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Brains, Bosons and the Hebrew Letter Bet: The Higgs Field and the Jews
Just guessing, of course, but most of the particle physicists from forty-five nations who have been conducting experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (“LHC”) at the European Center for Nuclear Research (“CERN”) near Geneva, Switzerland probably never heard of B’reishit Rabbah, much less contemplated the discussion there about why God created the world with a word (B’reishit) beginning with the Hebrew letter Bet and not a word beginning with Aleph, the first letter in the alphabet. In the course of that discussion, some eighteen centuries ago, Jewish sages offered various and inventive explanations. Among other things, they noted that the letter Bet is closed at the top, bottom and back (right) side, but open in the front. According to one of the scholars, Bar Kappara, this configuration indicated that one may think about what happened after the days of creation unfolded, but not what occurred before then. (See Neusner, Confronting Creation (U. of South Carolina Press 1991), at 39-41.)
If the CERN scientists had read Bar Kappara’s words, they might understand them as an anti-scientific admonition. But that would be a misreading of the somewhat idiosyncratic scholar, for Bar Kappara favored scientific investigation. In particular, he valued and encouraged the study of astronomy. Channeling the prophet Isaiah (at 5:12), he suggested that one who could make astronomical calculations, but failed to do so, did not appropriately regard God’s works. (See, 4B Encyclopedia Judaica (Keter Publishing 1972), at 227.) What Bar Kappara did not like was metaphysical speculation.
Clearly Bar Kappara would have approved of the physicists’ experiments at CERN. Circulating beams of protons around a tunnel twenty-seven kilometers in circumference at near light speed, the scientists sought to effect proton collisions which would generate other particles which, in turn, would decay into still other particles. By examining the results, they hoped to confirm a prediction made almost a half century ago about the state of our universe at its inception, before any days, any minutes, any seconds had passed.
Near the moment when time, as we know it, began (t=0), the universe, as we know it, was crunched into an incredibly small, dense and hot primordial soup of energy. It was a high energy state characterized by what physicists call symmetry, a sort of uniformity not susceptible to change. But with the Big Bang, this symmetry began to break. As the proto-universe evolved dramatically in less than one second following the initial event, four forces familiar to us today began to differentiate:
- Gravity, a long range but relatively weak force, yet one which literally keeps us grounded. We encounter gravity when we hop, skip or jump or just try to catch a ball.
- Electromagnetic force, another long range force, much stronger than gravity. We feel it in sunshine, use it in our cell phones and apply it to keep souvenirs attached to our refrigerators.
- Weak nuclear force, a short range force which is involved in radioactive decay.
- Strong nuclear force, the strongest force, but also short range, it holds subatomic particles together in the nucleus of an atom and activates hydrogen fusion which powers the stars.
(See Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (Knopf 2004), at 254-56, 328-29, 332, 347-48; Adams, Origins of Existence (Free Press 2002), at 7-10, 225, 231-32; Ferris, The Whole Shebang (Simon & Schuster 1997), at 215, 217, 219, 297.)
While not all scientists agree on all points, it appears that gravity first separated out near the end of what is called Planck time, about 10-43 of a second after the Big Bang (“ATB”), but they currently have no viable theory of gravity during this period and under the conditions of this proto-universe. Very shortly thereafter, at around 10-36 or 10-35 of a second ATB, the strong nuclear force separated. The universe, such as it was, then inflated enormously. The entire spasm took maybe a ten millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, give or take. But in that cosmic flash, the volume of the universe increased by as much as 1090! At t=10-12 of a second ATB, the universe was relatively much larger and much cooler than it had been, but still quite small (maybe the size of a sphere four inches in diameter) and still extraordinarily hot. The remaining electroweak force split into an electromagnetic force and a weak nuclear force. (See “Lecture 38: ‘The First three Minutes,’” at http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast162/Unit5/early.html; “GUTS and Inflation in the Big Bang,” at http://suite101.com/article/guts-and-inflation-in-the-big-bang-a28941/; Greene, above, at 262-70, 284-87, 312-13.
Scientists describe each of these forces as operating in fields by way of sub-atomic particles called force carriers. These particles are given fanciful names such as photons, gluons and bosons. And they come with various traits or properties, such as their charge and mass and whether and to what degree they spin.
But what caused the original hypothesized symmetry to break? In 1964, University of Edinburgh Professor Peter Higgs (and others) theorized that another field mediated the division of the forces. (See, Ferris, above, at 216.) Moreover, Higgs suggested that this field imparted mass to previously massless particles. The implications and importance of such a field are obvious. If particles lacked mass, no atoms would have developed. There would have been no elements, no stars, no planets, no life forms, no us. Lo dayenu. It would not have been sufficient.
