It could read like the start of a bad joke: Two protons walked into a bar and ordered a round of shots… But the truth of the matter (or anti-matter) is that two protons colliding has major cosmological and worldly consequences—last year, physicists at CERN, using the world’s largest particle accelerator (the Large Hadron Collider or LHC), confirmed existence of a subatomic particle called the Higgs boson. That boson, a fundamental elementary particle, provides clues into the state of the universe at the Big Bang—so much so it’s been deemed the ‘God particle.’

The Higgs boson discovery is as important to human enlightenment as Copernicus’s argument the earth revolves around the sun. In simplest terms, the boson proves the existence of the Higgs field (a type of “cosmic molasses”). When particles pass through the Higgs field, they gain mass (the boson, in an act akin to a celebrity entering a room, draws other particles close to it and accelerates momentum as it goes, thus gaining mass). In other words, the Higgs field creates matter itself, helping to explain the 96% of the universe we can’t see—dark matter—as well as all the physical forces that govern science. It may even point to the existence of dimensions of space we can’t perceive, a very Twilight Zone situation indeed.

This week’s Hippo Reads post provides a curated glimpse into the widespread importance of the Higgs boson particle, as well as the conversation it sparks about the relationship between science and religion. (For an amusing and insightful primer on the Higgs boson, read this CERN piece.)

As headliners, we’re featuring two succinct essays on the history of the Higgs boson particle and its importance to science, and the world, in general. First, scientist Ainissa Ramirez’s provocative piece ‘The Higgs Boson: Why You Should Care About the God Particle. And, Sadly, Why You Don’t,’ which plumbs the divide between the ivy tower and the general public, using the Higgs boson discovery as a lens into a greater societal issue. Second, Science News’s Tom Siegfried’s essay ‘Nature’s Secrets Foretold’ provides an accessible outline of the Higgs boson research and why it matters. As Siegfried writes of the necessary relationship between scientific scholarship and international funding:

Their success illustrates a further meaningfulness of the Higgs discovery: It validates the scientific enterprise as a way of knowing nature. Somehow, humans fiddling with squiggles on paper figured out what you would find if you spent billions of dollars on a machine to create temperatures of a million billion degrees. Scientists figured out one of nature’s deepest secrets just by using their heads.

For those willing to take a stab at theoretical physics talk, ‘My Life as a Boson,’ by Peter Higgs himself, provides a fascinating entrée into the process of discovering the Higgs boson particle. Specifically, the talk highlights the importance of working outside one’s discipline (Higgs himself came to prove the possibility of the particle by researching in a field parallel to his own), thus simultaneously proving that creative insights often come when we are least expecting them. The talk was presented in 2010—two years before the discovery of the particle—and concludes with a chilling prophecy: “We are now waiting for the LHC to complete the story.”

“Our existence, our entire universe, emerged from things that happened at the smallest imaginable scale. The big bang theory tells us that the known universe once had no dimensions at all—no up or down, no left or right, no passage of time, and laws of physics beyond our vision.”

— Joel Achenbach

Finally, there could be no discussion of the ‘God’ particle without a look at the connection between science and religion—and how the Higgs boson complicates that nexus. Because the Higgs boson particle shows that the universe came from nothing, and furthermore that it’s possible to create something out of nothing, this challenges notions of creationism and religious tenets in general. Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist who recently published the controversial and best-selling book ‘A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing,’ defends his work, and why science is the only way to answer empirical questions about the universe, in this Scientific American article. He also discusses the matter in an Atlantic interview, in which he expounds upon the rabbit hole of asking ‘why’ and the necessity of asking ‘how:’

In fact, in the preface I tried to be really clear that you can keep asking “Why?” forever. At some level there might be ultimate questions that we can’t answer, but if we can answer the “How?” questions, we should, because those are the questions that matter.

And with that, we’ll leave you with some George Saunders as a fictional take on all this thinking. His 1986 Northwest Review story, ‘A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room,’ may not explicitly deal with theoretical physics, but its closing lines echo many of the sentiments appearing herein.

And the punch line of our terrible opening joke? The barman asked: “What’s the matter?” And the Protons said: “We were in a terrible collision yesterday.” (Laugh, please.)

Further Reading and Viewing:

Image credit: CERN

About The Author

Kaitlin Solimine
Co-Founder and Editor, Hippo Reads

Kaitlin Solimine, Co-Founder and Editor, Hippo Reads