Subatomic Sublimity!

January 9th, 2012

Last month researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) electrified not only their colleagues but also much of the world by reporting that their experiments have yielded “tantalizing hints” of the hypothetical Higgs boson. Cosmologists call the Higgs boson the “Holy Grail” of their discipline.

Achieving this Grail quest would confirm the existence of “the Higgs field” (named after Peter Higgs, the physicist who proposed it in 1964). Scientists hypothesize that, as the early universe cooled, massless particles passed through the Higgs field, acquiring mass and taking on shape. As BBC Newsnight put it, the Higgs field explains “why there’s something rather than nothing.” For this reason some journalists have called the Higgs boson “the God particle.”

To hunt for the Higgs, CERN uses the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a seventeen-mile circular tunnel beneath the Swiss Alps, to recreate Big Bang conditions. The LHC smashes protons into one another at near light-speed. The Higgs boson should be found amidst those crashes’ subatomic debris. Experts now know how to refine the search. Many expect the particle will found by next fall. In one researcher’s words, “[W]e are on the verge of a major change in our understanding of the fundamental nature of matter.”

In the God Particle We Trust?

Scientists don’t call the Higgs “the God particle.” CERN draws no theological implications from its research: Its task is simply to investigate the universe as it is. All the same, one CERN physicist and spokesman says: “Of course it has nothing to do with God whatsoever. But I can understand why people go that way because the Higgs is so important to our understanding of nature.”

Christians contend we can’t fully understand nature apart from God. The Book of Psalms says: “The earth is the LORD’S, and everything in it” (24:1a). The Higgs field has something to do with God because, if it exists, it is a mechanism God wove into the world’s fabric by divine wisdom.

The search for the Higgs illustrates the important role of science in appreciating God’s handiwork. Because God commands us to care for the created order and encourages us to take delight in it, Christians can and must learn all we can about it. At the same time, we can’t mistake any “God particle” for God. No model of how the universe became what it is today can tell us why it did so nor where it’s ultimately headed. Whatever the means by which “nothing” became “something,” the world is God’s expression of creative love, which God nourishes and will one day renew in glory.

Science and Faith

Theologian Alister McGrath writes: “The reason why the Higgs boson is taken so seriously in science is not because its existence has been proved, but because . . . its power to explain is seen as an indicator of its truth. There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God . . . [T]he existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world. God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus.”

Some of the youth you serve may enjoy science and may be considering science-related careers. Others may wonder why science news is important and what, if anything, scientific inquiry has to do with Christian faith.

Regardless of your level of science education, you can encourage youth to view science as a valuable vocation for people of faith. You can affirm the desire to take a scientific interest in the world around us, and you can assure youth that no scientific truth can threaten the truth of God’s power and love, known most fully in Jesus Christ. The Higgs boson may reveal how matter takes on mass but, in Christ, God reveals why everything matters.

This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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