The ‘God’ particle

The possible discovery of the Higgs boson has been a big news recently. But what difference does it make to your life? And why is it called the ‘God particle’? First, consider the name ‘God particle’. Every salesman knows that names are important for they influence people’s expectations. Naming it ‘God particle’ arouses popular interest. Clearly, the excitement is about God, not so much the particle. Some scientists have objected halfheartedly to linking God with the particle. But it is irrelevant what Higgs or a handful of scientists believe in this matter. The real political issue is what billions of people have been led to believe by the media hype accompanying the possible discovery of the particle.

The stark fact is that the present education system ensures that those billions of people are kept scientifically illiterate. They confound science with implicit trust in scientists. They do not understand the scientific significance of the discovery which will certainly not affect their lives as much as the next iPad or the mobile tower next door. But they have been led to believe that science has somehow established the truth about God.

Are scientists worthy of such implicit trust? Philosophically, such trust is contrary to the spirit of science. Certainly, scientists are not infallible, and a team from the same CERN recently made a silly mistake about faster-than-light neutrinos. Nevertheless, today, that trust in scientists is demanded. Even scientists cannot easily question CERN’s results, because it is not like scientific experiments of olden days which were performed by hand and could be easily repeated. The CERN experiment involves billions of dollars which would have to be raised to repeat it. Raising those funds would not be easy, especially since funding agencies decide the validity of science by peer review and the thousands of influential scientists who got a livelihood and limelight from the CERN experiment would be a large hostile group of peers. That big money may compromise scientific objectivity has been repeatedly demonstrated in the case of pharmaceuticals; why should physicists be any different?

This situation where billions of people implicitly trust a few scientists provides a splendid propaganda opportunity which the church has sought to exploit. People may reject church views about God, but they are receptive to the same views coming from scientists, for scientists are more credible. Long ago, Europeans believed in the unity of science and religion: they thought that the Bible was the word of God while nature was the work of God. However, in the 19th century, and into the first half of the 20th century, it came to be believed that science is at war with religion. Damaged by this perception, in the last 50 years, the church has worked to remarry science and religion by claiming that science has proved the truth of Christianity. Many academics are willing to play ball, because the church still retains significant control of Western universities, which it started and controlled for centuries. While scientists like Stephen Hawking have supported Christian beliefs in subtle ways, others like F J Tipler have bluntly proclaimed that Hawking’s work has shown that Christian theology is a branch of physics. All this has been described in detail in my book
The Eleven Pictures of Time.

Creation, or the beginning of time, is a central issue in this latest attempt to fuse science and religion.  Now, the notion of creation in the Bible involved seven days. God rested on the seventh day, and it is to perpetuate that Christian belief that most countries [with a few exceptions like Iran] declare Sunday as a holiday. More recently, the church somehow made creation in seven days compatible with the belief in instantaneous creation. This latter belief has been championed as both the scientific and the Christian belief. Unfortunately, today, most people, including scientists and the CERN web site, confound instantaneous creation with the big bang.

However, the big bang need not be a moment of creation, although Hawking tried to link the two with his theory of singularities, which involves a wrong understanding of the infinities of the calculus. It is during the extremely high-energy processes of the big bang that the Higgs particle, if it exists, plays a key role. These high-energy processes are studied using quantum field theory. The bad Western understanding of the calculus leads to a problem of infinities also in quantum field theory. That is called the renormalisation problem. The ‘standard model’ uses symmetries to resolve the problem. However, with those symmetries,  particles end up with zero mass. The Higgs mechanism, also called spontaneous symmetry breaking, provides mass to particles. Hence, the name ‘God particle’ for its supposed role in creation.

Note that different religions have different beliefs about creation. Thus, on the Islamic view, Allah needs no rest, so creation is a continuing process. That is, the big bang need not be a unique moment of creation. Similarly, on the Hindu belief the cosmos goes through repeated cycles. Each cycle begins with a dense state of matter called hiranyagarbha. On this view, the big bang is only a dense state of the cosmos, not creation or a true beginning of time. On the Buddhist view, the cosmos is uncreated. In short, God’s particle is not Allah’s or Brahma’s particle. Had anyone dared report this as the discovery of the Allah particle, he would have been immediately branded a fanatic and unscientific right winger. That is, the slanted reporting of the event as discovery of the ‘God particle’ clearly suggests to the layperson, without actually saying so, that science has validated the Christian notion of God and creation, and invalidated all other religious beliefs. Among the billions, at least a few per cent are likely to fall victims to this suggestion, and to mistake it for the truth.

In a democratic context, altering the beliefs of a few per cent has marked political significance. After the Cold War, the US military strategist Huntington advocated that the US should establish hegemony over the world by waging a religious war  against all non-Christians. That this strategy has indeed been adopted is apparent from the  widespread American hysteria about Muslims, for which  9/11 certainly cannot be the entire cause. So, this slanted reporting of a scientific event could well impact world politics, and was perhaps engineered for that purpose. Otherwise, the possible discovery of the Higgs boson will change absolutely nothing in your life, in the foreseeable future.

C K Raju is professor of mathematics at the University of Science, Malaysia.
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