At a deeper level, the real issue at stake in the debate over the “God Particle” is a choice between two different worldviews.
The announcement on July 4 about the Higgs boson discovery by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) set off celebratory fireworks among the scientific community. While the Higgs boson is not the last word in our search for answers to our mysterious universe, it holds the potential to advance our understanding of the genetic code of our cosmos.
The Higgs boson with its metaphorical name, God particle, has long attracted the attention of pundits and rookies, priests and philosophers, and believers and atheists alike. Once again, the debate over the nature of fundamental reality and consciousness is in the forefront.
When the physicist Leon Lederman coined the term “God Particle,” he was not alluding to a literal God (personal or impersonal), even though, he acknowledged, that the particle was “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive.” Rather, he said, it was because “the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.”
The elusive nature of the particle, along with its popular name, created a niche in the public psyche. It’s commonly associated to the Big Bang and to the creation of the universe, or more generally, the creation of something out of nothing in popular discourse.
Normal matter, which creates stars, planets and even life, is made possible by fundamental particles called Fermions (like electrons, the basic unit of charge) and Bosons (like photons, the basic unit of light). In fact, we manipulate these particles in our everyday life so frequently that they have been employed to control everything from electronic circuits to solar cells. The Higgs boson is just one of the members of the family called bosons, along with photons and gluons.
According to the Standard Model of particle physics, the Higgs boson is the manifestation of an invisible force field known as the Higgs field that permeates our cosmos. In the early moments of the big bang, particles zipped through the available universe and were massless. Then the Higgs field dragged the particles and they felt mass for the first time, according to the Higgs mechanism.
What kind of interaction generates mass? This age-old question demanded a scientific explanation. The physicist Peter Higgs proposed a clever and elegant solution to this problem nearly half a century ago. In his theoretical model, the particle mass arises from complex interactions they have with the pervading Higgs field. Different particles interact with the Higgs field with different strengths, making them heavier or lighter.
In the absence of this invisible Higgs field, all the fundamental particles in the universe would zoom through the universe like shadows of reality. There would be no atoms, molecules or for that matter no life.
While the name ‘Higgs’ in the Higgs boson is commonly attributed to Peter Higgs, and is well known, the name boson has its roots in Satyendra Nath Bose, who is often overlooked.
It has been assumed for a long time that the Higgs bosons are responsible for providing mass to everything in the universe. Now, you can understand why physicists have been seeking such a particle that was born out of pure imagination and mathematical equations. Specifically, the Higgs boson emerged from Higgs’ vision and theoretical studies.
As ‘higgsteria’ swept the world following the CERN announcement, some voices seemed to divide the scientific community along national borders. After the announcement of the discovery, the Indian government issued a statement lamenting Bm ose as a “forgotten hero.”
Bose was born in Calcutta in 1894. He was a lecturer at the Calcutta University College of Science from 1917 to 1921, and then became a reader in physics at the University of Dacca. His greatest recognition came in 1924, when he sent a paper on quantum statistics that had been rejected by a British journal to Albert Einstein, who realizing the importance of the work, translated it into German and published it successfully.
As a result of this recognition, Bose secured a scholarship to travel to Europe where he conducted research at the Madame Curie Laboratory. He spent time with many other heavyweights in physics, including Einstein in Berlin. Their collaborative work, known as Bose-Einstein statistics, governs the quantum rules for bosons, similar to how Fermi-Dirac statistics governs fermions. This work also led to the prediction of a state of matter called Bose-Einstein condensate formed by atoms cooled to temperatures very near to absolute zero, which was experimentally verified in 1995.
It’s true that Bose was not directly involved in theorizing the Higgs boson itself. Bose himself was not awarded the Nobel Prize, though it has been given on more than one occasion to the research field initiated by him. Yet, half the particles in the known universe obey him. That itself is a remarkable recognition.
While it is meaningful to acknowledge the contributions of all physicists in the discovery of the Higgs boson, science is not a competition, where the frontrunners take pride in winning medals. Science should transcend national borders, religion and race. It belongs to all civilization. The significance of the Higgs boson lies far beyond the superficial discussions that have been rampant in the media, which often obscure the implications of the profound discovery.
At a deeper level, the real issue at stake is a choice between two different worldviews. The first one posits that matter makes everything, and by the process of reduction, we can reach out to the most elementary particles and their dynamics. Thus particles are the fundamental reality. Our universe and sentient beings are the “effect,” caused by the interplay among these particles — an upward causation.
The other concept relies on downward causation, where consciousness is the fundamental reality and the ground of all being. This view is close to many spiritual teachings, where free will exists independently and consciousness creates the physical world.
The Hindu Upanishads subscribe to the theory of manifestation and non-manifestation of the universe. The forms and the names we have assigned them, including our universe, evolve from an all-pervading cosmic energy. In other words, the material world is a manifestation of the unmanifested. Like waves rise on the ocean, the cosmos comes from the Brahman, the unmanifested.
While it is a reflection of a deeper thought in tune with Vedantic philosophy that the tangible can spring from intangible, for all-inclusive Brahman no such distinction between the manifested and the unmanifested exists. Brahman, the eternal and immanent, doesn’t distinguish living or non-living, tangible or intangible. Brahman dwells in everything from bacteria to humans, in beauty and in the dirt, without being affected by their obvious differences. That’s the school of thought of Advaita (non-dualism) Vedanta.
In an attempt to investigate the nature of subtle reality, Vedantic scriptures explain that in the beginning there was One (tad ekam), variously identified as Brahman or Atman. The one divided itself, extending and expanding itself into the vast multiplicity of forms that we can perceive with our senses (manifested), and at the same time the unmanifested dimension of reality remains beyond perception. The manifested aspect is called vyakta, and the unmanifested facet is avyakta. These both dimensions of reality are interconnected.
What are the implications of all this?
It would be specious to suggest that the Higgs boson is scientific validation of the story of the universe in Hindu scriptures. However, as we probe deeper into the micro nature of the universe, the facet of interconnectivity becomes more significant and the separation of the manifested and the unmanifested thins. The Higgs boson is the manifestation of the unmanifested Higgs field that are interconnected. While Vedic thoughts may not define the process of scientific enquiry, it might, just might, ignite curios and higher order thought processes in our journey to understand the universe.
Physicists will be studying the new particle for decades. There could be many varieties of Higgs bosons, or worse, some other unknown particles may be acting as imposters that mimic the Higgs boson.
Even if the newly discovered particle is confirmed beyond incontrovertible doubt as the previously theorized Higgs boson, there remain an array of questions. As we know, the universe we inhabit is made up mostly of dark matter and is continuously accelerated by dark energy. The Higgs mechanism can explain only the mass of normal matter, which surprisingly constitutes only five percent of the known universe. Even the standard model says nothing about this 95 percent of the universe,
Also, while it is comforting to know that the discovery of the Higgs boson that facilitates mass in the universe may now be a known particle, the elementary particles that mediate gravitational force, and are aptly called gravitons, remain unconfirmed. Theoretical physicists even go beyond the world of particles. For them, the make-up of the universe is something more fundamental than particles. Some call it strings. Unfortunately, the accelerator like Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN cannot generate the level of energy required to see such smaller entities. The LHC is 27 km wide, but we may need colliders the size of the planet earth itself, a tall order for our current technological standards and abilities, to peek into the deepest recesses of nature.
Besides, describing reality using language and mathematics, or any other system of human thinking, is imperfect. Are we discovering pieces of reality, or, are we constructing them first and then looking for them? Languages and mathematics may have difficulty in describing ultimate reality, whether it is particles, strings or even information. The history of science and philosophy are plagued by such fears.
Science describes the world better than any other explanation we have come up with, but we need to recognize the fact that even at its best they are not the universe itself. Our higher order thoughts and mathematics may well enable us to accomplish gene mapping of humans or even the universe, and the Higgs boson discovery surely nudges us further along that quest. But, even as we celebrate the discovery, it should also instill in us a renewed sense of humility of just how little we really know — or might ever know.