Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Large Hadron Collider: A Big Broom in the Sweep-up of Religion

It has been about a week since the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was switched on at CERN, and managed to circulate its first beam of protons in a complete circle. When the very powerful LHC is in full operation, accelerating opposite beams of protons to shattering collisions, it should yield tremendously exciting findings. These are expected to include answers to a number of outstanding questions in physics, including: 1. why matter has mass (if the LHC proves sufficiently powerful to detect the Higgs boson, believed to be responsible for providing sub-atomic particles like protons, neutrons, and electrons with their observed masses); 2. the nature of dark matter (the majority of the matter in the universe, which mysteriously interacts only via gravity with the universe we detect via both light and gravity); 3. why our universe contains so much more matter than anti-matter. It also seems quite likely that investigations with the LHC will yield completely unexpected results, which will further increase our understanding of the nature of the universe.

During most of human history, much about the world and its workings were virtually incomprehensible, and religion provided answers and thus held sway. Even long after the development of the modern scientific method, hypotheses perforce incorporated the concept of God, and asked how and why God created the universe in its specific form. But recently, science has managed to operate independently of religion. In this atmosphere of free inquiry, scientific findings have forced religion to change its beliefs to accord with what science has discovered. One can easily think of numerous examples, including Christianity’s abandonment of the belief that the universe revolved around the Earth, and more recently the acceptance by John Paul II in 1996 that all life on earth, including humans, are a product of evolution.

I envisage supernatural belief as akin to a thick layer of dust in a room, composed of the dictates of organized religion, covering the truth about the nature of the universe. And in that metaphor, science consists of brooms, that over many years have swept the dust of these supernatural beliefs into an ever-constricted corner of the room, thence to be discarded in the dustbin of history. Removal of the dust through scientific inquiry is gradually yielding the bright, hard, polished floor of knowledge about the world and its creatures. It is to be hoped that the confounding dust of organized religion will eventually all be swept up and discarded. The LHC may prove a powerful broom indeed in this eventual conquest of scientific knowledge over out-moded supernatural beliefs.