2012-07-05

Higgs boson and on anon.

"The world might not change, but my world certainly has."
- Lisa Randall, theoretical physicist, Harvard University,
commenting on yesterday's Higgs boson announcement.

The recent apparent discovery of the Higgs boson has "changed the world" for physicists. How about for the rest of us?

Religion's job -- one of them -- is to provide a story that helps us make sense of our self and our world. The thing is: a lot of religious stories are rather fixed. The world may go through a renaissance, a birth of science, an age of reason (17th and 18th centuries), an industrial revolution (19th century), and emerge into a postmodern information age, but some religious stories are barely revised. I don't say that such religious stories grow disconnected from life -- for every detail of life is colored by spiritual awareness, whether that awareness is tied to an old and fixed story or not. Still, a fixed story is, for better and for worse, impervious to the march of knowledge.

A key characteristic of liberal religion is that it is integrative. As new knowledge emerges -- in physics, biology, ecology, brain sciences, psychology, sociology, economics, or anything -- liberal religion looks to integrate that knowledge into human spiritual life.

If we can tell a story about Noah and the flood, or Arjuna's realization on the battlefield, or Mohammed receiving the Koran, or Bodhidharma sitting in a cave for nine years, and integrate that story into our spiritual understanding, can we also integrate into our spiritual lives a story about a Higgs boson? The Higgs boson has, after all, been called "the God particle," so you'd think there might be some religious significance in the discovery.

When I say, our "spiritual lives," let's take, for now, as our operational definition, this graphic circulating on Facebook:


How will discovery of the Higgs boson help with these 12 qualities? Perhaps you are imagining that we will now be able to make a ray gun that will zap people with Higgs bosons thereby imbuing them with these traits. No, that ain't gonna happen. Besides, the question here isn't what, if anything, can be done with Higgs bosons, but what, if anything, can be done with knowledge about Higgs bosons.

A single episode -- the story of Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery, or of Prince Siddhartha venturing beyond the palace walls to encounter sickness, old age, and death -- does not a religious tradition make. Single episodes, by themselves, don't do much to evoke any of the 12 "symptoms of spiritual awakening." Rather, such episodes are parts of much greater narratives that, in combination with spiritual practice, sometimes facilitate emergence of those symptoms.

The Higgs boson discovery is, like the boson itself, a tiny particle. The discovery is a small part of much larger story about our universe that has been unfolding since, roughly, the mid-1600s.

The narrative tradition of a religion often includes, as part of the package for facilitating making sense of ourselves and our lives, some account of what sort of world this is. For liberal religion, we look to science for large portions of this account. Thus, we understand that ours is a universe of forces, particles, and force-particles.

1. Ours is a universe of four basic forces.
(a). Gravity. This pulls objects toward each other with a force proportional the mass of the objects and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
(b). Electromagnetism. This is the force in magnets and electricity. Light, being a form of electromagnetic radiation, is a form of this force.
(c). Strong. This holds protons and neutrons together, and doesn't seem to do much of anything else.
(d). Weak. This force is responsible for atomic decay, radiation, and, inside stars, allows hydrogen atoms to fuse to become helium, producing light and heat in the process.

2. Ours is a universe of 12 basic particles.
(a). Six quarks: up, down, strange, charm, top and bottom. Two up quarks and one down quark make a proton. Two down quarks and one up quark make a neutron.
(b). Six leptons: the electron, electron neutrino, muon, muon neutrino, tau and tau neutrino.

3. Ours is a universe that also has bosons. Bosons are the "force-particles" -- particles that carry force. Bosons include:
(a). Photons, which carry the electromagnetic force.
(b). W and Z bosons, which carry the weak force.
(c). Gluons, which carry the strong force. Gluons hold together the up and down quarks that make the protons and neutrons.

What's missing? Listed are bosons for three forces. What about the fourth force? What about gravity? Theory -- that is, the "standard model" of physics -- would hold that there must be a boson to carry the gravity force. Is this where the news about the Higgs boson comes into the picture? Almost, but not quite.

The Higgs boson is not the boson that carries gravity. Rather, the boson that carries gravity is called the graviton. Gravitons are hypothetical entities that are very unlikely to ever be observed. (Because the interaction between gravitons and matter is so extremely low, even a detector with the mass of Jupiter placed in close orbit around a neutron star would observe only one graviton in 10 years -- and it would be impossible to distinguish from a background neutrino.)

