Physics and Faith

Higgs boson signature
What the Higgs boson or “God Particle” might look like

Last week I took Gallup’s Strengths Finder and discovered that my dominant strength is Learner. I love to learn, whether it’s history, languages, art, mathematics, or fly fishing. That explains why I, although a non-scientist, was intrigued when I read in the newspaper this morning that European scientists at the CERN particle accelerator outside Geneva believe they have discovered the elusive Higgs boson, the so-called “God Particle.” The Higgs boson is a subatomic particle that was first theorized by Peter Higgs in 1964. It explains how other particles have mass. If the discovery is verified, it will be one of the greatest physics finds in decades.

I remember when America’s Superconducting Super Collider project near Waxahachie, Texas was cancelled by Congress in 1993. That would have been the world’s largest particle accelerator—a 54-mile-long donut-shaped ring—far bigger than the 17-mile one in Switzerland where the Higgs boson was detected. The problem was rising costs for a project that most Americans couldn’t understand or see the benefit of. “It’s going to help us understand the origins of the universe,” scientists on TV boasted with excitement while normal Americans yawned and changed the channel to football. Scientists are still struggling to describe the importance of the Higgs boson to laymen with explanations like, “It will help to explain the electromagnetic force that governs interactions between charged particles.”

I want to suggest another reason why discoveries like the Higgs boson are important: they increase our sense of wonder and give us a small foretaste of what Catholic theologians call the Beatific Vision—the experience of complete knowledge when we see God face to face in Heaven. The Apostle Paul puts it like this: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). God has put inside every person a desire for knowledge but all our learning is at best partial and incomplete, because our minds have been tainted by sin. Only when we see God will all of our thirst for knowledge be satisfied. In the meantime, we can prepare ourselves by developing a sense of awe at the world God has created.

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