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Higgs boson binds the universe, but humans give it meaning

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The "God particle" -- the Higgs boson -- exists, and that is good news. Without it, the universe would fly apart and we would have much more to worry about than a jobless recovery, immigrants sneaking across the border or the fate of "Obamacare."

On the Fourth of July, after 50 years of theorizing, hard research and sending protons careening into each other at something near the speed of light, physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research announced that they have almost certainly detected a boson. For the uninitiated -- which is about 99% of us -- a boson is one of two elementary particles that quantum theory says make up the universe. The other particles are fermions, also known as matter, such as protons and electrons.

Fermions, the theory goes, acquire their mass by passing through a molasses-like field called a Higgs field, named after Peter Higgs, physicist at the University of Edinburgh. (By the way, I haven't a clue what I’m talking about; this is simply my feeble attempt to summarize information presented by Los Angeles Times science reporter emeritus, Thomas H. Maugh II.) The assumption has been that something had to be holding all the matter in the universe together, but no one, until now, had actually found hard evidence of this pan-galactic molasses composed of boson particles.

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This is very big news for scientists. It reinforces the Standard Model of physics that claims to explain how the universe works. What it means for the rest of us depends on a person's perspective.

I know, for me, this stuff is fascinating and also nearly impossible to comprehend. When pondering subatomic particles that bind the universe together, one is trying to understand a thing so tiny that it cannot be observed directly, even using the most advanced technology. Yet, an unimaginable number of these super-minute particles form a field so vast that they hold together a universe that is incomprehensibly huge.

Things so small and things so big boggle the human mind. Immediately, they conjure the ultimate unanswered questions: If all matter is given mass by the Higgs boson, where did the Higgs boson come from? It has been nicknamed the "God particle" because it makes everything else possible; did God make it? If so, where did God come from? Did this all start with a Big Bang and without a creator? What set off the Big Bang? And what came before it? And before that?

The news about the "God particle" is one of those challenging bits of information that can make everything else feel terrifyingly insignificant. It is a reminder that each of us is merely a tiny, carbon-based organism existing for a brief moment on a small planet that, by the scale of the universe, is no more singular than a grain of sand on a beach. We are dust in the wind, utterly inconsequential in the dark expanse of time and space.

At least that's one way to look at it. Another way to see it is that, in all that vastness, only we are aware of the awesome complexity. Only we strive to know and understand. All the rest is mere physical phenomena. What we do in our brief lives on this small planet may be the only thing that matters.

Thus, it behooves us to use our sliver of time well. We can waste it watching "Dancing With The Stars" or we can reach for the stars. We can squander it being petty, cruel, selfish or destructive, or we can be creative, compassionate, kind and just. The Higgs boson may glue this universe together, but we are the ones who give it meaning. 

The "God particle" has a big job to do in the infinity of the universe, but on Earth, as John F. Kennedy said, "God’s work must truly be our own."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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