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Your God could be smaller

07 September 2011

The Higgs boson can help humans grasp their place in the universe, argues Nicholas Turner

REPORTS over the summer an­nounced that the first possible evidence may have been found for the Higgs boson (the so-called “God Particle”), by scientists working with the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN laboratories in Geneva, (News, 12 September 2008).

News from the international con­ference on particle physics in Mumbai last month took up the idea that “the elusive Higgs boson, if it exists, is running out of places to hide.” The director of CERN, Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer, is quoted as saying: “We will have answered the Higgs’s Shakespeare question — to be or not to be — by the end of next year.”

All this is good news: not merely because (if it exists) this little boson gives weight (literally, in popular parlance) to the universe, but because it may help to rebalance the prevailing image of that universe and our place within it.

What is so special about the Higgs boson is that it is the last elementary particle in the standard model of physics that has not yet been observed; until then, it is only a hypothesis devised in order to explain how elementary particles gain mass.

A proper measure of humankind matters to Christians because, with­out such a measure, the truths of the gospel can be neither received nor understood. I would suggest that we have, generally, allowed ourselves to fall victim to a distorted vision of our place in the universe. If the Higgs boson can help us swing the pendulum the other way, by its focus on the very small, then we should warmly welcome the current discoveries and discussion.

The standard picture goes something like this (and forgive me if I sound didactic, but it is the easiest way to summarise). In past centuries, when human beings believed in God, the universe was a small place with the Earth at its centre, and humankind was the pinnacle of creation. Now, with the insights of science, it is very much bigger, and we find that we have been pushed to its edge.

The Earth is not the centre of the solar system; the solar system is not the centre even of its own galaxy; and so on. With each loss of significance, the distances increase exponentially, until we can no longer even conceive the scale of our own infinitesimal irrelevance.

WHY has this shared picture taken such a hold on us? Probably because we can see the stars, and so imaginatively sense what the universe might be like; also because we can visualise distance fairly easily. Sadly, we do not tend to have the same imaginative grasp of the very small.

If we are to maintain a proper measure of humankind, it is crucial that we do not measure in only one direction. The scales move in both directions, to the very large and to the very small, albeit in a relation more subtle than simple linear distance.

However you draw the picture in your mind, however you struggle with unimaginable numbers, the import­ant thing is to place yourself at the centre, and not at one end. Hard as it is to conceive, the unimaginable num­bers extend equally in both directions.

If, therefore, we are daunted by the vastness of the cosmos, there is real advantage in spending a little time reflecting on the equally unima­ginable world of sub-atomic, element­ary particles. Take the impossible and the infinite in both directions, and we can maintain our own scale with integrity in the centre.

A popular suggestion of the 1950s was that an atom with its nucleus and orbiting electrons was essentially the same structure, on a different scale, as the solar system. That picture has lost popularity. We have different ones.

My current favourite is the notion that within a single, healthy, adult brain there are more connections than there are physical particles in the entire universe. There may be a confusion of categories, but such a simple picture challenges the dom­inance of the vastness-of-interstellar-space model.

SIZE, distance, and measurement are all, as Einstein taught us, relative. You and I will never gain an absolute sense of these things, for we are not God. But God, so we affirm, became hu­man. So, when we say that human­kind is the measure of things, we do not mean ourselves (as though somehow we had a privileged status in the universe), but the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things were created.

In his human person, he reveals, as God, the measure of creation. God became human not to talk to us about God, but to reveal in himself the true nature of God. Jesus is God present within the universe. When imagining the universe, imagine Jesus as God, and humankind at the centre, and move out from there.

The idea is not fanciful make-believe, but a way of keeping hold of a proper scale of things. After all, the actual size of these things (Higgs bosons or galaxies) is not the im­portant issue, but their relationship one to another.

Once we are happily assured of our place in the imaginative centre — what scientists call the anthropic principle — with the scale moving in both directions from us, we can jettison the problem of imagination altogether, and begin to enjoy the science and mathematics.

Canon Nicholas Turner is Rector of Broughton, Marton, and Thornton, in the diocese of Bradford. Previously, he was tutor in philosophy at St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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