What do you do once you have found God?

As Abraham, Moses, Paul of Tarsus, or any of the world’s great prophets might tell you, finding God is only the beginning of a long and rich relationship. Getting to know God is a challenging journey which takes a lifetime and leads you into unexpected places.

On Wednesday morning, the scientists behind the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, Geneva, announced that they had found something which is almost certainly the mysterious particle which the machine was created to look for – the so-called Higgs Boson, often nicknamed the “God particle”.

One of the greatest puzzles in 21st Century science is why the fundamental building blocks of our Universe are so different in size from each other – the electrons which whizz around the outside of atoms are around 1800 times lighter than the protons and neutrons which live in the nucleus of the atoms, yet the electric charge on an electron exactly balances that on a proton.

The most straightforward theory which explains such a big difference, also predicts there should be exactly one extra particle in addition to the ones we can routinely produce and detect. This extra particle was named the Higgs after Scottish physicist Peter Higgs who helped to develop the theory. But finding out whether this predicted particle was real required an atom-smashing machine capable of smashing atoms harder than any machine previously created.

Such a machine, the Large Hadron Collider, began operating in 2008, though it famously broke down after just a week. In 2011, initial results indicated a “hint of a Higgs”. Now, with the machine smashing atoms 14% harder than it did last year, the scientists have results good enough to say that they have found something that looks like a Higgs.

What the initial theory didn’t tell us was quite how heavy the Higgs was going to be. Subatomic particles are like coins – they are interchangeable, but only into other particles with fixed values. It turns out that like a 50-pence-piece which is easily changed into 10p or 5p pieces, the Higgs weighs in at a value which easily turns into several different kinds of subatomic products. This means the scientists have to track more different kinds of particles in order to pin down the exact properties of the Higgs, which makes the results a bit messier than they might have been.

Now that the Higgs has been (probably) discovered, questions remain. How many different ways will it actually change into other particles? Exactly how heavy is it? Will it do anything which hasn’t been predicted by the theory developed by Professor Higgs and his colleagues? As with believers who claim to have found God, so for those who have been searching for the “God particle”, its discovery is not the end, but only the beginning of a quest for enlightenment.

This post was writtem by Revd Dr Gareth Leyshon, an Associate Chaplain at the University of Glamorgan who also holds a PhD in Astrophysics from the University of Wales.

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