Did God stop CERN from discovering the “God particle”?

collider-1The great quantum physicist Niels Bohr once said a colleague’s new theory was crazy, but perhaps not crazy enough to be correct. Two scientists seem to have taken that approach to heart when they speculated that God may have shut down the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva to keep it from discovering the elusive “God particle.” (Photo: Part of the Large Hadron Collider, 22 March 2007/Denis Balibouse)

According to an essay in the New York Times, the scientists are trying to explain why the collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator turned on with great fanfare in September 2008 by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), was closed down for major repairs just over a week later. The 3 billion-euro collider was supposed to track down the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle believed to have given mass to the universe milliseconds after the Big Bang created it some 15 billion years ago.

Physicists think this minuscule speck of matter, if ever found, could explain the mysterious code at the origin of the physical world. To know this would be to “know the mind of God”, as Einstein put it. The Nobel Prize winning physicist Leon Lederman dubbed the Higgs boson the “God particle” in a book of the same name 15 years ago.

Now, Holger Bech Nielsen of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen has reached back to the God symbolism to explain what went wrong at CERN. He and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto have suggested, as Times science writer Dennis Overbye put it, that “the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveller who goes back in time to kill his grandfather”.

This is heavy stuff, and it gets heavier.

collider-2“It must be our prediction that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck,” Dr. Nielsen said in an e-mail to Overbye. In an unpublished essay, Overbye relates, Dr. Nielson said of the theory, “Well, one could even almost say that we have a model for God.” It is their guess, he went on, “that He rather hates Higgs particles, and attempts to avoid them.”

The scientist who leaves room for spirituality

bde-11 (Photos: Bernard d’Espagnat, 13 March 2009/Charles Platiau)

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once wrote that he “had to deny knowledge to make room for faith.” The French physicist Bernard d’Espagnat hasn’t denied knowledge in his long career developing the philosophy that won him this year’s $1.42 million Templeton Prize. He was pursuing knowledge to better understand what we can know about the ultimate reality of the world. But just like his philosophy echoes that of Kant’s with its conviction that there are limits on knowing reality, his work leaves some room — he would say for spirituality — by saying that human intuitions like art, music and spirituality can help us go further when science searching to understand the world reaches the end of its tether.

D’Espagnat’s prize was announced at UNESCO in Paris on Monday. The quantum physics at the core of his work presents baffling insights about reality, but his philosophical conclusions from them sound like common sense. Science is an amazing discipline that opens vast areas of knowledge but cannot go all the way to explaining ultimate reality. There’s a mystery at the core of our existence that we can get a little closer to through the untestable but undeniable intuitions we have. That “little closer” still leaves a large black hole in our knowledge, but it is more than we have if we only rely on empirical science.

As often happens in cases like this, d’Espagnat was available for embargoed interviews several days before the prize was announced. I had the pleasure of meeting him on Friday at the Lutetia, a five-star hotel only a short bike ride from my more modest digs in Paris. Now 87 years old, d’Espagnat can look back on a long and illustrious career as a senior physicist at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, professor at the University of Paris (at its science hub in the suburb of Orsay) and guest lecturer at universities and conferences abroad. His latest book in English, On Physics and Philosophy, came out in the United States in 2006.