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.
 The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?, by Leon Lederman, published by Dell Publishing, 1993.