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04 July 2012

God, us and the Higgs boson

God, us and the Higgs boson

Revd Canon J John, director of the Philo Trust, writes...

Let's be honest; you don't know what a Higgs boson is and I don't either. A science friend of mine asked three of his colleagues with physics degrees about it and only one could even make a vague attempt at a satisfactory explanation. You could probably fit everybody in Britain with any real knowledge on the subject in a jumbo jet and still have empty seats. Nevertheless, it is clearly important and three thoughts spring to mind.

First, I find what it says about the extent of our knowledge about the universe very significant. Those who make evolution into a religious belief make much of our closeness to the apes. Yet the fact that we are able to understand this much of the cosmos makes it clear how enormous the gulf is between us and even our closest biological relatives.

There has been a great deal of discussion about what it means for human beings to be made (as Genesis 1:27 teaches) in "the image of God". Surely, however, one implication of being made in the Creator's image is that we have some ability to understand and appreciate God's accomplishments. Some 400 years ago the great Christian astronomer Johannes Kepler declared that, in his study of the universe, he was "thinking God's thoughts after Him".

In unravelling the secrets of the atom we find ourselves like children staring at something complex made by our parents – some intricate mechanism, some detailed tapestry perhaps – and trying to work out how they did it.

Second, the bewildering if elegant world of atomic physics reminds us how insubstantial the universe is. As I understand it, everything in the physical world is in effect emptiness held together by atoms and the atoms themselves are little more than a nothingness held together by force.

What we consider to be solid and real is in fact remarkably insubstantial. Indeed, current theories of the cosmos propose that at the time of the Big Bang the entire universe was compressed into something no larger than a grapefruit and since then it has expanded into the awesome vastness of the cosmos. In Isaiah 42:5 we read: "This is what God the Lordsays – the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it."

If physics is correct we now know that when God did the stretching out of the heavens it was on a truly epic scale. The appeal of the atheist to 'solid reality' sounds a little hollow when you realise how very far from solid reality really is.

Third, I can't resist commenting on the fact that the Higgs boson is being widely touted as 'the God particle' because of its significance in making the universe exist. Yes, I know the professionals don't like the term but it's undeniable that that word 'God' helps the rather dull subject of physics get press coverage.

There's a lovely irony here in the way that God is now being mentioned in connection with the creation of the universe! I'm reminded of how St Paul says of God that He has never left human beings "without evidence of Himself and His goodness" (Acts 14:17).

Try as you will, you can't erase God from creation; He has left His fingerprints all over it. And it's also worth remembering that in treating the Higgs boson this way there's a substantial error of scale: it's not just the 'God particle', it's the 'God universe'.

Revd Canon J John

Director, Philo Trust