Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Encounters With the God Particle: The Higgs Boson Meets Organized Religion

The Higgs boson, the pope, and the curious interaction between organized religion and big science

Print Email
Event recorded with the CMS detector in 2012, showing characteristics expected from the decay of the SM Higgs boson to a pair of Z bosons. (© 2012 CERN, for the benefit of the CMS Collaboration)

The Higgs mechanism also did something else: It put terms into the equations that were identical with terms that corresponded to the various particles having been given individual masses by hand. The mass of an object is a measure of the difficulty of speeding up or slowing down that object: Up until the invention of the Higgs mechanism, mass was just something you had to take as an otherwise unjustified given. With the Higgs mechanism in play, mass has a significance, an origin. Since mass is one of the most fundamental concepts in physical law, the Higgs mechanism, and the Higgs boson associated with this mechanism, becomes a central piece of our picture of the rules.

In fact the electroweak unification predicted three new and very heavy particles, and, even better, information on their mass ratio was numerically predicted. When Pope John Paul II visited me and my co-workers at CERN, a new machine had begun operation, and the discovery of these new particles, with exactly the predicted properties, was less than a year away. What remained was the discovery of the Higgs boson itself, which would eliminate alternative theories and cement the new interpretation of mass. Now, 30 years later, the Higgs boson is on the road to being fully confirmed.

Pope John Paul II with model of proton-antiproton interaction

During Pope John Paul II’s visit, Director-General Herwig Schopper presented him with a representation, made in the CERN workshops, of a high energy proton-antiproton interaction, such as was seen in the SPS collider. June 15, 1982. (CERN)

I admit to a certain melancholy about all this. When I passed through CERN in 1982, I had been thinking about physics for some 15 years. At the beginning of that period, it was still possible for a professor and several graduate students to perform an experiment at one of the existing accelerators and get a result worth publishing, even to make a major discovery, in a matter of months. Theorists could both propose and analyze on the same time scale. By the early 1980s things had changed. Experiments in the new era involved bigger and bigger detectors. Bigger and bigger collaborations were necessary, and the time required to do an experiment grew longer. The accelerators, ever more expensive, were fewer, and their construction took years and involved dodging political minefields.

I am not complaining about the cost here. (I admit I did not build the machine myself.) The track record of something falling out of research on “pure” physics is pretty good. The World Wide Web arguably came from CERN, and techniques for the difficult analysis of the vast amounts of data from high-energy collisions are paying good dividends in other contexts. The current generation of accelerators has also taught us a great deal about superconducting technology.

But the fact that the United States has not provided an equivalent machine to check CERN’s results—or even to have beaten them to the punch—is discouraging. Will experiments at a single machine, without a second machine to check the results, be acceptable? This is not going to get any easier. Peter Higgs had to wait 50 years to learn that his proposal was at least partly proven right. He retired in 1996 and is now in his early eighties. Results from modern machines come slowly, and many theorists have wandered off into regions where unverifiable speculation is king. For the worker bees who stick to experimentation, thousand-person collaborations are now the rule. Will the most creative individuals be willing to spend all their time in such collaborations on a single life-spanning experiment? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Perhaps the popes still have something to teach us.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

1 2View as single page
Print Email
gwhepner says:


The laws of physics all are mathematical,

a fact that is extremely problematical

for those who think a sum game should be close to

and think of God as Primal Number that’s primero.

Does a sub atomic particle ever wonder how its state of being is the result of complex relations that cant even fit in a book.? If it does, then it will break Schrodinger’s law, I bet!

ShalomFreedman says:

It has been clear for many years now that the great discoveries are being made more in the biological sciences than in Physics. And so it is to be expected that many creative individuals would not be eager to dedicate their life to work in which collaborations with a thousand others required before there is significant discovery.

There’s no reason I can see why the CERN results shouldn’t be acceptable, and certainly no reason for the US to fling billions of dollars into a pointless competition to see who can build the biggest cyclotron. I thought it had learnt that lesson after the space race.

Of course, if the Pope wanted to cough up the funding, that would be different. What are the chances of that, do you think?

It is refreshing to read a piece like this – someone who is not afraid to think deeply and connect the random dots that make up our existence. Bravo.

Ian Clark says:

What errant nonsense, Tibetan Buddhism has a better paradigm for theoretic physics than the Pope. He should concentrate on cleaning the stables rather than imposing his reactionary self. Remember Galileo. These Catholic ideologues are the same people who like dressing up in frocks and molesting small boys.

Dave Green says:

Is that the view of biologists or physicists?

jansand says:

I had heard that the physicist involved with the Higgs boson originally called it “the god damned particle” and it was subsequently shortened. The Pope’s opinion, of course is as valid as any astrologer’s on the matter. Any Wizard of Oz would do.

Think about what kind of biophysical mechanisms in human brains invented the standard model of particle physics and the Higgs mechanism. Modern physics, like all the sciences, is a product of biology. For more about this see here:

Al_de_Baran says:

“Mathematics carries within itself a kind of logic that somehow is reflected in the way the world is”.

That’s one of the funniest things I’ve read in weeks. Many thanks for the chuckle.

you are correct (on both counts). it’s fascinating that one can write an article about a subject and not even know where the term came from. apparently a wikipedia search would be too much.

anyone who values the pope’s opinion is, in fact, doing the opposite of thinking deeply

jklfairwin says:

No matter how deep one goes in physics, one inevitably comes up against the problem of first cause. Then we are faced with two prospects. Either our mathematics and/or our instruments are not yet sophisticated enough to deal with the problem or the problem is in a space inaccessible to human understanding. Either option requires a leap of faith.

Physicists continue to unravel the mysteries of the universe, but they can’t understand a senior religious man? They don’t seem to have unravelled much after all.

JWPicht says:

It doesn’t seem to me that Prof. Fishbane has much to say here about the pope’s opinion, but only uses John Paul’s visit to CERN as the starting point for an interesting commentary on Big Physics.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Encounters With the God Particle: The Higgs Boson Meets Organized Religion

The Higgs boson, the pope, and the curious interaction between organized religion and big science

More on Tablet:

Ongoing Controversy Around ‘The Most Important Story on Earth’

By Matti Friedman — Responding to critics of my essay about Israel media coverage