God particle
A computer generated image shows real CMS proton-proton collision events in which 4 high energy electrons (green lines and red towers) are observed. Newscom

The apparent discovery of a new subatomic particle could provide a key to scientifically explaining the universe’s hidden structure, while also giving clues about its creator. 

Jesuit Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, an American astronomy researcher and spokesman at the Vatican Observatory, told Our Sunday Visitor that the new particle, called the Higgs boson, could theoretically explain why there is mass in the universe, though he cautioned that more scientific experimenting is needed. 

Meanwhile, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, a trained physicist, theologian and a current U.S. adviser to the international lay movement Communion and Liberation, told OSV that the apparent discovery will prove to be significant even if later findings force scientists to rethink their understanding of the universe. 

“Such is the adventure of good scientific research,” Msgr. Albacete said. 

A correct prediction

On July 3, physicists affiliated with the European Organization for Nuclear Research Laboratory, known as CERN, in Geneva announced that they were almost 100 percent certain that they had discovered a subatomic particle with properties that closely resembled the particle predicted by the Standard Model, the working theory that describes the building blocks of the universe. 

The physicists reached their conclusion after analyzing results from the Large Hadron Collider, a large particle accelerator that collides protons, partly recreating the conditions that would have immediately followed the Big Bang, the prevailing scientific theory of how the universe began.  

It has been a scientific mystery as to why some elementary particles have mass while others — such as photons that make up light — lack it completely.  

The Standard Model proposes the existence of an invisible energy field called the Higgs field, named after a British researcher, that imbues particles with mass as they cross through it.   

One useful analogy could be that of a legislative bill becoming weighed down with various amendments and riders as it winds its way through Congress.  

Consolmagno
Jesuit Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, an American astronomy researcher and spokesman at the Vatican Observatory.

It is the Higgs field, physicists believe, that enabled the universe to form as particles raced through it after the Big Bang.   

Without a Higgs field or something like it, particles would theoretically shoot around space and never attain the mass needed to form the universe. If that sounds like abstract theory, it is.  

Though the Standard Model so far seems to have checked out — 11 other particles predicted by the model have been found — scientists have not ruled out the possibility that the recent apparent discovery could lead to breakthroughs that could force them to rethink their theory.  

“There’s still a lot of work to be done before we can say with any certainty that we understand how nature behaves at these extreme situations of very small sizes, very large energies,” said Brother Consolmagno.  

Stephen M. Barr, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of Delaware, told OSV that the Standard Model — which was first proposed in the 1960s — has passed many precise experimental tests and successfully describes all known non-gravitational phenomena.  

“So, the discovery of the Higgs boson just confirms what we already were fairly sure was true,” Barr said.  

Catholic interpretation

Putting aside for a moment the abstract yet highly technical scientific theory, what could the discovery of the Higgs boson mean for a Catholic theological understanding of God’s creation? Some Catholic observers caution about giving the particle too much theological importance. 

“The Catholic faith in creation is not about what happened at the Big Bang, but about what is happening now as we are created out of nothing every moment of our lives,” Msgr. Albacete said.  

“The Higgs particle has absolutely no theological or philosophical significance,” Barr told OSV. “It is one thing to ask how the universe is structured and how it operates. It is altogether different to ask why there is a universe at all. Why is the universe a real universe, as opposed to a fictitious, or hypothetical or merely possible universe? That is the question that the doctrine of creation answers.”  

Barr continued, “God creates in the sense that he causes the universe to have a ‘being,’ that is, he makes it real. Physics has nothing to say about this.”  

Michael Hanby, an assistant professor of biotechnology and culture at the Washington, D.C.-based Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, told OSV that creation, properly understood, differs from how it is constructed.  

“In other words, the act and doctrine of creation belong to different orders of causality and explanation than natural processes and theories,” said Hanby, adding that one risks confusing creation with design or manufacture and reducing God to a finite object.  

“That is a perennial problem in so-called dialogue between science and religion and in the culture more generally. Theology and science do bear on each other, but in a different and much more subtle way,” Hanby said. 

‘The God particle’

The conflation of the Higgs boson with theology is due in part to a book titled “The God Particle,” a 1993 science book co-written by Nobel-prize winning physicist Leon Lederman.  

Lederman explained that he described the particle in that manner because it is “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive.”  

However, many physicists bemoaned the “God particle” label. Lederman later said he actually wanted to call the particle a different name — a moniker that would have taken the Lord’s name in vain.  

“Apparently [scientists] dislike [the “God Particle” name] because they do not want their science sullied by religious connotations,” Hanby said.   

“I don’t blame them for that,” he added, “given science’s metaphysical presuppositions, though I think it is impossible to avoid religious connotations and that science is shot through with them. Rather my concern is that the name can lead one to confuse creation with manufacture and thus to a reductive view of God.”  

Meanwhile, Msgr. Albacete said that the discovery of a new elementary particle throws light on the mysterious “beginning” that has always intrigued and challenged the human heart and mind.  

“Today, we follow science as it seeks to expand our knowledge of the answer to the question about the beginning. If researched humbly and tested adequately, there is no reason why the different answers understood correctly cannot help us deepen our knowledge of the mystery that surrounds us,” he said.  

Brother Consolmagno added that God reveals himself in the things he has made.  

“What we see at every level of nature, as revealed by science, is that God works with elegance and beauty in a way that human reason is privileged to be able to follow. But that universe, like its creator, is inexhaustible. It’s also a delight for us to play in, in that kind of ‘play’ we call science,” he said. “Science is God engaging with us in the best kind of game.”   

Brian Fraga writes from Texas.