You Too Can Get Particle Fever!

Contributed by:
Frank Pennington
United Church of Christ
Institute Advisory Committee Member


“Higgs boson” is not the name of a Swedish bobsled racer but the term to describe a scientific find having theological/ metaphysical as well as groundbreaking importance for particle physics. The Higgs particle in an elementary particle initially theorized in 1964, the discovery of which was announced on July 4th, 2012. The Higgs boson particle, named after Peter Higgs one of six physicists who in 1964 proposed its existence, is monumental not only because its discovery was the culmination of the most expensive science project ever, but because it apparently is the key particle which holds the universe together.  It has been called the “God particle” because it is elemental to explaining how everything in the universe works.  Simply, the Higgs boson particle is the fundamental catalyst for everything. The Higgs boson particle is THE elemental particle! To paraphrase the biblical Book of Genesis, in the beginning, there was the Higgs boson.
Obviously, the scientific and metaphysical impact of finding the Higgs boson at CERN in Switzerland using the very advanced technology of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) cannot be simply communicated.  Initiated in the 1980’s and known as the “Atlas Experiment,” this project has involved 10,000 people from 100 countries and the use of 100,000 computers to process the data. While the discovery of the Higgs boson particle is complex, a new documentary film Particle Fever has recently been released and is currently showing in the Philadelphia region and nationally. The  film is not just an explanation of what all the fuss is about, but is dramatically riveting; you can check out a review at filmjournal.comand view the film’s promotional trailer at particlefever.com/

My interest in the conversation between religion, spirituality and science/technology has led me on a long, strange trip. I was schooled in the thinking that religion and science had nothing in common and the more sophisticated one became, the less a religious worldview held credence. “God” was the concept we used to explain what “science” would eventually clarify. We call this god the “God of the gaps.” However, it seems as if the more our scientific worldview expands, the deeper the metaphysical questions become.  In other words, the questions about the origin and character of the universe aren’t reduced but seemingly more elegant and subtle. “Knowledge” is a process not resolved in absolutes (either religious or scientific) but enlivened with fresh questions about meaning.
The cosmological concept of the three- tiered universe is dead, but that doesn’t mean God is! Perhaps the traditional “god” of both religion and science is just too small.  Allow me to invite you on a movie date—go see “Particle Fever,” because it just might blow your mind.  Catch it at a theater near you! I’ll spring for the buttered popcorn.  The quest for the Higgs boson may have been the most expensive science project ever but your personal thrill ride will only be the cost of a theater ticket.
Actually, I paid the admission this past Friday and sat transfixed through the account of a monumental discovery.  While not “dumbing down” the science behind the detective work, a very genuine and human picture evolved of the people who dedicated talent and time to the project. “Particle Fever” is beautifully and artfully filmed and an homage to the humor, resolve, and pathos underwriting any great discovery. The film concludes with shots of the wonderful ancient cave paintings filmed by Werner Herzog (“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” 2010)and the observation that explorations in science and art may not always make all that much sense in terms of economic value. However, these advances are what make us human. And, I add, as long as there is a profound sense of mystery there will exist within humanity the pulse of spirituality. “Particle Fever” does not editorialize about the religion/science “debate.” Rather, the message is, in the language of the popular television series of the 1990’s “The X- Files,” “The Truth Is Out There.” At our best, it would seem our species has a penchant for the quest toward enlightenment. This quest is uplifted in “Particle Fever” and my counsel is you should witness it.  Awe is the spiritual energy enticing us forward and there is a pervasive presence of humanity’s awe in this magical quest for the Higgs boson.

Leave a Reply