Leon Lederman has passed away today at the age of 96. “What’s the big deal”, you might ask. Well Leon Lederman is a big deal around these parts – Batavia, IL where I graduated from high school and where my office has been since 1994. That’s because Batavia is home to the Fermi National Accelerator Lab where Leon Lederman worked and earned a Nobel prize.
Leon Lederman was the director of Fermilab, as it is more commonly known, from 1978 to 1989, and was the principal driver behind the development of the Tevatron, the world’s highest-energy particle collider from 1983 to 2010. He also won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1988 for proving the existence of a new type of neutrino, muon neutrino.
Leon Lederman is a local, national and international legend. He taught for years at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, IL, which is a model for high school education for students from all over the state who are gifted in math and science. The law firm I started my career with and the predecessor to the present firm I am in drafted the legislation for IMSA, and we represented IMSA for many years even after I joined the firm.
On this day, it is more than fitting that I recognize the incredible person Leon Lederman was and the significant contribution he made to the study of physics and science. Among other things, Lean Lederman is the person who called the Higgs Boson the “God Particle” in a 1993 book he wrote by the same name.
On this day, therefore, I honor Lean Lederman by some consideration of that name he gave the Higgs Boson, which stuck somewhat to his own dismay.
The reason is that Leon Lederman considered himself an atheist. Fellow atheists might have preferred that he coined the phrase differently – like the atheist particle. Leon Lederman reportedly regretted the term he gave the Higgs Boson because of its popular implications, which he didn’t intend.
Some people claim the discovery of the God Particle “makes God unnecessary” as an explanation of the universe. “In the universe are inscribed laws by which the big bang was initiated and the functioning of the universe sustained. Since we have the Higgs boson we do not need God anymore! If ever there was a Godless or an atheist particle, it is the Higgs boson!”
But, I say not so fast! What about the discovery (or proof of the discovery) of the Higgs boson renders God “unnecessary”?
I admit that God wasn’t “necessary” (in some sense) for the discovery of the Higgs boson, but only in the sense that we didn’t need to plug God into the equation that suggested or proved its existence. We could “do the math” without the need for God in the formula. In fact, “that is science” as they say.
Science is the study of the material world (and that is all science is). If the material world was created or “caused” into existence, that creator (or cause), necessarily, is not part of the material world. The creator/cause must be “other” than the material world. I call this creator or cause God.
Why we would expect to find God “in” the material world He created is beyond me. We can know something about God from the material world in the same way that we can know something about a painter by observing his painting or something about an author by reading his book. We don’t confuse the painting with the painter or the book with its author, and we don’t expect to find the painter or the author in the medium of their creativity (except in a figurative, representative and limited sense).
While Leon Lederman was without any question or doubt an exceptional scientist, his atheism does not disturb me. He didn’t claim to be an expert theologian or philosopher. His training or focus was not in theology or philosophy. Like all scientists, he spent his entire life focused on the material world – in fact the very smallest elements of it. It’s understandable that someone might miss the forest for the trees, as the saying goes.
Even so, some philosophers and even theologians are atheists. We all have to “pick our poison”. It’s one or the other: either God exists, or God doesn’t exist. We all make our best determinations of that fundamental starting point, and we build from there.
In a world that operates on some of the most eloquently and finely-tuned principles imaginable (or unimaginable), the world is capable of interpretation either way. The fact that the world works virtually like clockwork allows the atheist to dispense with the idea of God. Science (the study of the natural world) works with or without the acknowledge of God.
But the fact that the world works without God “in it” doesn’t mean that God is nowhere to be found. We just won’t find Him “in” the natural world. If we hope to find Him, if He exists (and I believe He does), we have to “look” elsewhere. In fact, those finely-tuned principles by which the natural world operates and the Higgs boson, itself, are clues.
There is much more (much, much more) that could be said about this, but I am going to end with some observations from Dr. William Lane Craig, one the best (and, perhaps, the most accomplished) Christian philosopher in this generation.
Some people seem to think that the Higgs boson takes the place of God. In fact, however, Lederman called it “the God particle” for two reasons: (1) like God, the particle underlies every physical object that exists; and (2) like God, the particle is very difficult to detect!
I really like Lederman’s nomenclature because it highlights two aspects of God’s existence, first, His conservation of the world in being, and, second, the hiddenness of God. With respect to the first, according to Christian theology, God not only created the universe in being, but He upholds it in being moment by moment. Were He to withdraw His sustaining power, the universe would be instantly annihilated. Similarly, on a physical level, without the Higgs boson nothing would have any mass and the universe would be devoid of physical objects. (By the way, no fear that the Higgs boson supplants God in conserving the universe because the Higgs boson is itself a contingent particle, which decays almost as soon as it is formed, so that it does not exist necessarily, and the Higgs boson and the Higgs field themselves are the products of the Big Bang and so non-necessary and non-eternal.)
With respect to the second point, it is part and parcel of the problem of evil that God is hidden. Not only is He undetectable by the five senses, not being a physical object, but He sometimes seems frustratingly absent when we need Him most. But the lesson of the Higgs boson is that physical undetectability is no proof of non-existence, and something can be objectively there and real, even pervasively present, even when we have no direct evidence of its presence. Just because you may not see God’s hand at work when you are suffering, that doesn’t imply that God is not present and active in your situation unbeknownst to you. So the Higgs boson is a nice reminder of these features of God’s existence.
 See Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate, former laboratory director and passionate advocate of science education, dies at age 96, news release from Fermilab October 3, 2018.
 The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?, by Leon Lederman, published by Dell Publishing, 1993.
 See It’s the Atheist Particle, actually, posted at rationalisthumans.blogspot, July 2017.
