“Black Holes, The LHC & The God Particle”, Dr. Cormac O’Raifeartaigh’s brief history of particle physics delivered at Trinity College, Dublin this evening was well beyond the understanding of someone whose mathematical skills never extended beyond a Certificate in Secondary Education. The more numerate five hundred strong gathering appreciated the lecture and applauded long and loudly at the end.
The principle of sub-atomic physics seemed simple; the sums with which the principle was explained were the sort where people do maths without numbers. Einstein featured prominently, which was reassuring.
The ‘God Particle’ in the title of the lecture did not signify theological content; it was a reference to the Higgs boson, a particle underlying the others that has not yet identified. Dr O’Raifeartaigh suggested that according to one apocryphal tradition, the term ‘God particle’ is a polite contraction of an exclamation by one physicist who asked, where is that Goddamn particle?”
At the heart of particle physics is an understanding of the universe fundamentally at variance with traditional church teaching; church teaching that persists despite the steady accumulation of evidence that makes the old dogmas intellectually untenable.
As recently as 2006, the Nigerian priest who is chaplain to the international community in the Church of Ireland Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough stood in a south Dublin church and declared, “God made the world in six days! Do not believe the scientists!”. It was a declaration that caused the Emeritus Professor of Geology from Trinity College, Dublin, sat in the third row of the choir, to raise his eyebrows. It was a declaration also that brought requests that the man be never invited to preach again. Yet the Archbishop of Dublin allows such teaching to continue in his diocese, presumably an indication of tolerance towards creationism.
If Protestant fundamentalists on one side are far removed from the realities being revealed by the working of the Large Hadron Collider; they have plenty of counterparts in the Catholic community. The only intellectually credible God is one who is outside of time and space and the only place for Heaven , if it is to exist, is similarly outside of the spacetime dimension we currently inhabit. If we have lives beyond this one, then they are lives in which we have stepped into another dimension. Yet all around the country at this time of the year, there are cemetery masses, prayers for the departed who are apparently in purgatory, wherever it may be.
Dr O’Raifeartaigh’s lecture did not allow for biblical literalism, nor for a medieval three-decker universe; it described the world as it is, not the world as the church would have it to be. There are lyrics by the pop singer Paloma Faith that ask, “Do you want the truth or something beautiful?” Maybe we like our beautiful schemes of things; we like singing ‘All things bright and beautiful’ declaring ‘The Lord God made them all’; we like our timeline where God stands at the end watching as everyone appears up through the ground. Centuries of art have rested on our way of looking at things, perhaps we would be afraid of the truth.