Drew Rick-Miller: The Standard Model (of Particle Physics)
As we prepare to reveal the Standard Model of Science for the Church—how the church can benefit from engaging science—let us first consider its namesake from particle physics.
I won’t pretend I can explain the Standard Model better than the professional science communicators. So I invite you pause and Dive Deeper right now with this video and visually rich guide from Quanta Magazine. (This interactive chart may also help.)
What I will say is this: the Standard Model is an incredibly successful model developed by physicists over many decades to describe the basic building blocks of matter and how those building blocks interact.
Neutrino researcher Aaron McGowan describes it thusly: “If you ask a physicist like me to explain how the world works, my lazy answer might be: ‘It follows the Standard Model’… It has endured over 50 trips around the Sun despite experimental physicists constantly probing for cracks in the model’s foundations. With few exceptions, it has stood up to this scrutiny, passing experimental test after experimental test with flying colors.”
Those cracks are continuing to be probed (as McGowan explains), but the Standard Model is the fundamental starting place for anyone trying to understand the stuff within God’s creation. So much so that if you asked me to explain how God made the world, my lazy answer might be: “God followed the Standard Model.”
Or to quote Kepler, the Standard Model is one of many ways we are now “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”
Atoms, and the quarks and electrons within them, are microscopic but they are also everywhere in creation and necessary for us to exist. This makes the Standard Model relevant for anyone interested in understanding God’s second revelation, the Book of Nature. Moreover, we see wonderful parallels between the Standard Model and how many churches and Christian ministries have benefited from engaging science. But those parallels are for another week. For now, let’s attend to four pertinent aspects of the Standard Model of particle physics.
The Standard model is like a collection of Lego bricks that piece together according to certain rules to make up basic stuff like atoms. But the Lego analogy misses some key elements. Each particle in the Standard Model is not truly particulate like sand, an atom, or a Lego brick. Moreover, different particles have different roles in the Standard Model.
While quarks and electrons (technically, quarks and leptons) are the stuff of the atoms that comprise matter as you and I experience it, there are also force carrying particles (known as bosons) that bind the matter particles together via the electromagnetic force (photons), the strong nuclear force (gluons), and the weak nuclear force (w or z bosons). And then there is the Higgs boson that confers mass on certain particles.
This means the Standard Model is more than just a pile of building blocks; it also accounts for the forces that bind matter particles and give them their heft. In other words, the Standard Model is not only a list of ingredients but it describes the relationships between those ingredients. Together, they account for all the matter physicists have observed, including fleeting bits of matter that require high-end detectors in particle accelerators.
This relational piece is key—for example, there are no atoms without the gluons carrying the strong nuclear force that hold together the up and down quarks that make up protons and neutrons. And if you change the mass conferred to those quarks by the Higgs boson by even the smallest amount, then protons become unstable and atoms may not ever exist. These relationships are very precise; we might even say finely-tuned.
Its Predictive Power
The Standard Model garnered considerable attention about a decade ago as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN was fired up to detect the so-called “God particle” or Higgs boson. Multiple teams of physicists (one including Peter Higgs) predicted an unstable, and thereby short-lived, massive boson that is understood to give mass to other particles in the Standard Model.
When it was found in 2012, it validated the Standard Model in ways no other discovery had done previously. Likewise, if it had not been found, the Standard Model may have collapsed.
It was dubbed the God particle not for any theological reason, but the label did help Leon Lederman to sell more books. Moreover, Lederman actually intended to use God’s name in vain to express his frustration at the amount of time and money it was taking to discover the Higgs boson.
..Again, check out this 16-minute video explaining the Standard Model as well as this article with extensive visuals. A much briefer and simpler explanation can be found here.
...Aaron McGowan describes some of the interesting frontiers arising from the cracks in the Standard Model.
...A Jesuit physicist reflects on the discovery of the Higgs Boson, which is the final, and perhaps most significant, particle in the Standard Model.
...John Polkinghorne’s primary scientific achievement contributed to the Standard Model by making quarks “mathematically respectable.”
Simplicity to Address Complexity
Physicist turned priest John Polkinghorne cut his teeth as a scientist working on the mathematical aspects of quarks. He was among the many physicists to detail the elegant mathematics that undergird the Standard Model. There is a beauty and a simplicity evident in Standard Model charts that detail the particles and their relationships. It aligns well with a sensibility that God creates with an orderly artistry.
But underneath that simplicity are layers of complexity that most of us will never begin to understand. The Standard Model is built on quantum physics, specifically quantum field theory, which is notoriously counterintuitive and weird. Still, I imagine most of us can grasp the basics of the Standard Model even if the mathematics remain incomprehensible.
It’s simply elegant and comprehensively complex in its ability to describe the types of matter known to physicists.
A First Iteration?
Despite the success of the Standard Model, certainly one of the greatest accomplishments of modern science, most physicists are confident it will be replaced by a more comprehensive theory.
It does not appear to account for the fourth major force, gravitation (which has negligible effect in particles as small as quarks and electrons) or for all of that dark matter physicists tell us accounts for something like 85% of the matter they can detect in the universe.
Moreover, as technology improves and measurements in particle accelerators and other detectors become more precise, physicists are finding anomalies. A muon experiment gained attention in 2021 with its discovery of a possible violation of the Standard Model and physicists expect other anomalies as they seek to better understand neutrinos.
The Standard Model remains our best available description of how the world works, but it may not ultimately be the model God used to create. This is how science works: iterative models help us better understand the Book of Nature.
But iterative revelation like this doesn’t make it any less exciting for the physicists (and those of us who love physics) thinking God’s thoughts after Him.
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Strengthening the church through engaging with science
We believe that churches are strengthened by engaging with science. Science for the Church looks to a day when science accompanies Scripture as a tool for discipleship, catalyzes expressions of worship, illustrates sermons, elucidates biblical teachings, and supplements theological wisdom for the life of the world. We even wonder if wrestling with science might draw some of the “nones” (those who affiliate with no religion) and the “dones” (those who have left the church) to Christian communities once again.