So they finally proved its existence. As far back as I can remember particle physicists were searching for this elusive particle, and on July 4 they announced its discovery beyond a any doubt – the chance that the evidence is due to random fluctuations is 1 in 3.5 million – or as they put it, “5 sigma” (what we biologists call 5 standard deviations).

Whenever I read the names of the subatomic particles I lapse into daydreaming. “Upper Quark” and “Lower Quark” provoke images of a alien society, highly structured with upper and lower class warriors. “Gluons”, that gooey green mass flowing slowly and engulfing everything in its way. The “Charm” and “Strange” particles never fail to suggest a wonderful world of wizards and fairies, and “bosons” and “muons” somehow have a zoological ring to them. Do bisons moo, like cows?

The Standard Model of elementary particles

 

Why don’t biologists have such evocative names for their genes? Why couldn’t we name the “language gene”  “poetene” or “Shakespearion”, or at least “Foxy”, rather than FOXP2? Or the cancer suppressor gene P53  that can turn into a major cancer-causing gene simply by its inaction, shouldn’t we call it Janus, the two-faced Roman god? Or mTOR, which stands for mammalian Target of Rapamycin, the gene that basically regulates all pathways of metabolic and protein synthesis activities of the cell? Why not “Central Traffic Cop” or “Super Regulator”? Well, particle physicists are probably more imaginative than pedestrian biologists are.

In a way, this is not surprising, considering the stuff they are dealing with. Biologists deal with such relatively trivial issues as “what is life”, or evolution, or why do we have disease rather than uninterrupted health? The physicists deal with issues such as understanding why there is diversity and life in the universe.  The only attempts at answering such weighty questions could be found in religious texts. But now, thank God, Physics is closing this gap in our knowledge, and in the process also narrowing the ground available for God and religion. Our brain is programmed to invent a cause for any natural phenomenon if one is not readily available. Hence the stories of Creation by all religions.

Physicists were trying to formulate a theory that will explain every physical phenomenon in the universe. Tall order, but they did it: they called it the Standard Model. It explained almost everything, but not all. One of the things that remained unexplained was very basic: what gives everything its mass? I know we don’t normally walk around thinking about such existential issues. But physicists are paid to do it. The Standard Model predicted (don’t ask me how) that there must be a subatomic particle that imbues everything with a mass. They named this hypothetical particle the Higgs Boson, after British professor Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, who was one of six theoretical physicists who proposed its existence in the middle of the last century. Since then researchers obsessively kept trying to prove its existence. The awesome achievement is captured in a celebratory article in the New York Times of July 4, by Dennis Overbye. Here are some choice quotes:

“Like Omar Sharif materializing out of the shimmering desert as a man on a camel in “Lawrence of Arabia,” the elusive boson has been coming slowly into view since last winter, as the first signals of its existence grew until they practically jumped off the chart”.

“…it could point the way to new, deeper ideas, beyond the Standard Model, about the nature of reality”. You read it right: the nature of reality. It will turn obsolete almost all of Philosophy, not to mention Religion. We could one day describe in minute detail how Creation came about. The theory of Creationism will have a completely new meaning.

“Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very much like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it. The finding affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws — but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry”.

As the article describes it ” the Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous”.

Forget the political stuff for a moment. Here is the crux of the beauty of the Universe: The Standard Model describes a world of perfect symmetry, where all particles are devoid of a mass. Hard to visualize? Let’s take a photon, one of the subatomic particles. Photons oscillate in an amplitude that is absolutely symmetrical, the plus wave is identical in amplitude to the minus wave; beautiful symmetry, but no substance (mass). The deviation of the Higgs boson from perfect symmetry endows it with mass, and the collisions of the other mass-less particles with it imbues them with mass. Think of the Creation story in the Bible, where God imbued Adam with life by blowing “spirit” (wind) into his nostrils (the Hebrew word for spirit and wind is the same, Ruah). Is Higgs boson going to displace God? Only time will tell.