The field about which Higgs theorized became known as the Higgs field, and the hypothesized carrier for this force, a particular kind of boson with a predicted mass of about 125 gigaelectronvolts (“GeV”) and the unique characteristic of having zero spin, became known as the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson gained notoriety outside of the narrow confines of particle physicists when Leon Lederman, former University of Chicago physicist and director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois (“Fermilab”), together with science writer Dick Teresi, wrote a book about the Higgs mechanism. The book bore the unfortunate title The God Particle, so-called, in part perhaps, because of its theorized ability to create mass and, in part perhaps, for marketing to the masses. (Houghton Mifflin 1993.)
Over the last sixty years, scientists have developed what is called the Standard Model of Particle Physics to describe the forces that operated at the inception of our observable universe and they have sought to re-create the underlying sub-atomic particles thought responsible for the operation of those forces. Through the decades, with one exception, all of the subatomic particles predicted to exist by the Standard Model were observed. The last quark (the top quark) and the last lepton (the Tau neutrino) were found in 1995 and 2000, respectively, at Fermilab. Until July 4, 2012, however, the Higgs boson remained elusive. On that date, though, two teams of scientists at CERN (the ATLAS and Compact Muon Solenoid groups) working with the largest, most powerful collider yet built, announced that they had found, to what amounts to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, experimental evidence of the Higgs boson.
While it is often called a discovery, that description is not quite apt. The Higgs boson was not wafting around in the collider waiting to be observed. Rather, it had to be created from a collision of protons occurring at calculated speeds and in controlled conditions. Nevertheless, this almost certain re-creation of the Higgs boson was both a substantial and significant scientific and technological achievement. Some in the popular press excitedly announced that the “God particle” had been found. But what really did we learn? How, if at all, will the Higgs particle change our lives? And, of course, is this scientific milestone good for the Jews?
Let’s first put the Higgs confirmation in some historical perspective and also try to understand what it did and did not do. Without in any way intending to diminish Professor Higgs’s considerable (and Nobel worthy) intellectual conception, it is not in the same league as Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in the mid-nineteenth century CE, or Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, formulated in the early twentieth century CE. The works of Darwin and Einstein remain startling not only because of their sheer originality and innovativeness, but notable too because Darwin and Einstein accomplished their tasks essentially on their own with no massive infusion of international dollars or talent.
Higgs, by contrast, was addressing a problem in then existing quantum mechanics theory. Electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force were quite similar mathematically. But particles associated with electromagnetism were massless, while particles associated with the weak nuclear force had mass. The questions were why and how and when did this differentiation occur. Higgs’s solution was ingenious, no doubt, but still not to the degree of that of Darwin or Einstein. And construction costs for the complex powerful enough to re-create the boson reached about ten billion dollars, to which, of course, one must add maintenance and operational expenses. (See “The Higgs boson: Science’s great leap forward” at http://www.economist.com/node/21558254/. (At 4/4.))
Moreover, the work of Darwin and Einstein changed the world, and rapidly. It is not at all clear how Prof. Higgs’s idea announced forty-eight years ago has changed how we function in our daily lives today or even how we think of the universe or our place in it. The boson itself decayed rapidly after its creation in the collider, and while new avenues of research may open it is at least premature to believe that there will be any practical consequences from this re-creation in the immediate future.
Where the recreation of the Higgs boson is significant is, first, in its confirmation of Higgs’ theory and the Standard Model of Particle Physics. Had the scientists empirically falsified the existence of the Higgs particle as it was predicted, either by finding a Higgs type boson with a spin, for instance, or somehow proving that the long sought boson did not and could not have existed, then the Standard Model would have been impaired. Second, the confirmation of the Higgs field may adversely affect other models, like those named supersymmetry (“SUSY”) and Technicolor. (See “Theorists fest on Higgs data,” at http://nature.com/news/theorists-feast-on-higgs-data-1.11018. (At 2-3/5.))
So, brain power triumphs as a missing boson is found. But, is the re-creation of the Higgs boson good for the Jews, that is, aside from the Jewish scientists involved in the CERN project itself?
