LOCATED UNDERGROUND at the French-Swiss border, the Large Hadron Collider is a 17-mile, circular underground tunnel whose purpose is to recreate conditions after the "Big Bang," which scientists believe created the universe. Like the International Space Station, another multinational collaboration costing billions of dollars, the LHC makes many people wonder how it helps life on Earth. An electrical failure stopped the first test last September, but the machine is due for restart in the spring of 2009. The pause in its operation offers an opportunity to reflect on its purpose and how it can benefit society.
The research is driven by the pump of all scientific inquiry—childlike curiosity. "Why," "how," and "what" are questions that motivate us from childhood. Specifically, designers of the LHC hope it will unveil a new particle that will fill a missing link in current theories of particle physics. The anticipated particle is called the Higgs boson, after Peter Higgs, a noted particle physicist. What makes the Higgs boson so interesting to scientists? Basically, the particle is supposed to reveal the mystery of why all material things have weight or mass, and how much. So basic and fundamental is the concept of mass to natural science that finding an answer has been likened to knowing the unknowable. One is tempted to think that knowing the unknowable might be like knowing God—hence, the particle's nickname, the "God particle."
SCIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE
Let's think for a minute about the meaning of the word science. Derived from the Latin word scientia (having knowledge), it's not limited to one field or another. There can be a science of particles or a science of theology. Famous physicist Albert Einstein regarded man's ability to contemplate his universe as a defining quality. And he regarded scientific understanding with a reverence that to him was like hearing the voice of God.
But there is a catch-22 lurking in this concept. If the search for the Higgs boson fails, or leads down a path different from the one expected, what then? By its very nature, physical science is subject to change; old theories collapse, making way for new ones. Wouldn't our faith be grounded more firmly in a spiritual sense of being, which won't budge when a human experiment fails? This spiritual sense of being comes as a result of knowing our relation to God as His ideas, always under His care.
Among Christians, Muslims, and Jews, it is a cherished value to feel close to God, even hearing the divine voice. The Apostle Paul once chided the men of Athens for dedicating a shrine to the "unknown God" (see Acts 17:22-28). Instead, he told them that God is forever near: "For in him we live, and move, and have our being." By basing our faith on God, whose intelligence is unlimited and unchanging we have a foundation that is unaffected by human circumstances. Shouldn't such a basis make for better decisions and fewer mistakes?
SUBSTANCE OF MATTER FADES
Twentieth-century developments gave scientific thinkers plenty to consider. In 1911 Lord Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealand physicist at Manchester University in the United Kingdom, discovered that most ordinary matter is compressed inside an extremely tiny nucleus at the center of the atom. This doesn't mean matter is less important; it just means that most of matter occupies very little space.
Shortly after Rutherford's discovery. Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger proposed that the remaining small fraction of matter—called electrons—was smeared out in clouds surrounding the nucleus of the atom. According to this view, it is repulsion among these electronic forces that comprise contact, when we touch one another. So the idea of physical particles touching each other is mostly an illusion, according to physics. Rather, what gives everyday objects their size and shape are not physical particles, but invisible electrical forces which bind things together and fill empty space in between.
As amazing as the Rutherford model of matter was, it was just the beginning of a continuing metamorphosis in the concept of matter. Astronomers in the last half of the century found that ordinary matter, which attracts all other matter, isn't sufficient to explain galactic structure. Since scientists have been unable to see physically what they believe must be there, they call this unseen component "dark matter." Even more interesting, the amount of dark matter is several times as massive as ordinary matter.
ENERGY MORE PERVASIVE THAN MATTER
Astronomers now believe that, in addition to ordinary and dark matter, there must be another "substance" which fills about 75 percent of the universe. This other "substance" is invisible, emits no light, exerts no gravitational force, and is called "dark energy." It is believed to be responsible for the bizarre fact, observed recently, that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.
Physicists may look to a physical particle for answers to questions. But the very nature of matter tends to shift and change, making it at best a shaky foundation.
The news led scientists to think about the God particle, or the Higg's boson, which is supposed to answer the question about what mass really is in the universe. To that we contrast a statement by the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy. Writing a concise summary of the value of explaining reality by spiritual versus physical means, she concluded, "The universe, like man, is to be interpreted by Science from its divine Principle, God, and then it can be understood; but when explained on the basis of physical sense and represented as subject to growth, maturity, and decay, the universe, like man, is, and must continue to be, an enigma" (Science and Health, p.124).
Physicists may look to a physical particle for answers to questions about the reasons for the existence of mass and its related properties. But the very nature of matter tends to shift and change, making at best a shaky foundation on which to build a solid structure. Over the centuries, spiritually minded thinkers have listened for the word of God to give them a clearer understanding of reality. Interesting as matter-based research may be, including the quest for the "God particle," it can never really give us permanent answers about the nature of the universe, which wasn't created by a "particle" but by God Himself in all His goodness and glory.
Part of Mary Baker Eddy's definition of Creator in Science and Health is: "God, who made all that was made and could not create an atom or an element the opposite of Himself" (p.583). Only infinite Mind's limitless intelligence can show us what is true and permanent.
That is not to say that the current preoccupation with the God particle is much ado about nothing. While it's true that never before has such a large concentration of energy and funding been invested in such a small target, the stakes are different from what they seem. What's being sought isn't really the particle, dark matter, or dark energy, but the mental constructs that relate to them. Those ideas are priceless and indestructible because the spiritual fact is that, ultimately, the universe is structured not by matter but by Spirit. And our prayers can elevate the human quest for knowledge, by considering it an opportunity for Mind to reveal itself to those sincerely seeking Truth.
David A. Cornell taught college physics in the American heartland for 40 years and now tutors online from his home in the Pacific Northwest.