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle does not only apply to wave and quantum particle behavior. Of course one could just as well explain it all by accepting my theory, namely that God has a warped sense of humor. Neither God nor Heisenberg should get all the credit as fractals, self-similar repeating patterns, play a huge role in chance events such as, for example, the weather. Small seemingly insignificant events can and sometimes do lead to enormous consequences. A butterfly beating its wings in China sometimes starts a hurricane in Nebraska. As so well put by Einstein: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” So perhaps Albert realized later in life that God does indeed play dice with everything.
As Quantum Physics is gathering more and more evidence of its veracity it still does not explain everything. They are still looking for that elusive “Theory of Everything” (TOE).
Symmetry and Supersymmetry (SUSY) are efforts to create that theory. In that world every fermion has a boson superpartner. That explains away a lot of questions mathematically. To date however none of those other particles have been discovered. Supersymmetry may be just a clever mathematical ploy which has tricked the majority of physicists into waste their careers over the past few decades. Or Supersymmetry is reality and that doubles the number of elementary particles. They just need to get busy at Cern and find them.
String Theory is another one of those attempts at TOE. Everything is made of vibrating strings and what makes the particles and forces appear and act differently depends on just how the string vibrates. Fermions, bosons, and energy are all made up from strings just vibrating to a different tune. Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” String Theory tries to do that. It wraps up all the known forces with all the known particles and voila it explains almost everything. There are a few new problems however, such as multiple universes and a few extra dimensions are thrown in that no one has yet seen. Furthermore, String Theory did not predict Dark Energy, in fact it precluded it. Yet Dark Energy does exist beyond the dark shadow of doubt, despite the vibrating strings, a real problem for the little quivering strands. Its not so simple any more.
String Theory may be another one of those mathematical sleight of numbers that is pure fiction and also has wasted countless hours for the world’s smartest people with useless calculations. On the other hand, it might be true, or at least some of it might be true.
In 1898 the government actually contemplated closing down the US Patent Office because: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Now we know the truth: we don’t know the half of it. In fact we don’t know whole fields of knowledge that we don’t know exist and still need to be discovered. But we do know the Higgs Boson is not the God Particle.
Gösta Iwasiuk is the author of three books – Tales of a Country Surgeon (memoir), The Jesus Gene (commentary on genetics and religion) and Vladimir’s Visions (a coffee table book featuring the artwork of Vladimir Iwasiuk).