Genesis and the Higgs Boson

by Daniel Korobkin

Jews worldwide have just begun again the weekly Torah reading cycle with the book of Genesis and the story of creation. This comes on the heels of this summer’s most important announcement in physics of the last 30 years, the discovery of the Higgs boson particle.

In layman’s terms, here’s how it’s explained: for decades in the 20th century, physicists have theorized the existence of subatomic particles that make up all that exists in our universe. Some of these particles have mass, like electrons, and some have no mass, like photons, the particles that comprise light. These particles were first created during the Big Bang, some 15-20 billion years ago according to the current scientific understanding, and formed the basic building blocks of all matter and energy that we find in our universe today. This theory is known as the Standard Model of particle physics. Over the last several decades, scientists have been able to verify the existence of many of these subatomic particles using a big machine called a particle accelerator collider, which, by generating a huge amount of energy, causes particles to collide. Scientists observe the results of these collisions and can thus confirm the existence of these subatomic and otherwise undetectable particles.

One of the mysteries of cosmology has been how our universe became an asymmetrical universe of particles. That is, why is it that some particles that were created from the Big Bang possess mass, while others do not? Why is the stuff of our universe inconsistent?

In 1964, Peter Higgs theorized that there exists a certain field of particles that forms a backdrop in our universe for all other particles. When particles pass through this field, some of these particles slow down, and as a result acquire mass. The mass of these subatomic particles allows for the existence of matter in our physical world. Other particles slip through this field without slowing down and therefore do not acquire any mass. This field of particles became known as the Higgs Field.

Physicist Don Lincoln compares the Higgs Field to a swimming pool, and the water molecules inside the pool to Higgs bosons. Bulky, clumsy human swimmers are like the particles that slow down in a Higgs Field and thereby acquire mass. The non-massy particles are like a barracuda swimming through the pool, which swims quickly and isn’t bogged down by the water.

Until recently, we did not have the technology to create enough energy within a collider to produce evidence of these Higgs bosons. But that all changed with a new multi-billion collider in Geneva called the Large Hadron Collider. It allegedly succeeded in producing evidence of the Higgs boson. Scientists are still debating whether the experiment actually produced the evidence and there will undoubtedly be more data emerging in the ensuing months.

In 1993, a new book called the Higgs boson the ‘G-d Particle,’ because its existence was so essential to the existence of all physical reality in the universe. Some scientists are unhappy with this term, because it over-sensationalizes merely one piece of a much larger theory of the Standard Model. Others suggest that the term ‘G-d Particle’ is appropriate, because now that we have an explanation of how physical matter came into existence, we don’t need a sentient G-d to explain how matter came into being, since now science explains how everything came into existence on its own.

But this, too, has been criticized, because ultimately, even if we can explain why certain particles possess mass and others don’t, we still are left without an explanation as to why the laws of physics operate the way they do. Who made the rules and why? The answer invariably still points to a Higher Sentient Being, the One we call G-d.

These are all ideas that are fascinating to an amateur fan of physics like me, because they reaffirm how truly wondrous and elegant our universe is. This is what inspired me to read the Higgs Field in the Genesis story.

After describing how light was created on the first day, the Torah discusses how, on the second day, G-d created a ‘firmament’ (Hebrew: ‘raki’a’). The purpose of the ‘firmament’ was to divide between the upper ‘waters’ and the lower ‘waters.’ Bible commentators have grappled for centuries with this passage, because we have no evidence of upper waters existing above any kind of firmament in the sky, at least not in a literal sense. Earlier generations had the liberty of reading the passage literally, and therefore, accepted that there must be a body of water above the sky. We no longer have that liberty, since we’ve explored outer space and have found no big oceans or lakes floating beyond our atmosphere.

Perhaps the ‘firmament’ mentioned in the Torah is none other than the Higgs Field, created by G-d as a result of the Big Bang. Before this field came into existence, all particles were pure energy, which is why all that was created on day one was ‘light,’ the Torah’s description of energy particles. On day two, G-d allowed for the formation of the Higgs Field, this ‘firmament,’ to spread throughout the universe, and as a result certain particles passing through the field acquired mass. These mass-infused particles are known in the Torah as “the lower waters below the firmament,” whereas the particles that passed through the field and did not acquire mass are known as the “higher waters above the firmament.”

