The particle with the power to answer everything yet nothing

Sat, Jun 23, 2012, 01:00

Even if the Higgs boson subatomic particle is found, it will not yield a meaning for human life

REJOICE. AFTER several millennia of pondering, it looks as if we may finally have found a clean, unambiguous solution to the mystery of existence. Over the past week, a number of science blogs have suggested that boffins associated with the Large Hadron Collider are about to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson.

As you may be aware, this hitherto hypothetical subatomic sprite has – to aid the formulation of misleading headlines – been identified as the “God particle”. Once the tiny beast is located, all conventional churches will close down, embarrassing street lunatics will cease handing out tracts and Alain de Botton will be forced to find a proper job. Everything will be explained, you see.

Now, it hardly needs to be said that few scientists are making the case for Higgs as an alternative to religion. The boson is, rather, the final element in a complex supposition about the subatomic world called the Standard Model. If the boson behaves as expected then that theory need no longer be regarded as hypothesis. If it performs otherwise then the physicists may have to admit the existence of yet another herd of minuscule particles: barks, tharks, larks and clarks. Neither result will count as a mystical revelation.

Still, should the LHC scientists oblige – and many think the gossips are jumping the gun – then we will be plunged into another round of the unconvincing, somewhat contrived conflict between religion and science. You know how this goes. Stooped academics, sitting before backdrops depicting Rome or Cambridge, turn up on Newsnight to scowl angrily at one another. The chap in the dog collar declares the hollowness of the secular approach. The evolutionary biologist casts his eyes to . . . well, not heaven, obviously, but the place where heaven used to be.

Why is this still going on? There are certainly areas where religion and science remain in direct conflict. Some knuckle-dragging counties in the southern United States still attempt to teach their children that the Earth was created in less time than it takes to complete the average Xbox game. Those creationist loons really are suggesting that the Bible should be regarded as a scientific textbook. You have to feel for any man with crushed testicles who – in defiance of Leviticus – tries to enter the house of the Lord anywhere near that mob.

Most educated Christians have, however, long ago accepted that the Bible is not to be taken literally when it addresses the origin of the universe. In 2008, Bill Maher, the mischievous American comic, released a very entertaining documentary entitled Religulous. A confirmed atheist, Maher took quite a few swipes at the believers but also found himself making friends in unexpected places.

His conversation with Fr George Coyne, then director of the Vatican Observatory, was particularly enlightening. “How in the world can there be any science in the scriptures? There cannot be,” he says in a tone of outraged astonishment. “The scriptures are not teaching science. It is very hard for me to accept a fundamentalist approach to the scriptures. It’s kind of a plague.”

Polls show that a disturbing number of Americans still believe in the creationist model, but, despite all those controversies in secondary schools, there have been no serious efforts to stop university biology departments teaching the truth. The battle is not quite so fierce as it sometimes seems.

With all this in mind, it should become apparent that science and religion – in its more modern, enlightened form, at least – are not now addressing the same questions. Science did, of course, offer earlier generations a route away from their fetishes, icons and incense. Before white-coats began disentangling the mysteries of gravity, evolution and quantum mechanics, the universe did really look like the clockwork creation of a divine being.

Every now and then you will encounter some halfwit in a straggly beard who – before trying to flog you Reiki, homeopathy or angel therapy – argues that “western science” is an inadequate tool for comprehending the cosmos. We may not be smart enough to understand every aspect of the universe’s machinery but the systematic accumulation of knowledge is the only tool worth using in that endeavour. If there’s water falling from the sky then it’s probably raining. That’s “western science”. So is the Large Hadron Collider.

Meanwhile, religions offer a structure within which citizens can ponder the moral and (should they feel that slippery word worth using) spiritual aspects to life. It is one route towards the answer to Everything. Other supposed routes include transcendental meditation, Star Wars fanaticism and advanced conspiracy-theory paranoia.

Weary cynics such as this writer continue in their belief that no such answers exist. Indeed, it’s hard to take even the questions seriously. Why are we here? No real reason. What’s it all about? Everything and nothing.

Should the Higgs boson belatedly confirm its own existence then that situation will not change in any way.

Still, it’s worth knowing what we’re made of.

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