The scientists who bash atoms together at the $10-billion Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland announced with considerable excitement on Tuesday that they are closing in on one of the great mysteries of the universe: why you are overweight. They have been searching for the theoretical and reclusive Higgs boson, a fabled subatomic particle believed to be the reason objects have mass, which is not so much weight as it is the resistance to being moved around the universe. (Teenagers asked to do a household chore might also be a place to go looking for the Higgs boson.) The scientists’ research has now given them a solid clue about where to find it.
The search for this elusive boson, the existence of which was first proposed in 1964 by three physicists, one of whom was named Peter Higgs, has captured the public imagination ever since it began being referred to by the media as “the God particle,” thanks to a book of the same title published in 1993 by another physicist. The Large Hadron Collider, built partly to test the existence of the Higgs boson, has only increased public interest in what is in fact theoretical physics at its most esoterically impenetrable.
With Tuesday’s announcement, it seems the God particle is more aptly nicknamed than perhaps was originally thought. It got the name because it is the theoretical glue that makes life in the universe possible. But now it is apparent that, like the gods of many monotheistic religions, it appears to be everywhere but is never quite detectable. 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!”
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.