Your Mamma’s So Fat, She Would Have Mass Even Without the Higgs Field!

There’s nothing quite as sad as an unfunny satire. At least, that’s what I assume that this editorial in The Globe and Mail is supposed to be. I almost feel bad drawing attention to it; it’s not nearly as offensive to the mind as most editorial commentary on the subject of science and religion, and it has a choked, sputtering sort of whimsy wafting-up off of it that inspires pity more than anything.

That said, it still needs some picking apart, so here goes: After some allegedly-humourous attempts to explain what the Higgs field actually does, we come to the crux of the editorial (and, I can only assume that, in spite of the editorial’s whimsicality, they are attempting to make this argument in seriousness, otherwise…why would they bother giving editorial space over to this in the first place):

With Tuesday’s announcement, it seems the God particle is more aptly nicknamed than perhaps was originally thought...now it is apparent that, like the gods of many monotheistic religions, [the Higgs Boson] appears to be everywhere but is never quite detectable.

(Except, of course, the reason that there was an announcement on Tuesday was because they thought that they might have detected the Higgs Boson; so I suppose really the editorial writers should be saying “like the gods of many monotheistic religions, the Higgs boson appears to be situated in the 124-126 GeV range.”)

“All we humans can do is narrow the places we look, and if we don’t find it, look elsewhere. We could also lose faith and abandon the search, or consider the Higgs boson a fairy tale and never look at all, but that is not in keeping with Shakespeare’s noble, reasoning creature, “in apprehension how like a god!””

First of all: Hamlet was being sarcastic. Seeing as this writer obviously isn’t being employed for his scientific acumen, you’d think that he could at least get his literary references in order! Secondly, should I take this to be a ringing endorsement of the God of the Gaps? Moreover, now that I think about it, since when have people of faith ever just meekly accepted that God was not in a place? While it’s true that physicists are trying to localize the Higgs boson to a specific place, it seems like most believers are adamant about God being everywhere.

And here we see the consequences of violating the cardinal rule of satire: namely, only satirize things that you actually understand! What we have here is a shallow parody; in essence, this editorial is to high-energy physics and theology what Seltzer and Friedberg are to movies: constructing an entire “parody” of a new offering based only on the trailers.

But if pork-fisted satire was the only problem with this editorial, I would probably leave it be. But no: the writer then draws upon his ‘insights’ in the previous paragraph to equate theology with science, and then uses this to (implicitly) slam atheists:

To paraphrase Psalm 14, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no Higgs boson.” Tuesday’s announcement is a testament to our constant search for meaning and understanding, and proof that whether we look for answers inside an atom or inside a place of worship, it is the search that makes us divine.

Here we see a nice piece of equivocation, all-too-common amongst liberal theologians, which can be summarized basically as “scientists probe the mysteries of nature,

theologians study the mysteries of God,

God created/is nature,

therefore, Science and Theology are one.”

The main problem that I have with this argument is not that I don’t find Human curiosity to be magnificent (even, perhaps, ‘divine’), but rather that it is, at least from my own reductionist, empiricist perspective, entirely too charitable to theology. The fact of the matter is that it is entirely possible that there is no Higgs boson (at least not in the form that the standard model predicts), and if it is not found within its predicted energy ranges, I fully expect that the scientific community, as a whole, will pack its bags and move on- for the very simple reason that science is ultimately based on observational evidence. Religion, on the other hand, is based on faith. If it had been written in the Bible that the Higgs boson would be found at such and such an energy range, and if such an energy range were to be found empty, people of faith would dig in their heels on the matter, either claiming that there really is a Higgs boson there (it’s just being hidden by Satan and/or God as a test of faith) or that the text was metaphorical, and that the energy range and the Higgs boson were just mentioned not to tell us mundane truths about the physical world, but to tell us deeper, ineffable, spiritual truths. This is not merely a hypothetical, you understand: these are exactly the reactions that Darwinian evolution has garnered.

When you take the two paragraphs together, of course, the clear implication is that atheists, by dismissing God as a fairy tale, are just as reprehensible and unscientific as people who don’t bother looking for the Higgs boson. It is an argument based less on any sort of logical scaffold than it is standing atop a rubbish heap of bad logic, bad science, bad theology… and bad satire.

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About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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3 Responses to Your Mamma’s So Fat, She Would Have Mass Even Without the Higgs Field!

  1. Lindsay says:

    That *was* a pointless article. (Not yours — I thought yours was really good! I particularly liked your points about the God of the Gaps and about the differences between science and theology.)

    So, about this search for the Higgs boson: they’re looking for it by smashing atoms together and measuring how much energy is released? I can see on CERN’s website that they have different calorimeters for different kinds of energy: one for electromagnetic radiation and another for hadrons. That makes me think that what they get is a huge lump of energy that they would have to analyze to find out what all of its components are; is that true, or do they also have some kind of thing like a spectrometer that can show them how the radiation breaks down — I am thinking of a mass spectrometer, wheich gives you peaks at particular masses so that you can determine which molecules are present in whatever you’re analyzing

    (So, I guess, what I’d like to know is whether their equipment is telling them they’ve got something at 124-126 GeV, or if that’s what they’ve concluded by looking at some aggregated amount of energy and then taking away the energy signatures of the particles they already know are there).

    I’d also like to know what they can do to determine whether that as-yet-unexplained bump at 124-125 GeV really is the Higgs?

  2. Lindsay says:

    (whoops, that last sentence should say “124-126 GeV”. When I type in your comment field I usually cannot see the last two lines of whatever I’m typing, so that’s where the typos go.)

    • As I understand it, determining what particles you have as the end products of a given reaction is a bit tricky since only a handful of elementary particles are directly observable. That said, there are a number of ways to indirectly detect particles, as they will themselves interact in different ways with certain probabilities and, in so doing, produce directly observable particles. By looking at the observable end products produced (and their energies), and measuring that against theory, it is possible to trace back what the initial end products of the reaction must have been and the energies at which they occur.
      Frankly though, you should probably talk to an experimentalist about this one as I have only the most cursory understanding of how detectors work.

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