Michael Gerson
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The God particle -- really the Higgs boson -- still resists confirmation, though scientists at the Large Hadron Collider recently reported "tantalizing hints" of its existence. They also reject the notion that their search has anything to do with God, which is only technically true.

Modern physics can explain just about everything, except why anything has mass. The Standard Model of physics, which emerged four decades ago, employs an elegant mathematical formula to account for most of the elemental forces in the universe. It correctly predicted the discovery of various leptons and quarks in the laboratory.

But the equation doesn't explain gravity. So the Standard Model requires the existence of some other force that seized the massless particles produced by the Big Bang and sucked them into physicality. The detection of Higgs bosons would confirm this theory - which is why scientists are smashing protons into one another in a 17-mile round particle accelerator and picking through the subatomic wreckage.

It will take a few more years for definitive results. But most scientists don't seem to appreciate the glorious improbability -- and philosophic implications -- of the entire enterprise.

In 1928, theoretical physicist Paul Dirac combined the mathematical formulas for relativity and quantum mechanics into a single equation and predicted the existence of antimatter. Antimatter was duly discovered in 1932. But why should a mathematical equation -- the product of brain chemistry -- describe physical reality? It is not self-evident that there should be any correspondence between mathematical formulas and the laws of the universe. Modern physics does not consist of measured phenomena summarized in elegant equations; it consists of elegant equations that predict measured phenomena. This has been called "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics." However unreasonable, it led to the construction of the Large Hadron Collider along the border of France and Switzerland, the largest machine ever built by human beings.

Dr. Ard Louis, a young physicist teaching at the University of Oxford, recalls his first encounter with Dirac's equation. "How can mathematics demand something so fantastical from nature? I was sure it couldn't be true and spent many hours trying to find a way out. When I finally gave up and saw that there was no way around Dirac's result, it gave me goose bumps. I remember thinking that even if I never used my years of physics training again, it would have been worth it just to see something so spectacularly beautiful."

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Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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