Rabbi Allen Maller sees similarities between Higgs’s mathematical theory and Rabbi Isaac Luria’s Kabbalah. He compares the professor’s equations regarding how the pure and formless universe at inception became differentiated as a result of resistance within a field that imparted mass to massless particles with the rabbi’s mystical conception of shattered vessels which released God’s creative energy and produced “the spiritually and morally differentiated and disharmonious, fractured universe we live in.” Both approaches, he suggests, begin with the same observation that the universe in which we live is imperfect. For Maller, the confirmation of the Higgs mechanism serves to confirm Luria’s speculation as well. “Only when perfection shatters can everything else be born,” he writes. (See “The Higgs boson and Lurianic Kabbalah,” at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-higgs-boson-and-lurianic-kabbalah/. ) Rabbi Natan Slifkin takes a less mystical approach and concludes that finding the Higgs boson is good for the Jews because “it plays a crucial role in understanding the overall unity of the universe” which he sees as support for monotheism and the unity of God whose laws govern the phenomena of the universe. (See “The Higgs-Boson and God,” at www.rationalistjudaism.com/ (July 6, 2012 Post).)
For each rabbi, the leap from empirical evidence to religious principle is one of faith, of course, but let’s consider two things. First, the Higgs boson never really was the God Particle any more than the Higgs field was the God Field. We still do not know what or who created the field or the particle which actuated it. We do not understand why the condensed symmetrical universe suddenly and explosively began to inflate just after what we view as the origin of time. We do not know what, if anything, was happening at t=0 or before the beginning of our observable universe.
Moreover, a physicist like Victor Stenger would not (and Stenger does not) find any evidence of a (supernatural) god in any science accepted model of the universe. Rather, he sees these models as “human inventions introduced to describe observations. . . . they are just what they have to be in order not to depend on the subjective point of view of the observer.” (Stenger, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning (Prometheus Books 2011) at 91.) As Professor Stephen Hawking has put it, to say that “laws of nature” were the “work of God” is “no more than a definition of God as the embodiment of the laws of nature.” It “merely substitutes one mystery for another.” (Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design (Bantam 2010), at 28-29.) So much for Spinoza.
In sum, the re-creation of the Higgs particle by scientists in controlled circumstances supports the existence of the Higgs field, but it neither proves that a god necessarily created that field nor precludes that possibility. As Leon Lederman wrote at the outset of The God Particle:
“. . . unfortunately, there are no data for the Very Beginning. None, zero. We don’t know anything about the universe until it reaches the mature age of a billionth of a trillionth of a second – that is, some very short time after creation in the Big Bang. When you read or hear anything about the birth of the universe, someone is making it up. We are in the realm of philosophy. Only God knows what happened at the Very Beginning (and so far She hasn’t let on).
(Lederman, above, at 1.)
Perhaps even more importantly, we do not have Unity. We have not, for instance, found the graviton, the theoretical elementary massless particle that supposedly mediates the force of gravity. We still lack what might be called the theory of everything, one which accounts for gravity, space and time as addressed in Einstein’s theory of general relativity, as well as the Standard Model of Particle Physics which deals with the other three fundamental forces. (See Greene, above, at 329; Lederman, above, at 341.)
And, while the Higgs mechanism may help explain the existence of conventional matter, the fact is that we do not even understand the stuff of which most of the universe consists. For all of the billions of stars we see (and don’t see), their total gravitational mass is about one-half of one percent of that of the entire universe. The total mass of more conventional matter, planets, moons and stellar dust, adds to about 3.5% of the total gravitational mass of the universe. Approximately twenty-three to twenty-five percent (23-25%) of the mass of the universe consists of dark matter, the nature and form of which is unknown and which emits no electro-magnetic radiation, but seems to exert gravitational force on conventional matter. Some scientists believe that it controls the position and stability of galaxies. Dark energy, which is “even more mysterious than the dark matter,” essentially invisible and undetectable, contributes about seventy to seventy-three percent (70-73%) of the total mass of the universe and appears (at least, since 1998) to utilize negative pressure to make the space expand. (See Stenger, above, at 98-99; Greene, above, at 302-03; Adams, above, at 55.)
Again, without further development in cosmology, it is premature to conclude that we have found God evidence in a particle, in a wave or in a field. Hawking himself noted the impossibility of the quest some time ago: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations.” (Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam 1988), at 174.) We still would not know why the universe exists. Only when we know the answer to why “would we know the mind of God.” (Id. at 175.)
So, is the Higgs mechanism and its confirmation at CERN good for the Jews? Slifkin’s instincts were right – sure it is. It is a triumph of imagination and technology, of conception and execution. It is the human mind at work, exploring, seeking to resolve, literally, the mysteries of the universe. Isn’t this what Jews do, wrestle with the unknown and attempt to understand and, then, repair the world?
Our planet has circled its Sun many times since Bar Kappara’s day. He did not know from atoms, let alone how the Higgs boson spins, or, rather, does not spin. But in the intervening years we have gained much knowledge. We have tools of which he could not have dreamt. Surely today Bar Kappara would applaud humankind’s full exercise of its brain power, for to do otherwise would truly be a sin.