Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Do you believe in the god-particle?

Today I was giving a presentation to some young students about Physics, and at the end I asked them if there were any questions. This is the ripper question I got:

"Do you believe in the god-particle?"

Where do you start with a question like that? What an opportunity to talk about science! how deep do I go? do I start from scratch? did he really mean it like that? It floored me. I didn't expect it.

I'll deconstruct the question, then answer it.

"Do you believe..."

I don't believe in science. You can't do that. It's fact based on evidence, observation, theories and laws. It's like asking if you believe in the letter N?  Neil deGrasse Tyson has a great quote (and a pretty funky vest) on this. "The good thing about science is that it's true, whether or not you believe in it"

Faith and science are very different things. Faith demands that you have to believe something for no logical reason, just because it is written or told to you. There is no questioning in faith, in fact questioning faith makes no sense, the answer to your questions will always end up as, "It just is.""Why?, cos it just is!" So when I'm asked a question about faith in a Physics context, it is a non-sensical question. Science, or in this case Physics, is a pursuit of knowledge through experimentation and questioning, making hypotheses and then changing them, if needed, based on evidence and research. There's nothing to believe in here, it's a process. I can believe that when I do the shopping there'll be some ripe bananas there, but I can't believe in the process of going shopping. 

I find that if you substitute the work think for believe, it makes my point clearer. "I think there'll be some ripe bananas at the shops," and "I think shopping" It doesn't make sense. "Do you believe in Physics?" is just as non-sensical as "Do you think Physics?"

The god-particle

The Higgs boson has absolutely nothing to do with god, and everything to do with many, many intelligent and hard working scientist, experimentalists, theoreticians and all the others that work at the Large Hadron Collider. There are rumours that say that the name came from the fact that it explains everything and therefore creates the response "god-damn" (shortened to god) particle, but who knows if it is true or not. To me it doesn't matter. That isn't its name and no-one I know calls it that.

The Higgs boson was a missing piece in what is called the standard model in Physics. Sort of like the particle physicists version of the periodic table of the elements. It is a nice neat table and shows what goes where. Depending on the position of the fundamental particle in the table, gives it different properties etc. the fact that the Higgs particle was missing, didn't mean it was a complete mystery, we had a pretty good idea of where to look for the particle. 

We have now found a Higgs boson. Notice I said a Higgs boson, not the Higgs boson, there's a difference. If  it is the Higgs boson, then we all give each other high-fives, cos we got it right. If it's a Higgs boson, then, again, we get to give each other high-fives, cos now we get to make new physics. No matter what it is, and we still don't know, (the latest is that there is "evidence to suggest..." that it's the standard model Higgs) is that physics is changing in front of our eyes, and I find that very exiting.

The Higgs boson is no longer something we think is there, we know it's there and we can show that with a silly amount of certainty. It is no longer theoretical. We have done many experiments and will continue to do more experiments to figure stuff out about the Higgs boson. Next year when the LHC is turned back on, it'll be cranked up to twice the energy that it previously was, there fore we'll probably see more Higgs bosons, more evidence, and hopefully some more new physics

So to answer the question, finally. 

No, I don't believe in the god-particle. I know there is a Higgs Boson.

I'm not sure the student who asked the question was expecting the answer I gave hime (which I admit was a light hearted rant, but a rant nonetheless!), he probably just wanted to sound like he knew what he was talking about, or he was completely trolling me, or he was actually interested and he'll leave that question now with a netter understanding of the Higgs boson. Who knows. It did floor me though. I like the fact that I can answer This. I could have said yes (which I think is what he was after), I could have said no, which is what I meant, but instead I tried to communicate physics to him. I hope I did alright.

tl;dr No

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