March 27, 2008 | 10:58 am
Posted by Brad A. Greenberg
Now I don’t believe science will prove God doesn’t exist, but the Higgs boson is a hypothetical particle that would help explain how massless elementary particles create matter. Dubbed the “God particle,” scientists have been clamoring to discover it for the past few years.
“The Higgs boson is interesting because it is the only reasonable explanation we have for the origin of mass,” says Dave Rainwater, a researcher at FermiLab. “Without the Higgs, all fundamental particles would be massless, and the universe would be very different. The weak nuclear forces wouldn’t be weak at all, for instance, so the elemental composition of the cosmos would be radically different, stars would shine differently, and we probably wouldn’t exist.”
The best experimental data on the Higgs boson so far comes from experiments done with the LEP collider at CERN, near Geneva, in 2000. Results indicated that the Higgs particle was too heavy to be detected by the collider and that it probably had a mass of 114 billion electron-volts (GeV). The Tevatron is expected to be able to spot the Higgs in a couple of years, if it is not heavier than 170 GeV to 180 GeV.
If all else fails, the Large Hadron Collider being built at CERN, scheduled to go online in 2007, is designed to guarantee discovery of the Higgs. With a 27-kilometer-circumference tunnel, the LHC will collide protons at seven times the energy levels of the Tevatron.
And the payoff for whoever discovers the Higgs boson? Nothing less than a Nobel Prize. “Its discovery would be one of the crowning achievements of modern science, and validate decades of intense research,” says John Conway, a professor at Rutgers University.
“We believe that the Higgs is the key to unlocking the mystery of the elementary particles: the quarks and the leptons. The standard model does not give us the answers to many questions: Why are there three ‘generations’ of matter particles? Why do they have the masses and electric charges that they do? The Higgs is believed to be related to the mechanism by which the matter particles get their mass, but there is no good theory yet as to why different particles have different masses.”
In other words, scientists believe the Higgs holds the key to our existence and the answer to God’s too. In anticipation of the Large Hadron Collider experiment, which did not occur last year but is planned for this summer, Newsweek spoke with theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, who has a skeptical view of the need for religion but assures that the discovery of the Higgs will not bring an end to faith.
After this experiment, will we have a final theory of how the universe was created?
It is possible that this experiment will give theoretical physicists a brilliant new idea that will explain all the particles and all the forces that we know and bring everything together in a beautiful mathematically consistent theory. But it is very unlikely that a final theory will come just from this experiment. If had to bet, I would bet it won’t be that easy.
As we come closer to developing an ultimate theory of the universe, how will this impact religion?
As science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations. Originally, in the history of human beings, everything was mysterious. Fire, rain, birth, death, all seemed to require the action of some kind of divine being. As time has passed, we have explained more and more in a purely naturalistic way. This doesn’t contradict religion, but it does takes away one of the original motivations for religion.
You’ve said that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was the biggest step in this direction. What about the possible findings in particle physics?
I don’t think that discoveries in elementary particle physics in themselves are likely to have anything like the impact of Darwin’s theory. After all, I don’t know of any religious people who say that the breaking of the symmetry between the weak and the electromagnetic interactions requires divine intervention. Discovering the Higgs boson, confirming the theory of electroweak symmetry breaking, is not going to upset people’s religion.
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