“The universe is not the result of chance, as some would want to make us believe.” — Pope Benedict XVI
[Last month on 13.7 Billion Years, the “Deep Space” series looked into the expanse of the universe beyond the limits of our solar system. Such investigations often end with the types of questions that puzzle not only scientists, but also philosophers and religious and spiritual thinkers. How did we get here? How did it all begin? And what was here before the beginning? For the month of August, the series “Physicists & Priests” considers the complex and often contentious relationship between science and religion.]
August 2, 2011 (New York) — “While the Pope has spoken before about evolution,” notes Philip Pullella, in a Reuters article about the pontiff’s surprising declaration on creation, “he has rarely delved back in time to discuss specific concepts such as the Big Bang, which scientists believe led to the formation of the universe some 13.7 billion years ago.”
Pope Benedict was addressing about 10,000 people during a St. Peter’s Basilica sermon on January 6, the day of the Epiphany, a Christian feast day commemorating the day that the Bible says the three Magi met the infant Jesus and recognized him as the king of the Jews and the son of God.
“Contemplating it (the universe) we are invited to read something profound into it: the wisdom of the creator, the inexhaustible creativity of God,” the Pope said.
So what does the broad papal statement mean to the physicists at the CERN nuclear lab in Geneva, the site of the Large Hadron Collider? Probably little. According to the 1998 study “Leading Scientists Still Reject God,” published in the journal Nature, a mere 7.5% of physicists and astronomers polled believed in “a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind.”
But they do believe in science experiments. And with a $9 billion price tag, the LHC is the world’s most expensive science experiment. It’s also humanity’s greatest hope for finding the elusive Higgs boson, a.k.a. “the God Particle,” a hypothetical elementary particle that scientists believe holds the key to understanding how mass was created in the moments immediately following the Big Bang.
The hypothesized existence of the Higgs is one of science’s great mysteries, certainly the greatest as far as particle physics is concerned. It is the only particle in the Standard Model that has not been observed. Like the “God” after which it gets its sobriquet, the Higgs’ existence has yet to be proven. As such, God and “the God particle” share one fundamental property: They are both articles of faith. And in this case, the religious faithful and the scientific faithful are poking around the same haystack.
Who knows, perhaps God and “the God particle” will end up being one and the same. After all, the Pope and the particle physicists are each seeking a “god,” of sorts. Could they ever come together, and perhaps more to the point, might one or both ever come to need the other?
On the user-generated news site Reddit, “geekdad” submitted the following meme (edited here for clarity) that may be instructive:
A Higgs boson walks into a church. The priest says, “We don’t allow Higgs bosons in here.” The Higgs boson replies, “But without me, how can you have mass?”