Jesus the Higgs boson

I am often asked what the ‘God particle’ (i.e. the Higgs boson) has to do with God. A few months ago I wrote an article for the Diocese of Edinburgh magazine, The Edge, attempting to give a novel angle on that question, specifically within the context of a Christian confessional response. Since people have been e-mailing me from far and wide ever since, asking for a copy, I thought I’d post it on our new blog. Here it is…

‘Why is it called the God particle?’ people often ask me. The Higgs boson was predicted nearly 50 years ago by, among others, our own Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, but has leapt to the fore recently because it appears to have been discovered experimentally. This is big news in science, since the Standard Model of particle physics pretty much stands or falls on whether it exists or not, and the Standard Model is the best scientific explanation we have at the moment for why there are particles – things rather than nothing. Now there are many different particles – some of them have mass (you can weigh them) and some don’t. And this is why the Higgs boson is so important: it confers that most basic of physical properties – mass – to other particles. That, and the fact it’s been so difficult to discover, is the reason it’s earned itself the name of ‘the God particle’. It’s a moot point what it might tell us about God though.

Such is the bizarreness of physics that you can also understand particles like the Higgs in terms of a field, like a forcefield. So you’ll hear scientists talking about the ‘Higgs field’. This is confusing, I admit. Particles are little specks of matter; a field is something nebulous spread out in space, the complete opposite of a particle. Why you can use two completely opposite descriptions has never been entirely clear; it seems to be one of mysterious outcomes of the quantum world. But it means you can come up with some good hand-waving explanations. Here’s a memorable one. Think of a crowded pub. I go in to order a drink, but it’s so crowded that it takes me some time to work my way through to the bar. Then a celebrity comes in, and he’s pulled every which way by admirers, and it takes him much longer to get to the bar. As a particle, he’s made massive by the Higgs field of admirers interacting with him, while I have no weight at all because I’m anonymous: I don’t interact with anyone.

I was put in mind of this picture by some of the Gospel readings in the Sunday lectionary this summer, where Jesus is invariably surrounded by crowds who stick to him so closely he can’t shake them off. The crowd is like the Higgs field, the huge mass Jesus carries around with him: the cares and concerns of the whole world. He can’t escape them; they’re a basic part of his identity. Simply by being who he is, he attracts people to himself, and their needs. Unlike the rest of us, who might get irritable with the constant demands, we see Jesus at his best here. He is the Good Shepherd, we’re told; the Bread of life; the Light of the world; the way, the truth, and the life; the answer to the needs of the world. They stick to him; he carries them around with him, radiating justice, resolution, and healing as he does so. I myself am able to solve rather few people’s problems. I am very lightweight compared to Jesus – indeed, massless. Jesus though, takes on the concerns of the world. He is as heavy as the world is heavy.

Admittedly, this is a rather contrived connection between the Higgs boson and the story of Jesus – between the God particle and ‘God made flesh’ – but it’s often at the level of creative analogy like this that I think we best understand the religious dimensions of science, rather than by debating God’s existence. Science, with the best intentions in the world, can say rather little about such a picture of God seen as the Good Shepherd. What is the cross to science? Nothing but the death of one man. Yes, but to Christians, it is that which bears the mass of the world.

3 thoughts on “Jesus the Higgs boson

  1. It seems to me that the particularity of Jesus is a (?the) central issue. Is there anything that marks him out as unique. His death must be THE most famous death in history; a lot of “mass” clings to that and the experience of resurrection. It would be interesting to do a survey across a sample population (not exclusively church) of experiences of the risen Christ.

    • Yes, you’re right that I put a heavy store on the uniqueness of Jesus in that analogy, although hopefully not to the extent of being Apollinarian. I was thinking that it works in a similar way to the Christological statements/analogies in John’s Gospel, e.g. ‘I am the bread of life’.

  2. It’s beyond my mathematical comfort zone but there was a note in the New Scientist (23 March 2013) stating that a team at the University of York have modelled a “minimal” black hole with “only” an inside and an outside. To their surprise this object reproduces a lot of the features of black holes that were thought to rely on gravity (including Hawking radiation). Apparently this toy black hole also dodges the Firewall Paradox. The toy suggests that gravity is not a fundamental property of the universe but is an EMERGENT property. “Instead of being a cutesy picture it’s a fantastic contender for the real physics” according to Samuel Braunstein of York University.

Comments are closed.