A Higgs Boson by Any Other Name

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A Higgs Boson by Any Other Name

By | 2016-02-24T21:42:01+00:00 December 14, 2011|Philosophy, Science|

While in many ways physics is all about the numbers, you can’t underestimate the value of a good name. One academic tiff gone awry and you’ve got generations of math students annoyed that they have to learn about the key to describing oscillations (since they’re just imaginary numbers anyway). One poorly specified word and generations of people are using a deterministic and constrained physical theory to justify their anything-goes worldview (since even physics is all relative now). In general, it’s safer when physicists stick with last names instead of making up new words or new definitions for old ones. We had a pretty good one there with the “Higgs boson,” named for two solid contributors to the physics community (Higgs and Bose). Sure, most people will be absolutely confused when someone announces that they have narrowed the range of possible Higgs boson masses to a small window around a possible signal near 125 GeV, as the physicists from the two main experiments running at the Large Hadron Collider did yesterday. But it’s better than having them draw their own faulty conclusions based a misused word.

Unfortunately things aren’t that simple with the Higgs boson. Back in the early ’90s, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Leon Lederman, published a book entitled The God Particle about the Higgs boson, and the name has stuck with the media, despite being universally hated by just about anybody who cares about God or particles or both. Sadly, it seems that many people think physicists really believe there’s something divine about this particle, and that’s the reason the scientific community is so excited about the prospect of finding it.

I don’t think any physicist, even Lederman, has actually claimed that the Higgs boson is God, but something special about it must suggest the connection, right? It is the last particle of the Standard Model of particle physics that hasn’t been directly observed, but that doesn’t mean that if it’s found particle physicists can close up shop and call it a day. It would just be a stepping stone to the higher-energy physics that we know must underlie the Standard Model to solve its inherent problems. That might suggest a connection to some minor Greek deity, but God? That’s quite a stretch. There’s got to be some other reason particle physicists are so interested in this particle. In fact there is.

When physicists normally talk about a vacuum, they mean a space that has nothing in it: no atoms, no electrons, no nothing. But even in a vacuum there will always be some residual energy associated with the Higgs field. That means that almost everything is constantly interacting with the residual energy of the Higgs field. Without the Higgs field, all the particles that make up the everyday stuff of life would be massless, which we know can’t be true. With the Higgs field it’s like most of the particles we know about are constantly wading through a waist-high pool of water, which causes them to behave exactly as if they have the masses we measure them to have. Even though it’s just one last piece of this particular puzzle, it is intimately connected to all of the other pieces. So the Higgs field is a sort of substrate that, when interacting with massless particles, makes those massless particles into the massive particles we usually see.

So the best reason I can see for calling the Higgs particle the “God particle” is that it’s a sort of material substrate that’s somehow everywhere and involved in almost everything. Thinking that’s God is a lot more pantheistic than most people would, and should, be comfortable with. Calling God a particle, or even just associating this particular particle with God in some way, is a pretty foolish and stupid thing to do. The blatant attempt to draw attention to an otherwise abstruse and technical physics question by referencing religion makes this a lock for the worst name for a physics concept yet. Only one question really remains: Is this the stupidest thing anyone’s ever said about God?

Any good Thomist knows that when it comes to saying stupid things about God, one man stands head and shoulders above the rest. St. Thomas himself, the cool, collected scholastic, repeatedly singled out the otherwise-unknown David of Dinant who stultissime, most foolishly, asserted that God was prime matter.

Prime matter is the underlying material principle of material things that persists through any substantial change. When a tree is alive it will grow and flower and create seeds, but when it is cut down, it is simply wood that will not continue to grow or reproduce. A substantial change has occurred from the living tree to the dead wood, but they are not completely unrelated. The tree did not completely stop existing, after which something else, wood, appeared in its place. Something persisted through the substantial change, and that something is prime matter. The prime matter didn’t add anything woody to the wood or make the tree more like a tree; it is simply the principle by which these material things are material. So prime matter is a sort of substrate that, when combined with the form of a thing, makes that form into the particular material thing we always see.

Now prime matter can’t exist on its own, but is part of every material thing. It is pure potentiality. It could, in principle, become any material thing. But God has no potentiality, he already is perfect. Saying God is prime matter, that He is the material principle of all things and could potentially become anything, is almost the exact opposite of what we know Him to be.

Turning back to the “God particle” business, the Higgs is clearly not prime matter. By definition it can exist independently of other things and has definite properties. If further data confirm the initial observations of the physicists at the LHC, we will have direct evidence of that existence and those properties soon. Further, while it is, in a sense, a substrate that interacts with most of the material things we deal with, its very interactions give measurable effects (unlike prime matter). Nevertheless, the contemporary attempt to posit an essential relation between God and some ubiquitous material principle is supremely misguided, and far from original. So while David of Dinant is not off the hot seat as having stultissime said the stupidest thing ever about God, those pushing the “God particle” line are running about as close as you can get.

Image: Frank Hommes, Large Hadron Collider

About this Brother:

Br. Thomas Davenport, O.P.
Br. Thomas Davenport was born in Mt. Clemens, MI, the son of an Army officer, and moved a number of times with his parents and older brother while growing up. Eventually he graduated from high school in northern Virginia, where his parents still live and attend Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. He studied physics at the California Institute of Technology and went on to earn a PhD in physics from Stanford University. On DominicanFriars.org