Can the ‘God Particle’ lead us to God?

NASA/CXC/JPL-Caltech/UMass The Earth lies some 26,000 light years distant from the center of our home galaxy, a roiling, hot region … Continued

NASA/CXC/JPL-Caltech/UMass

The Earth lies some 26,000 light years distant from the center of our home galaxy, a roiling, hot region dense with stars and shrouded in gas. A supermassive black hole – millions of times heavier than the sun – lurks there. “We see it flaring as it chomps down on stars,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“No, the God Particle has nothing to do with God…” I must have repeated that a dozen times last week, to casual friends and inquisitive reporters, following CERN’s announcement of the possible detection of the Higgs boson… the so-called “God Particle”. I am an astronomer, not a particle physicist, but answering questions about anything new in science that might have a connection to religion is one of the unofficial tasks of anyone who works at the Vatican Observatory.

Yes, I am an astronomer at the Vatican. A lot of people are surprised to hear that the Vatican supports a fully functional astronomical observatory. We are a dozen priests and brothers, coming from four continents, mostly Jesuits with advanced degrees in astronomy and related fields from universities around the world, including Padua, Oxford, and MIT. Our research covers the gamut of astronomy – string theory and the Big Bang, galaxies and stellar evolution, meteorites and meteor showers.

We attend the same meetings and publish in the same journals as any other astronomer; after all, we studied alongside those other astronomers, we collaborate with them on our projects today, and many of them are our students. We participate in the same scientific societies; indeed, several of us have been elected to leadership positions in the International Astronomical Union and American Astronomical Society.

Our history goes back to before Galileo. In 1582, we helped develop the Gregorian Calendar that the world uses today. We made the first accurate telescopic maps of the Moon, with the nomenclature system still in use (including 35 craters named for Jesuits; it helps to have friends in high places). In the 19th century, we were the first to recover comet Halley and were pioneers in stellar spectroscopy. In the 20th century, our astronomers established an astrophysical spectra laboratory and founded the journal Spectrochimica Acta, which was actually produced at the Vatican in the years following World War 2. And today our telescope in the Arizona desert, built in collaboration with the University of Arizona, is a test bed for 21st century astronomical techniques.

This history should raise two questions. Why, with such a history of supporting astronomy, do people still believe that our religion is somehow anti-science? And on the other hand, why does a religious institution continue to support astronomers even today?

Certainly, the answer to the second is tied to the prejudices of the first; the observatory is a living witness against those who want to believe the worst of the church. (I live in the church, and know it well, faults and all. There are enough things we do badly; why do our critics still insist on making up stuff?) And we work closely with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, who advice the papacy on scientific issues. (The president of that academy in the mid 20th century was Father George Lemaître, the astrophysicist who came up with what we now call the Big Bang theory. Alas, we can’t claim him for the observatory; he was a diocesan priest teaching at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium.)

But the real reason we do science is in fact related to the reason why so many people ask us about things like the God Particle. The disciplines of science and religion complement each other in practical ways. For example, both are involved in describing things that are beyond human language and so must speak in metaphors. Not only is the “God Particle” not a piece of God, it is also not really a “particle” in the sense that a speck of dust is a particle. In both cases we use familiar images to try to illustrate an entity of great importance but whose reality is beyond our power to describe literally.

The mysteries revealed by modern science are a constant reminder that reality is bigger than our day-to-day lives. But while particle physics can seem unimaginably remote, anyone can see the stars and be moved to contemplation. As Pope Pius XI said in 1935, dedicating our telescopes on the roof of the papal summer palace, “from no part of creation does there arise a more eloquent or stronger invitation to prayer and to adoration.”

One aspect of that contemplation is to recognize both how limited our human understanding is, and yet how privileged we are to be able to learn as much as we have. One astonishing thing about the universe is that it can be, at least in part, understood. It follows laws that we can deduce, laws which are rational but also elegant and beautiful. In them we find expressed the personality of the one who fashioned those laws.

Br. Guy Consolmagno SJ, writes in advance of a workshop on “The Nature of the Evolving Universe,” sponsored by INCAI, the International Network of Catholic Astronomical Institutions, to be held at the Catholic University of America July 16-20.

  • hoc2011

    I’m a very open minded catholic. I like that the official teaching of the church is that you do NOT have to be catholic in order to enter into “Heaven”. I think this article is funny because the vatican astronomer says ” (it) has nothing to do with God”, then “not only is the God particle NOT a piece of God…”. If you are catholic then you believe that everything is God (in part) and everything came/comes from Him. I understand the astonomer trying to clarify the LITERAL implications of using the term “God particle”, but it would have been nice for him to also add the spiritual understanding that then of course it is God, because He is in everything. = )

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Can we please keep in mind that the Boson’s original name was the ‘goddamn particle.’ Religionists have a knack for confusion over semantics.

  • hoc2011

    I didn’t know…that’s pretty funny

  • SODDI

    You religious folks have been anti-science since your forefathers beat Hypatia to death in 415 AD. Catholics don’t need an astronomer. What they need is a real conscience.