The most attractive aspect of the Higgs boson discovery is proof that the universe, and life, and all of human creativity and creations, are the result of imperfections, of deviations from perfect symmetry however comfortable it may seem. The Higgs boson and the non-conformist scientist, or artist, or social rebel have something in common: they imbue us with substance. Thank God for that.

P.S. I find it ironic that this discovery was announced on the fourth of July, in Europe’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva. In 1993, the United States Congress canceled a larger American collider, the superconducting super collider, which would have been bigger than the European machine. The cost would have been $10 billion, but it was deemed a frivolous expenditure to satisfy a bunch of eggheads in their ivory towers.

 

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

5 COMMENTS

  1. “You read it right: the nature of reality. It will turn obsolete almost all of Philosophy, not to mention Religion. We could one day describe in minute detail how Creation came about. The theory of Creationism will have a completely new meaning.” This statement is just simply wrong. Please read my Humanities v. Science on this very same blog to recognize that philosophy and religion will not ever be replaced by the natural sciences. Dov, I am disappointed in you.

    • Kent,
      Thank you for your comment. I did read your posts on Humanities vs. Science, and frankly I disagreed. The tension between a science-based view of the world and the philosophical/religious one is as old as philosophy itself. The pythagoreans believed that the world can be described in mathematical equations. Protagoras, on the other hand, believed that man is the measure of all things (he actually stated it a bit less elegantly). What he meant by that is that reality is relative and is different for every individual. He was basically an existentialist, only 2000 years too early.
      So where did this philosophical discourse get us? Did philosophers and theologians get us any closer to the truth? the answer is a resounding no, in my opinion. Any progress in understanding the world around us, and ourselves, came from scientific inquiry, using the scientific method.
      The arguments on the “humanities side” are rooted in the religious concept of dualism. The spirit is separate and independent of the body. This concept had different manifestions throughout the ages. The spirit leaving the body at death (the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Hebrews), a mysterious life-force orchestrates the functioning of all living organisms (Galen and medieval philosophers), and so on. These sound ridiculous to the modern human, but the modern philosophical arguments that you cited rest on the same (discredited, in my opinion) dualistic principle.
      Why is it so hard for us to accept a mechanistic explanation of life? I don’t know, but an evolutionary explanation sounds plausible. Our brain is programmed to demand an explanation of the physical phenomena we observe daily. Lack of a cause-effect order to the universe would result in a chaotic world, an environment that would be impossible to navigate. So when there is no readily observable cause-we invent one. Early man could not explain the lightening -so god was invoked. Science dispelled this misconception. Medieval man believed in supernatural phenomena- Science liberated us from this belief. The concept of god permeated every aspect of the natural world, because gaps in our knowledge were so vast. God has been and always will be “god of the gaps”. Slowly, but at an accelerating rate, Science is closing those gaps, thus reducing the need to invoke a deity to explain natural phenomena.
      So my original claim that religion is progressively rendered superfluous still stands. As to philosophy, it does have a place in teaching us how to guide our lives (ethics) and how to think logically (logics). But it cannot establish facts; this requires experimental proof, and philosohers don’t do lab experiments.

  2. Al,
    To quote Bush senior, I am in deep doo-doo. How I made this mistake could probably be a subject for a study of a brain circuit gone awry. I used to work with a surgeon from Edinburgh who spent a few months with Peter Higgs as an undergraduate. How did the University of Pennsylvania take over my brain? A virus?
    Thanks for the correction.
    Dov

  3. This is great news indeed, especially for us atheists, and espeically for the University of Pennsylvania, which can bask in the reflected glory of the University of Edinburgh, whcih is indeed where Professor Higgss taught. Yep, in the immortals words of the great philosopher Brittany Spears, oops, you did it again.

    U of Penn did have a small role in supporting the technology used to represent the participle, sort of like the girl in the old Shake ‘m’ Bake commercial (“and Ah hay-elped.”)

    My suspicion is may be Payback Time soon, and when you folks review my book you will be employing the services of a fact-checker, to which I quote the immortal words of the great philosopher Lt. Harry Callahan: “Go ahead, make my day.”

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