11 thoughts on “Recognizing Leon Lederman and the God Particle”
Wow! Small world, I’m originally from Wheaton an my sister still lives in Aurora. I passed by the Fermi lab on my way to work. We also knew a gentleman who lives in our town in Colorado who worked there! Very cool article!
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My son works at Fermi Lab. Very small world indeed!!
None of this proves a god, nor even suggests the existence of one, or many. If a god exists outside of the cosmos. it would not know what goes on inside the cosmos, nor would anyone know about it. Since theists imply that their god knows everything going on in the cosmos, it should be able to affect whatever goes on inside that cosmos. It does not. Similarly, since a being inside the cosmos claims to have knowledge of a being outside the cosmos, where would this knowledge come from. None of this makes sense.
We see what we want to see. You see a god, I don’t. Only one of us can be right. Which one?
Thank you for talking the time to respond. Frankly, I don’t think anyone can prove God in a scientific sense, but that isn’t because God doesn’t exist. It’s that science is the study of the natural world, and you are not going to find God in the natural world. (You might find God through it, but that is a another topic.) I guess I need to ask you how you know a God “outside” the cosmos wouldn’t know anything inside it? If I am standing over a fishbowl, I am not in the fishbowl, but I certainly know something about what is in the fishbowl and what’s in the fishbowl. I think you understated what theists say on the knowledge of God. They don’t just imply it; they positively assert that God knows everything going on inside the cosmos. I am not sure it logically flows, though, that knowledge leads to effect. As for how a being inside the cosmos would know anything about a being outside the cosmos, I think you have a hit on something. I think the answer to the rhetorical question is that they wouldn’t, or that their knowledge would be incredibly limited (like a character with self-awareness in a book), unless that being outside of the cosmos made itself known and communicated with the beings within it.
You and I are not gods, and we know we have cells and bacteria/viruses inside us, but we cannot know our cells personally. We pay no attention to them unless they act up. Bacteria and viruses work their butts off to keep us alive–how do we repay them? They have no idea they are inside of us, our cells have no idea they are part of us. If there were a god, the situation would be similar. There would be no communication possible, no real awareness of the “other.”
But this is not what I was trying to say. I cannot see any way to get from the “god particle” to god. Such a connection still takes faith, and faith is not enough. At least, not in my opinion.
As to the use of the word “imply,” that was to give you leeway with how you interpret things. Positive assertion is meaningless, repeating what you have been told without active self-knowledge. Being an ex-christian I know you believe you can feel your god inside you, I once did too, but it still only comes down to belief. Once you make the switch from theist to atheist, that feeling simply disappears. If it was real, it would persist. If you have a toothache, you cannot get rid of it by simply stopping believing you have a toothache. But that is not what happens. In my own case, I actually felt relief when I stopped believing. I felt free of a burden I did not even know I had. That was over 50 years ago, and I have never questioned the switch. I still feel free.
I want to stop writing, but I do have one more thing to say. I am not just an atheist, I am a spiritual atheist. There is still room in my philosophy for what some people call the metaphysical. I believe that death is not the end of life. But I see no need for any superbeing directing things, or creating things. Life goes on, no matter what we may believe. We cannot change what is…
I would like to know how YOU know that the situation with God would be similar to bacteria and viruses inside us. Where is your proof?
I have no proof, as such. But I have the ability to reason. I am of this planet, this galaxy, this universe, this cosmos. But if I look inside me I see a cosmos, with universes, galaxies, and planets. Not just me, but every multi-cellular being on Earth is their own cosmos. And if there are lives within our cosmos (we are the proof of that), then there are lives within us. Only we cannot know them, we are not on the same level of consciousness. But we are not gods. Similarly, our cosmos could be the body of a much larger being than we, but it would not be god either. It would be just another living being…
Conjecture, of course, but based on what I can see and imagine.
I’m betting you are laughing right now, I would be if I were you. But that doesn’t reduce the possibility of it being true. Truth is not based on the number of people who believe something, it is based on itself. I think you are wrong, and this is my theory of what is right. I found it within myself. That is the only proof I need.
The flaw in your argument is that God, necessarily is not part of this galaxy, universe, planet. How are you to know what God must be like? Unless He reveals Himself to you.
If he revealed himself to me, would I be an atheist? No, I am just trying to demonstrate a “What if” situation. There is no flaw in my argument because no superbeing, under any name, exists. There is only little old us, plodding along, trying to figure out what kind of universe we want to exist in. By us, I mean all living beings…
But that is just a brute assertion. It is a conclusion. You said you used to feel God and then you changed your mind about God and the feelings went away. Am I getting that right?
You certainly are right about that. As a child I was told if I accepted christ as my saviour I would feel safe and secure. Being as I was being physically abused every day of my life, I wanted to feel safe and secure. So I felt something, which I was told was god. But the beatings didn’t stop. God could not protect me from my father. So I started hoping he would kill me, so that I could go to heaven and be safe there. In today’s language I think I went insane. What young boy should wish to be dead? But my father wouldn’t kill me, though I asked him to. What good was a dead punching bag?
To make a long story short, the older I grew the more I questioned. I cannot even remember the process now, but the feeling I thought was god became a burden. I wanted to go to heaven but I couldn’t. So I ran away and lived on the streets. I stopped getting beat by my father, but I was beaten in other ways by other people. I kept waiting for god to take me away, but he would not. Then one day I found out I did not have to believe in god, as I had been told. The more I thought about it the more I liked that idea. After a while I recanted my childhood decision, and took my soul, or whatever it was, back from christ. I took responsibility for my own life, instead of waiting for someone else to save me. And that day I gained my freedom, and I have never looked back.
Please do not insult me with stories of god having plans for me, or anything like that. Over the years I developed my own philosophy and cosmology. Neither includes a god. I am happy now, something I could not feel as a child. I am at peace with myself. Please respect that.