The Magic of the Higgs Boson Particle

There is a widely-held notion that the more we learn about the universe (or better, the more science teaches us about the universe), the less use we’ll have for religious and supernatural concepts. An apocryphal story illustrates this train of thought: Napoleon supposedly asked Pierre Laplace, a famed late 18th and early 19th century French scientist, why the word “God” hadn’t appeared in his Celestial Mechanics. “Sir,” Laplace is supposed to have responded, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

With the purported discovery of the Higgs boson particle, you’d think the explanatory urge to turn to supernatural concepts has been further mitigated, but coverage of the event seems to suggest otherwise. Here is some of CERN physicist Daniel Whiteson’s explanation of a particle accelerator:

The magic of a collider is that you can make kinds of matter that you don’t have around… It’s a kind of quantum magic where it sort of disappears into pure energy… We haven’t seen anything crazy yet, but there could still be strange pink elephants in there, waiting to pop out.

Whiteson’s brief talk, accompanied with illustrations by PhD Comics’ Jorge Cham (a PhD in Mechanical Engineering himself), appeared in a recent NY Times post, “What in the World is a Higgs Boson?”

Following Whiteson’s lead, Cham’s comic is replete with oversizd magicians’ hats. Instead of producing bunny rabbits out of thin air though, they emit particles—different particles than those first inserted. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed refers to CERN’s scientists as “CERN’s wizards.” And, of course, the most obvious resort to supernatural language is the notorious label with which physicist Leon Lederman baptized the Higgs boson particle: “the God particle.”

“The Higgs field works its black magic through—what else?—a particle. This boson is so central to the state of physics today,” Lederman explained, “so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive, that I have given it a nickname: the God Particle.” Lederman even cites a passage from “The Very New Testament, 11:1” that reads as follows:

And the Lord came down to see the accelerator, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold the people are unconfounding my confounding. And the Lord sighed and said, Go to, let us go down, and there give them the God Particle so that they may see how beautiful is the universe I have made.

Language is generally utilitarian: construct a word too bulky or a concept too vague and, unless it has other redemptive linguistic goods to offer, it is unlikely to be adopted. And if a word or concept already adopted is deemed inconvenient or impractical by a large enough section of a linguistic community, it will likely fall into disuse. From the looks of the (impressionistic) evidence cited above, it seems that magic, wizardry, and other supernatural concepts will be with us for some time. But not only by non-physicists, as we try to make sense of our world—this language will also be used to make sense out of the Higgs boson and particle colliders themselves.

It is noteworthy that when an effort is made to make sense out of the technical jargon of science and convert it into more colloquial terms (even when it is professional physicists like Whitestone and Lederman doing the talking) we seem to revert to talk of magic and wizardry. I suspect that this isn’t merely a matter of scientists talking down to a lay audience, but is a sign of the utility that these supernatural concepts still maintain (even for physicists) for some of those very features of our universe that science has supposedly laid bare.

ypastern@gmail.com'

Yoni Pasternak will be a graduate student in philosophy at Columbia University where he will study epistemology and ethics beginning in the fall of 2012