There was a popular book in the early 1990s called The God Particle by Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi. Lederman reportedly gave the Higgs boson the nickname “The God Particle” because it is “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter.” (James Randerson, “Father of the ‘God Particle” The Guardian, June 30, 2008)
Last week’s confirmation by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, of the existence of a Higgs-like boson thrilled actual physicists, as well as armchair physicists like me. In short, the discovery further bolsters the viability of the Standard Model or, as it is known, the theory of almost everything.
The Standard Model is called the theory of almost everything because it doesn’t account for the existence of dark energy and dark matter. These concepts have moved beyond the realm of science fiction into serious scientific thought, with dark energy believed to account for roughly 70 percent of the universe and dark matter another 25 percent. Everything else – planets, stars, asteroids, moons, everything we see – then accounts for a paltry 5 percent.
The finding out of CERN also thrilled me as a Jew. Why? Isn’t this a victory of science over religion?
Not for me. In my view, it’s further proof that the range of human perception is limited and that just because we can’t see something in our daily comings and goings, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and isn’t gravely important. Oxygen. Radiation. Bacteria. Subatomic particles. In the case of Higgs, it helps explain why some objects in the universe, like the quark, have mass while others, like photons, only have energy.
In English, its discovery helps explain how matter “clumped together” 14 billion years ago to form stars, planets, and eventually, humans.
In Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s book, The Way into Jewish Prayer, he identifies four types of prayer ideas.
- Theology – the doctrine of God
- Anthropology – the religious doctrine of human nature
- Cosmology – what we think the world is like
- Eschatology – the doctrine of the end of time, for humanity in general or for us personally when we die
While religions may vary in their emphasis on different prayer ideas – for example, Christianity emphasizing theology and eschatology and Hinduism emphasizing anthropology through its study of the nature of suffering – all four ideas play a role. They are the big questions of existence. For me, those four prayer ideas are a bit too theoretical so I have found it helpful to define questions for each.
- Theology – Is there a higher power or level of consciousness? If so, what is the nature of it?
- Anthropology – Is there an essential human nature? If so, how is it defined?
- Cosmology – What is the origin of the universe? Why does the universe exist?
- Eschatology – What happens after we die? What is my purpose in life?
My enthusiasm for the Higgs finding informs the prayer idea of cosmology, but let us make a distinction between scientific cosmology and religious cosmology.
Judaism is not afraid of scientific inquiry and scientific breakthroughs inform our religious cosmology. As people who respect science, we can marvel at scientific endeavor; as Jews, we can find value in its results. The words of Jewish blessings and prayerbooks give voice to the wonder we all feel when looking up at the infinite sky or gazing at tides that have been rolling just so for millennia.
Our knowledge of the universe and how it works is growing as scientific breakthroughs continue apace. I remain hopeful that, in my lifetime, we will know the origin of the universe, the central piece of scientific cosmology. But I don’t see that science will ever be able to answer for us why the universe began any more than science will answer the question of what my purpose in life is. These questions will remain squarely in the realm of theology and religion, intertwined in peaceful coexistence with game-changing scientific advances, as occurred last week.
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead…A knowledge of the existence of something we can not penetrate, or perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity.” Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (1954)