While the graviton carries the gravitational force between two masses, the Higgs boson actually gives the objects their mass. Gravitational force comes from the interaction of a gravitational field with an object's mass. The graviton makes the gravitational field, and the Higgs boson makes the mass. The graviton, we might say, carries gravity -- which the Higgs boson receives.

Or, put it this way:
"The Higgs boson is associated with a field, called the Higgs field, theorized to pervade the universe. As other particles travel though this field, they acquire mass much as swimmers moving through a pool get wet, the thinking goes. "The Higgs mechanism is the thing that allows us to understand how the particles acquire mass," said Joao Guimaraes da Costa, a physicist at Harvard University." (Fox News Article: see here).
The Higgs boson, like all the bosons, is a "carrier." Photons carry electromagnatism, gluons carry the strong force, and Higgs bosons carry mass.

What does any of this have to do with letting things happen instead of making them, smiling, connection, "overwhelming episodes of appreciation," spontaneity, moment-by-moment enjoyment, etc.? Why are you reading about the Higgs boson on a minister's blog instead of a physicist's?

Wonder

The sense of mystery and wonder is central to religious and spiritual experience. For millenia of human history, it has been the role of priests and shamans to say, "There is a world beyond the world of our ordinary experience -- very different, yet more real. There's something fundamentally illusory about the world of our senses." Now it is the role of scientists to (also) tell us that.

The news about Higgs bosons is an invitation to wonder. It is a piece of a much larger story telling us that everything that happens is interactions of four forces and 12 particles, mediated by a handful or so of "force-particle" carriers. That's a very different reality from what our unaided senses represent to us. Awareness of this gap between reality and ordinary perception may, if we let it, help us to let go of our attachments, our worries, our judgments of self and other -- all of which are based on perceptions which, finally, are not real.

If you're interested in cultivating those 12 symptoms of spiritual awakening, there are a number of practices you might try. Taking some time to teach yourself some quantum physics could well be a helpful supplementary practice for a life of dwelling in the mystery.

Whether you understand what physicists are saying about the Higgs boson very well, pretty well, a little bit, or not at all, it is an invitation to profoundly experience the irreducible mystery and weirdness (in both its old and its modern meanings) of this reality we inhabit -- because -- here's the thing -- the better we understand the science, the deeper the mystery is revealed to be.

To have a quality of mystery infusing our life with inner peace, the liberal religious path calls for active, dynamic mystery rather than passive, static mystery. My sense of mystery is active when it spurs me to action to study and explore, rather than passively note. The mystery, when actively engaged, is dynamic: deepening and widening the more we grapple with it.

Wonder Beyond Wonder

One of religion's jobs, as I said, is to provide stories that help us make sense of ourselves and our world. Narrative and metaphor are the stuff of which our psyches are made, the stuff of which all our illusions of understanding are composed. The basic story of physics tells of particles, forces, carriers, mediators, fields, and objects acquiring "mass much as swimmers moving through a pool get wet."

Or both. At the same time, if science does move and
inspire you, you might still understand neither
science nor yourself. But inspiration is always
a good start on the path.
This physics story is a tale of mysterious reality, yet physics points also toward a deeper, storyless, mystery. The "particles" we're talking about are not particles. The forces are not forces, fields are not fields, and mass itself isn't anything like what we imagine. For professional physicists, these words even cease to be words in the usual way. They are, instead, terms in a mathematical language. Each term's meaning consists in the places it occupies in various interlocking equations, and those meanings resist translation into the narrative and metaphor on which human brains rely for (our illusions of) understanding. Thus there is, in contemporary physics, a powerful call to humility. (Humility isn't mentioned in the above graphic on "12 Symptoms of Spiritual Awakening" but which easily could have been and is, I think, an implied correlate of many or all of those symptoms.)

Time, for instance. Our brains, built to understand through narrative and metaphor, can't help but wonder what was "before" the Big Bang. In the physicist's equations, though, time is a relation between events. No events, no time. No time, no "before." Mathematically, no problem. "But that makes no sense," says the narrative brain which generates (what feels like) understanding. The need for story cannot be met, for there can be no story without events in chronological relation.

The best that story can do is point to its own inherent falsity and thereby point toward the truth that cannot be said. The best that words can do is usher toward silence.
"Our work is just beginning."
- Meenakshi Narain, physicist, Brown University,
commenting on yesterday's Higgs boson announcement.