    Why doesn’t the Vatican stick to what it knows, like criminal conspiracies to bugger little boys and political tantrums to deny American women access to birth control. Oh, and money laundering for European organized crime.

    A scientist for the Vatican is as laughable as a Wahabist cleric specializing in women’s rights. Oh, but wait, the Vatican has the same problem with women that the Saudi extremists do, don’t they.

  • ThomasBaum

    It is not a Catholic teaching that everything is God but that everything was created by God except for God.

    Jesus was created by God and Is God, this is what the Incarnation is about.

    It is God’s Will that ALL be saved therefore the Good News, that we have been invited to Proclaim, truly is Good News since ALL will, ultimately, be with God in God’s Kingdom, the new heavens and the new earth.

    If the Good News was not for ALL, ultimately, to be with God in God’s Kingdom than it would not be Good News at all but horrific news.

  • SODDI

    The discovery of the Higgs boson has nothing to do with your god or your jesus. It will never have anything to do with them, no matter how hard you try to distort the truth.

    Go back to your Dark Ages nattering.

  • Richard Misior

    All religions are based on the premises that are in principle unscientific. It is impossible to argue with the religious beliefs, but it is obvious from the last paragraph that we (at least the Christian religions) are now shifting from the perception of God as some kind of a father figure, keeping an eye on everything on Earth, to something very different. Something that is not in heaven but an all-encompassing universal force that is responsible for the laws of physics that allowed our universe to develop the way it had and for us to be in it. This is an interesting development, but it is incompatible with the concept of Heaven and Hell and many other religious believes. May the Force be with us.

  • itsthedax

    In answer to the article’s lead question: Oh hell, no.

    The Higgs Boson discovery is a key development in our understanding of how the universe works, and how it came to be. It has nothing to do with religion.

  • Pete

    Of course it’s to do with God unless you don’t think God created everything. You might ask if a God led us to the God Particle. Our next pursuit, with or without the help of God, must be to find the ‘Devil Particle’. So called Dark Matter, ellusive and mysterious but as ubiquitous as the objects we can see and touch everyday around us.

  • Pete

    This could be the description of the short story series I have published on Amazon about this subject! A tongue in cheek swipe at both sides of the ‘conflict theory’. You are right though about a fresh perspective on God and maybe that might help to dispel some of the conflict. Here comes the ad so stop reading now if you don’t want to see it! ‘Book (The God Particle Series)’ by Peter Lihou. And yes, ‘Book’ is part if the title. Kindle and Paperback, there’s also Book 2 and Book 3 is being written. End of Ad.

    The bottom line is, we don’t know, so it’s too early and too presumptuous to hail science or religion as the universal truth. This latest discovery, as hugely impressive as it is, simply validates a model predicted over 50 years ago. Go back around 300 years to Newton’s acclaimed theory on gravity, since discredited by Einstein, and you start to see remarkable similarities with the Higgs field.

    Neither blind faith nor scientific arrogance are likely to reveal the secrets of our Universe.

    (For readers of Book, that’s the universe on level 3!)

  • Pete, Author of ‘Book – The God Particle’

    Whether the God Particle will lead us to God or God led us to the particle, he (or it) is in there somewhere!

    The concept of God maybe a superstitious irrelevance, maybe what religion proclaims, or maybe something we haven’t yet come to understand.

    Guy’s article and some of the comments in reply could be a taster for the short story series I have published on Amazon about this subject! A tongue in cheek swipe at both sides of the ‘conflict theory’. Perhaps a fresh perspective on God might help to dispel some of the conflict.

    Here comes the ad so stop reading now if you don’t want to see it! ‘Book (The God Particle Series)’ by Peter Lihou. And yes, ‘Book’ is part if the title. Kindle and Paperback, there’s also Book 2 and Book 3 is being written. End of Ad.

    The bottom line is, we don’t know, so it’s too early and too presumptuous to hail science or religion as the universal truth. This latest discovery, as hugely impressive as it is, simply validates a model predicted over 50 years ago. Go back around 300 years to Newton’s acclaimed theory on gravity, since discredited by Einstein, and you start to see remarkable similarities with the Higgs field.

    Neither blind faith nor scientific arrogance are likely to reveal the secrets of our Universe. (For readers of Book, that’s the universe on level 3!)

    On now to search for The Devil Particle – Dark Matter. Ellusive and mysterious but as ubiquitous as the everyday world around us.

  • ThomasBaum

    If it is than God created it.

  • ThomasBaum

    Science is the study of the physical universe, what is so complicated about what science is about?

    Science is the study of the how, it doesn’t even attempt to look into the why or even to look into if there is a why.

    I find it rather interesting that some of the fundamentalist atheists are the mirror image of fundamentalist theists.

    What is also interesting about this to me, is that they seem to be blind to this.

    Not all atheists are fundamentalists in their viewpoint even as not all theists are fundamentalists in their viewpoint.

  • ThomasBaum

    The question was: Can the ‘God Particle’ lead us to God?

