There has been a lot of hoopla since the July 4 announcement by the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) that the two largest experiments at the Large Hadron Collider had uncovered evidence for a new elementary particle. The particle in question appears to be the Higgs particle, which scientists have been seeking for almost 50 years and is at the heart of our current best theory of nature. But the real excitement seems to stem from the fact that this long-sought discovery is frequently called, in colloquial circles, “the God particle.” This term appeared first in the unfortunate title of a book written by physicist Leon Lederman two decades ago, and while to my knowledge it was never used by any scientist (including Lederman) before or since, it has captured the media’s imagination.
What makes this term particularly unfortunate is that nothing could be further from the truth. Assuming the particle in question is indeed the Higgs, it validates an unprecedented revolution in our understanding of fundamental physics and brings science closer to dispensing with the need for any supernatural shenanigans all the way back to the beginning of the universe—and perhaps even before the beginning, if there was a before. The brash notion predicts an invisible field (the Higgs field) that permeates all of space and suggests that the properties of matter, and the forces that govern our existence, derive from their interaction with what otherwise seems like empty space. Had the magnitude or nature of the Higgs field been different, the properties of the universe would have been different, and we wouldn’t be here to wonder why. Moreover, a Higgs field validates the notion that seemingly empty space may contain the seeds of our existence. This idea is at the heart of one of the boldest predictions of cosmology, called inflation. This posits that a similar type of background field was established in the earliest moments of the big bang, causing a microscopic region to expand by more than 85 orders of magnitude in a fraction of a second, after which the energy contained in otherwise empty space was converted into all the matter and radiation we see today! Alan Guth, the originator of the theory, called it “the ultimate free lunch.”
If these bold, some would say arrogant, notions derive support from the remarkable results at the Large Hadron Collider, they may reinforce two potentially uncomfortable possibilities: first, that many features of our universe, including our existence, may be accidental consequences of conditions associated with the universe’s birth; and second, that creating “stuff” from “no stuff” seems to be no problem at all—everything we see could have emerged as a purposeless quantum burp in space or perhaps a quantum burp of space itself. Humans, with their remarkable tools and their remarkable brains, may have just taken a giant step toward replacing metaphysical speculation with empirically verifiable knowledge. The Higgs particle is now arguably more relevant than God.