Earlier this month we heard about the greatest discovery in physics in recent years: A large team of scientists from all over the globe, including quite a few Israelis, was able to identify preliminary signs regarding the existence of a particle which up to now had escaped most efforts to discover it. What can this discovery teach us? Very much, but also very little.

First, and unfortunately this fact needs to be emphasized, we are not closer to understanding God, despite the nickname given to the Higgs boson: “the God Particle.” The source of this name is in a book written in 1993 by American physicist and Nobel laureate Leon Lederman aimed at explaining the physics of elementary particles to the general public. He wanted to give the book a catchy title, so he chose the unofficial nickname several frustrated physicists gave to the Higgs boson after decades of attempts to find it: The Goddamn Particle. But the publisher was afraid that buyers would resent that name, so he shortened it.

So how many mountains can hang by this thread? A lot, apparently. The Higgs boson, if its discovery can be verified and if its characteristics are identified in detail, will be able to answer several questions that still remain unanswered and, as is the way with scientific discoveries, will also raise new questions.

But it’s a long way from this to the thought that science will now be able to put its finger on God.

Some liken science to that famous Chinese box – when opened it contains another box, which contains yet another box, and so on and so forth. Indeed, the discovery in Geneva is like opening of one of those boxes, at a cost of around 10 billion euros.

How can you justify such an exorbitant price? There is a story about the distinguished English scientist Michael Faraday, a humble and modest man who conducted experiments in the 1930s and 1940s that led to the discovery of electromagnetism.

The prime minister heard about the distinguished scientist and invited himself to visit the laboratory where he found, to his surprise, an older gentleman playing with copper wires and magnets.

When the prime minister asked what he was doing, Faraday explained, and his honored guest did not understand a single word. He finally asked, “What is the benefit of this invention of yours?” According to one version of the story, Faraday replied: “Sir, what is the benefit of a newborn infant?” And the fact is that the invention was the dynamo which we use today to produce electricity.

That is also the justification of the large particle accelerator: Its cost far outweighs the cost of Faraday’s magnets, but there is no doubt that the impact of its achievements on our lives and the lives of future generations will be dramatic.

Even if the cost of upcoming Chinese boxes is higher, their reward will be even greater and future generations of scientists will continue to open them, slowly, with tremendous effort, spending a great deal of money in the process.

Will we ultimately reach the end of the road, the final box? Probably not. Because when we open that box we will find the real “God particle,” the one that spoke and brought the world into being.

Science will not open up that box. The universe contains matter and energy, but it also contains spirit, and two separate domains cannot become a single domain. The spirit that imbues the scientists who are opening the boxes cannot be separated into particles nor can it be measured with instruments, no matter how big or expensive they are. It is a divine spark from above, and it will continue to guide them in their search for the secrets of creation.

The writer is a physicist and president of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. Translated from Yediot Aharonot, July 10, 2012.

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