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Energized by a miniscule difference

Science discoveries are necessary in broadening our understanding of God's creation.

Physicists are excited about a tiny difference. It may not seem like much, but according to a recent experiment, the mass of a subatomic particle – the W boson – is 0.09 percent greater than predicted. Why all the excitement over such a small difference? The answer lies in what we don’t know.

For 60 years, our understanding of particles has been framed by the Standard Model of Particle Physics. This model has successfully predicted the sizes and interactions of all known subatomic particles. In 2012 the European particle lab CERN discovered the Standard Model’s last missing piece, the Higgs boson, precisely as the model predicted. All the pieces were falling into place for our understanding of the subatomic world.

Yet the success of the Standard Model has been, in one sense, frustrating for physicists. They know it is incomplete. The Standard Model does not explain gravity and dark matter, so its continued success has not brought a fuller understanding of how creation works at its deepest levels.

Enter the W boson. Because Einstein showed that energy and mass are linked (E = mc2), scientists measure the mass of particles in electron volts. According to the Standard Model, the W boson should have a mass of 80,357 million electron volts (MeV). But the new experimentally determined value is 80,433 MeV, a full 76 MeV above the predicted value. While the difference between the predicted and determined mass for the W boson is small, it is seven times larger than the experimental uncertainty. If this new measurement, based on a decade of work by 397 collaborators, holds up, it is the first sign there may be more particles than those of the Standard Model, moving us one step closer to explaining gravity and dark matter.

The Standard Model of Particle Physics.

Engaging the unknown

What I find interesting is how a problem in science is seen as an opportunity to learn more about creation. Rather than defending the current best theory scientists are energized to face uncertainty. Given our mandate from God in Genesis to understand creation (which I see in the command to name the animals), this attitude is consistent with our calling.

What I find frustrating is how often we are unwilling to do the same with our understanding of God’s Word. As our knowledge of creation grows, our relationship with scripture necessarily changes, enriching our reading of the Bible. We encounter this dynamic often in history. Galileo moved the earth out of the center of creation, despite objections based on simple readings of the Bible. He was right, and now we have a wider view of the expanse and scope of God’s creation. Darwin showed how over eons life could evolve into the animal and plant world. Many objected, based on the standard reading of Genesis, but Darwin’s theory is now broadly accepted. In each case, the church took a long time to change its theology.

While science builds our understanding, we seem to hold on to simpler and earlier understandings in our churches. Often in science the more recent interpretation does not contradict the central message of the former, but rather generalizes it to a larger framework (Einstein exploded and extended Newton’s physics). I wish we were more open to the Spirit’s leading to a richer understanding of God and his holy Word.


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