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