The Higgs boson discovery is illuminating, but all conclusions are premature, an Israeli physicist says
They call it “the God particle,” perhaps with good reason. According to Bar-Ilan University Professor Natan Aviezer, the discovery of the Higgs boson – announced last week by scientists at CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research) — “confirms the Big Bang theory, the accepted theory of modern cosmology. That theory is akin to the story of the creation of the world in Genesis, proving if not the existence of God, then the veracity of the Torah’s account of creation.”
That is, if it was indeed the Higgs boson that was discovered, said Hebrew University Professor Eliezer Rabinovici.
Scientists are not considered a particularly religious bunch. In a recent article, Weizmann Institute physics Professor Eilam Gross wrote that he “always wondered how there were, among the physicists I knew, at least several who wore kippot,” indicating that they were Orthodox Jews. The two fields — science (physics in particular) and faith in God — just didn’t seem to go together.
And yet, for Gross, faith in a higher power is not obviated by an acceptance of the principles of physics, for, as he has written, he can relate to the idea of God as a creator, even if he is reluctant to accept that idea himself. Albert Einstein, who, while not a practicing Jew in any way, once wrote that for scientists, “religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an Intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”
There’s good reason for scientists to believe, if not in God, then at least in the Biblical account of how the universe was created, Aviezer, currently a professor of physics and former chairman of the Physics Department of Bar-Ilan University told The Times of Israel. The story of the Big Bang and the story of Genesis have some striking parallels. “The Bible says that the first act of creation was the production by God of light ex nihilo, when he said ‘Let there be light.’ From that light, created on the first day, were formed the planets, stars, and other features of the universe.
“In the same way, the Big Bang exploded from the ‘primordial lightbulb,’ a primeval fireball that existed right before the Big Bang. Evidence for the existence of the fireball was discovered in 1965 by two American scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, winning them the Nobel prize in physics in 1978,” said Aviezer. Accepted scientific theory points to the existence of a very hot and dense area of energy — perhaps as small as an atom — that exploded with such force that the universe, made up of the matter in that dense atom, is still expanding.
Where did that atom come from? That, for many scientists, is the question – and according to Aviezer, the answer for many is God, or at least some non-material power. In his book, called “In the Beginning,” Aviezer quotes a wide range of scientists (“and I make sure never to quote religious scientists,” he added) who express this belief.
According to Paul Dirac, a Nobel laureate from Cambridge University and a leading physicist of the twentieth century, “It seems certain that there was a definite time of creation.” Prof. Joseph Silk of the University of California began a recent book on modern cosmology, “The Big Bang,” with the words, “The big bang is the modern version of the creation of the universe.” And no less a personage than Cambridge University cosmologist Prof. Steven Hawking wrote that “the actual point of creation lies outside the scope of presently known laws of physics.”
The existence of the Higgs boson had to be proven in order to prove the validity of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which describes the structure of matter in the universe. The search for the boson, which provides the basic material for the development of matter, took place at the Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border. The LHC experiments were designed to duplicate the universe at the time of the Big Bang, since according to theories, the Higgs boson must have resulted from that event. Now that it has been discovered, the validity of the Big Bang theory has been confirmed.
Although it had not been previously observed, scientists knew what they were looking for, said Rabinovici of Hebrew University. But the Higgs boson story isn’t quite finished, he said — and it’s too early to draw either theological or solid scientific conclusions from the discovery.
Rabinovici is Israel’s representative to the governing CERN council and director of the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies at Hebrew University, and has been intimately involved in the search for the Higgs boson for decades. “I recommend that every particle hire the PR people who came up with the name ‘God particle’ for the Higgs boson,” Rabinovici joked. “That name has done more for its reputation than its science ever could. In truth, if you believe in God, they’re all ‘God particles,’ since He created them all, and if you don’t believe in God, the name is meaningless.”
The Higgs boson looks like what scientists have been searching for since 1964, when British physicist Peter Higgs theorized that elementary particles gained mass by interacting with a special quantum field that permeates space (the Higgs field), and leads to the development of quarks and electrons, the elementary particles of matter. But CERN’s recent discovery, made possible only by the LHC’s atom-smashing power — it’s seven times more powerful than any previous collider, according to Rabinovici — could still turn out to be something else entirely.
“According to theories, for example, the Higgs boson must have a ‘spin’ of zero,” he said, referring to photon decay. “They are still working on that aspect of the experiments. We should know for sure in a few months.” While the discovery “looks, acts, and is in the right place consistent with what scientists have been expecting, a ‘feinshmecker’ (Yiddish for perfectionist) might even dispute that what was discovered was the Higgs boson.”
All of which means, said Rabinovici, that proper scientific method requires that judgments on exactly what the discovery means be suspended for the time being. “We can only go by what we know today. Tomorrow there could be more news that will take this in a whole other direction. A hundred years from now, we may be saying something completely different about this discovery.”
To those tempted to draw conclusions for any purpose — such as evidence for the Big Bang Theory, the story of Genesis, or anything else — Rabinovici advocated patience. “It’s not a watershed discovery yet, but it could be one day, in all sorts of ways.”