god is in the particles

Physicists around the world are searching for the “God particle,” which may explain what matter is made of & the origins of the universe.

© The ATLAS Experiment at CERN

Just outside Geneva, Switzerland, a 27-kilometre, multi-million-dollar, hollow metal ring sits underground and waits. While the metal tube that makes up this massive circle is only 10 centimetres wide, inside it something far too small to perceive with the naked eye will change how we understand the fundamental nature of matter and the basic forces that shape our universe.

This is the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN particle physics centre, set to begin a series of experiments in mid-2008. One of these experiments, among the largest collaborative particle physics experiments ever attempted, unites over 1900 scientists from around the world in a common goal – the discovery of new particles, specifically the controversial Higgs-Boson, sometimes called the “God particle.” It would answer the question at the core of particle physics: Why does matter have mass?

What are the factors that make everything exist and, in that, what are the factors that connect everything and unify our universe? While key to establishing the main theories that particle physics are based on, discovery of the Higgs-Boson would not mean we’d know everything there is to know. Rather, it would allow us to see nature in a new light.

Humans have an innate desire to explain the world around us, yet when it comes to these questions of why, rather than the perhaps more tangible who, what, where and when, we often go to the theoretical and theological for answers. The science of physics asks the why question common to so many disciplines: Why do so many things in this world share the same characteristics? Do all our commonalities and all of nature’s patterns have a reason for existing as they do?

“The human quest of curiosity is always there,” says Brigitte Vachon, an experimental particle physicist and Canada Research Chair at McGill University in Montréal, who is currently involved in the search for the Higgs-Boson at CERN and has worked at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), near Chicago.

“Physics can be about explaining how your car starts in the morning or how it doesn’t start in winter – it depends on what phenomenon in nature you’re interested in explaining, and then you seek out the tools to build experiments that will answer the questions you have. A theory that can be applied to any field of interest, science or otherwise, and shows the common bonds between disciplines – fundamental denominators between ideas and things.”

Physics is one way of forming questions and finding answers, but with every answer does come new questions, prompting doubts of whether there is actually an ultimate, conclusive answer to why we and the entire universe exist as we do. Discovery of the Higgs-Boson may explain why matter has mass and show us the common bonds between all things – which is why it’s called the “God particle” – but it won’t define the existence of a conscious god-like presence, and won’t mean that we’ll know everything there is to know about our world.

Robyn Fadden is insatiably curious. She lives, writes, makes music and produces a science and culture radio show in Montréal. You can read more about her show, Free Radicals, at www.freeradicalsradio.blogspot.com.

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