‘Water’ is an appropriate pre-modern designation for subatomic particles, because the Torah is describing here a fluid process of formation of primordial matter in its earliest stages. The word for ‘water’ in Hebrew (‘mayim’) can also be translated as that which is incipient and in the process of being formed (see an example of this in Isaiah 48:1). Indeed, this is exactly how Rabbi Judah HaLevi of the 12th century understood the term ‘water,’ in his classic work, The Kuzari. And remember, modern physicists compare the Higgs Field to a swimming pool, so it’s quite apropos for the Bible to do the same for ancient man.

The terms ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ water, therefore, do not refer to spatial characteristics, but rather to their properties in terms of mass. ‘Upper water’ means ethereal, massless particles, whereas lower water means particles with mass.

If we understand the narrative this way, we may gain another insight. The rabbis of the Talmud observe that after the completion of G-d’s work on the second day, it doesn’t say that G-d saw that “it was good,” as is written for all the other days of creation. Their observation is that G-d hadn’t yet completed the task begun on day two, since the water would continue to divide on day three to make way for dry land. Now we can better understand why this was so. G-d only brought subatomic particles with mass into existence on day two, and it would take several more billions of years – a whole “day” of creation – for these particles to form into the macrophysical world that we see all around us. Thus, while particles with mass were created on day two, their manifestation to the observable world did not appear until day three.

Of course, this is all speculative and could be an absolutely erroneous interpretation of what the Torah had in mind with a ‘firmament.’ But one thing we do know: since medieval times, rabbinical scholars have been using the science of their day to better understand the cosmological origins of our universe, a universe that was created by G-d according to a very abstract and seemingly deliberately vague depiction in Genesis.

Nachmanides, for example, understood the “chaos and void” of the Genesis story as the primordial matter discussed by Plato (hyle in ancient Greek). We are therefore merely following in the rabbis’ footsteps with this interpretation.

Our advancements in science should not scare us, nor should we listen to those voices who claim that the more we know of science the less relevant and necessary G-d becomes. If anything, the exact opposite is true: the more we discover about the wonders of creation, the more we can appreciate the complexity and elegance of reality and the great wisdom and precision of the Creator.

In addition to being senior rabbi of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation, Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin holds an MS in computer science from Johns Hopkins University and an MA in medieval Jewish and Islamic studies from UCLA.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Tribune of Canada

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16 comments to Genesis and the Higgs Boson

  • dr. bill

    Perhaps I am being a bit too critical; but i suspect: Yotzah skhoro behefsaido. The Torah does not teach science nor should we attempt to explain its messages by current science. It reflects the understanding of its times and its message must be explicated knowing that worldview and NOT current science. Whatever support we find might raises challenges as well; neither, imho, are of consequence. Frankly, they reflect the insight of the speaker/author rather than those of the Author. the final sentance in the article, not an effort to read modern science into scripture, is what i find compelling.

  • Bob Miller

    How can we presume to say that physical laws, things, and phenomena during creation (before the universe was “completed”) were like those we can observe or deduce now?

  • Raymond

    I find myself getting completely lost in all this highly technical, specialized scientific language described in this article, honestly understanding virtually none of it. I wonder, though, if that ultimately matters. Take, for example, any standard, secular biography. In the name of comprehensiveness, the respected, scholarly biographer will include as many details of that author’s life as he or she possibly can, as a way of demonstrating how much research went into that effort to write that biography. But is every detail of that person’s life, truly important for our own lives? I think of how, in sharp contrast, how the Torah describes the lives of, for example, our Patriarchs. If anybody knows every detail of their lives, it is G-d, and yet, He chooses to only give a sketch of their lives, of including only those details of events and things that were said, that will lead us readers to become wiser and better people. Perhaps this same principle applies for any part of the Torah, including the Account of Creation. Maybe all the details of how our universe and physical existence itself came into being, is ultimately not all that important, that such details actually distract us from focusing on what information we need to know and meditate upon, in order to accomplish why G-d put us here in the first place.

  • