Where do you go when you’ve been handed the keys to the universe?
“The more science discovers and the more comprehension it gives us of the mechanisms of existence, the more clearly does the mystery of existence itself stand out.” –Aldous Huxley
Some of the most coveted gifts of the Christmas season are being handed out in Stockholm and Oslo this week: the Nobel Prizes. Among the new Nobel Laureates are physicists Francois Englert and Peter W. Higgs, who were honored for their theory of how particles acquire mass, a key component in the quest to understand the workings of the universe.
For most non-physicists, this perplexing discovery inspires little more than a desire for a long winter’s nap. If we look more closely, though, this news can rekindle our wonder at the God of all things large and small and incredibly complex.
What is actually being celebrated at the Nobel ceremony is the recent discovery of the so-called Higgs boson, an incredibly small cosmic particle that scientists were finally able to create and capture in an unbelievably complex atomic collider. As far back as 1964, three separate scientific teams comprised of Higgs, Englert, and several others theorized that if such a particle could be found, it would confirm the existence of the Higgs field, a mysterious force field pervading all of space and enabling all existence. Midichlorians, anyone?
The Nobel folks try to simplify it this way:
The Higgs field is not like other fields in physics. All other fields vary in strength and become zero at their lowest energy level. Not the Higgs field. Even if space were to be emptied completely, it would still be filled by a ghost-like field that refuses to shut down: the Higgs field. We do not notice it; the Higgs field is like air to us, like water to fish. But without it we would not exist, because particles acquire mass only in contact with the Higgs field. Particles that do not pay attention to the Higgs field do not acquire mass, those that interact weakly become light, and those that interact intensely become heavy. For example, electrons, which acquire mass from the field, play a crucial role in the creation and holding together of atoms and molecules. If the Higgs field suddenly disappeared, all matter would collapse as the suddenly massless electrons dispersed at the speed of light.
So we’re clear: There is a theoretical realm all around us which we essentially cannot detect but which undergirds all existence. Is it me, or does this have a decidedly spiritual ring to it?
New and ancient truth
We have grown accustomed to a cultural script that pits science and faith against each other, but new discoveries continue to push the two closer than they have been in hundreds of years.
In his book “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith,” Stephen Barr, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware, explains that not only does scientific evidence not disprove the idea of God, it actually favors the idea. The chance upon chance upon chance that a Supreme Being is not involved in the workings of the universe produces such an incomprehensibly small number as to render it mathematically meaningless. We don’t hear about this because many prominent researchers and their friends in the media are strongly biased against the idea of a Creator. This God-less approach, scientific materialism, teaches that only matter exists and that everything in the universe sprang from chaos, unguided by an Intelligent Designer or any “first cause” acting from outside of the universe itself.
Barr considers scientific materialism an alternate religion because science cannot prove its tenets any more than science can prove Christian doctrines. (Scientific materialism reminds me, personally, of “The Holy Church of Christ without Christ” in Flannery O’Connor’s novel “Wise Blood.”) Both must be taken on faith, but Barr believes it takes a greater faith to believe in scientific materialism than to follow the God of the Bible. He writes, “As one goes deeper and deeper into the workings of the physical world, to more fundamental levels of the laws of nature, one encounters not ever less structure and symmetry but ever more. The deeper one goes the more orderly nature looks, the more subtle and intricate its designs.”
To work around the enigmatically small chance that all life, matter, and order in the universe sprang from chance, some physicists have postulated an infinite number of universes. With infinity, of course, anything is possible. So, instead of just one altar to an unknown god, like the Athenians, the scientific materialist has to erect an infinite number of altars to serve the infinite possibilities necessary for his faith in a godless universe to work. Talk about faith! Who wants to work that hard at belief?
Returning to the Higgs field, I find remarkable congruity between the Nobel description above and Paul’s proclamation of Jesus Christ to the Colossians nearly two thousand years ago:
We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everythinggot started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. –Colossians 1:15-17 (The Message)
That is not to reduce or even compare Christ to a quantum theory, but to suggest that there may be several ways one can get to the point where every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus as Lord. Indeed, it has been the practice of missionaries throughout time to show unbelievers how their own traditions and customs reveal the unknown God they know in their hearts to be there. It no longer seems so misguided to call the Higgs boson the “God Particle.”
In light of this year’s Nobel Physics prize, our Advent readings seem particularly appropriate. We read in the first chapter of John’s Gospel a comforting and compelling eternal story:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
We have been given a gift science alone could never offer: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. That is not just the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown, but the meaning of everything.
Daniel Weiss is the president and founder of The Brushfires Foundation, a Christian ministry fostering spiritual maturity and sexual integrity.
Copyright 2013 Daniel Weiss. Used with permission. Image copyright Lucas Taylor for CERN.