    It wasn’t, Can the ‘God Particle’ lead us to religion?

    As you put it, science is about the how.

    Science is not about the why or even if there is a why.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    You are correct in a sense, but the ‘fundamentals’ of the two positions could not be more different.

    By the way, philosophy is what looks into the ‘why.’ Philosophy begins where religion ends just as astronomy begins where astrology ends.

  • larryclyons

    No, the Vatican Observatory is a very well respected institution in astronomy. They do real research there. Of all the vatican institutions, this is the least tainted.

  • itsthedax

    Well, you’re correct that our various religions have very little to do with god.

    And by establishing how matter attains mass, the CERN particle physicists have established why the universe attained its current state: It was pretty much gravity at work.

  • Dorothy A. Monahan

    I see God;s face and its has change my face. The universe (verse) are the same. Learning how to read and understand “HEAVENLY”>

  • ThomasBaum

    By why, I am referring to whether or not there is a reason that there even is a universe not the physical happenings that brought it about.

    In other words, is it just a fluke and ultimately meaningless or is there an ultimate reality, so to speak, behind the reality that we look at as the physical universe.

    By how, I am speaking of the physical “laws” that brought about the universe and of which science is the study of.

  • itsthedax

    Neither. The universe formed in accordance to the laws of physics. It could not have happened otherwise. But there is no reason to attribute it to some external cause.

  • PhillyJimi1

    Pete, Einstein didn’t discredit Newton’s ideas on gravity. Newton had no idea why there was gravity but he was able to established the laws of motion that are still being taught in physics classes today. Science builds on top of it’s previous discoveries. While religions seem to like to fly planes into building of people who don’t think like they do.

    I have no idea what you mean by “Universal truth”. It sounds like something that would come out of the mouth of a preacher on Sunday. While it sounds impressive, it doesn’t actually mean anything. I could claim to be seeking the “purpose of meaning” to describe some BS.

    You said, “Neither blind faith nor scientific arrogance are likely to reveal the secrets of our Universe.” Here you go again, what exactly is “scientific arrogance”? Arrogance is a human trait. Science can’t be arrogant as much as a rock can’t be arrogant. Religion can’t explain the secrets of the Universe, even if it could science would be required to verify it.

  • PhillyJimi1

    Thomas, if your god “is” then who created god?

  • ThomasBaum

    I was taught quite a while ago in an astronomy class that in computer mock-ups, or whatever they might be called, that in attempting to check out the big bang that they could go so far back and then all of the “laws” broke down.

    Is this still an impasse for scientists?

  • itsthedax

    Hawking’s work goes a long way to explain the physics that led to the singularity that resulted inthe current state of our expanding universe.

  • www.mforums.org

    I believe this will bring us one step closer to understanding gods work!

    Ryan clearwater
    http://www.mforums.org

  • ThomasBaum

    Could be, but do the “laws” still break down in scientist’s computer models or don’t they?

  • ThomasBaum

    No one, but not to worry since many who believe in God have quite a small idea of God but this is understandable since God, by definition, is way beyond our ability to conceive of.

    Does science say that there was always something?

    Does science say that at one time there was nothing and by nothing I mean nothing?

    As far as I know, science says that there was always something but that this something got rearranged, is this not so?

  • larryclyons

    People please realized that the so called God Particle was named such by an editor because he didn’t want to risk the complaints, as smt123 said in another thread:

    “um… Leon Lederman, a physicist, named it the god particle. Lederman said he gave it a nickname because the particle is “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive,”and added that he chose “the God particle” because “the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.” “

  • itsthedax

    What laws are you referring to?

  • Rongoklunk

    I believe this will bring us one step closer to understanding that there is no God, and never was. It’s a myth passed down to us by our incredibly superstitious ancestors who didn’t know any better.

    Google “Neil DeGrasse Tyson”, or “The Perimeter of Ignorance” for an intelligent look of those ancient times.

  • ThomasBaum

    As far as I know, basically all of the natural laws that science has discovered.

    That is why the computer mock-ups broke down, all of the physical laws broke down which in turn made all of the mathematical formulas worthless in trying to get any closer to the moment of the big bang.

  • Pete, Author of ‘Book – The God Particle’

    You are wrong PhillyJimi1. Newton postulated a force field that Einstein ‘proved’ not to exist. Not understanding what I mean about scientific arogance is a symptom of your condition. Just as not understanding that there is universal truth that in many areas this still alludes us.

    However, I do not wish to contribute to the conflict theory you seem keen to support. I concede that science is capable of verifying the secrets of the universe but mankind’s practice of science at this stage in our evolution is a long way from allowing this.

    You don’t know, and neither do I, if religion can explain the secrets of the universe. To have blind faith that it can’t is as narrow minded as blind faith that it can.

  • itsthedax

    Well, if you want to ask about the validity of experiments or research, you’re going to have to say what experiments, research or scientific work you’re questioning. I can only respond to things that have actually happened; not to the “computer mock-ups” that exist only in your mind.

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