Allan Powell: Introducing Higgs boson as latest wonder of science

August 09, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

On July 4, a large assembly of scientists in Geneva, Switzerland announced that, after spending $10 billion, employing 6,000 researchers and directing tiny subatomic particles on a collision course of 17 miles, they had found what they were looking for.

What they found was another tiny particle to be called the Higgs boson, the existence of which they had long suspected. The idea that still another subatomic particle might exist was proposed in 1964 by physicist Peter Higgs. It is an understatement to say that this achievement was remarkable.

The story of the uncovering of matter to reveal its atomic and subatomic composition is a testimony to the validity of the theory, method and attitudes of what we call science. It was in Greece, during the 5th century BCE, that a small number of philosophers (called atomists) promoted some of the earliest and most useful ideas about the structure of nature.

Yet, there are probably only a few who would recognize the names “Democratus” or “Leucippus” as among those original thinkers. They were contemporaries of Plato and Aristotle, who dominated the ancient field of philosophy. No matter, they have had a profound influence on the development of science. They coined the term “atom” by which they meant the final particle that would result after a sequence of cuts. These tiny particles were indivisible and indestructible which, when combined, were the elements making the up cosmos.

These early materialists initiated the journey toward the modern view of causality and natural law. Leucippus wrote, “Naught happens for nothing, but everything from a ground and of necessity.” Much of what they thought is recognizable in the first law of thermodynamics: All matter and energy in the universe is constant. It is also compatible with Einstein’s theory E=MC or the equivalence of mass and energy.

The hypothetical atom of the Greek thinkers was not physically verified until much later, and then on a step-by-step fashion as the atom’s nucleus, electrons, protons and neutrons (referred to as sub-atomic particles) were discovered. With the discovery of the Higgs boson (particle) there is optimistic speculation about a whole new future open for research.

Of interest was the fact that not one of the specialists whom I referenced took the time to define a “boson.” No wonder: Wikipedia used five pages to explain this newcomer to the subatomic family. The following is a reduced statement that will help somewhat.

Bosons are subatomic particles that are verified by the use of Bose-Einstein statistics. This is to say that science records its proof by mathematics that can be verified or falsified by other observers. This research shows that we are still cutting and finding small particles from an atom. Only time will tell if we have reached the end of the road in discovering the last “uncutable” particle.

Another point of interest is the linkage of divine influence within the structure of this particular particle, making it “the God particle.” This is because this particle is credited with endowing other particles with the quantitative substance, called mass, that bonds the universe.

Given this critical, essential function, it is not surprising that this particle would be given special status. Nonetheless, it is confusing to those who are unaware of a fundamental assumption of science called naturalism. This point of view assumes that the cosmos is self-existing, self-operating and self-explanatory, without reference to extranatural forces.

Still, this event is of huge magnitude similar to the announcement in 1905 of the Special Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein. There have been statements made by competent physicists to the effect that Peter Higgs will achieve the notoriety ascribed to other leading physicists.

That may turn out to be true, but when Higgs got word that his early prediction that such a particle would be eventually discovered had actually been proved, he was a poster boy for modestly. “I never expected this to happen in my lifetime and shall be asking my family to put some champagne in the fridge.”

Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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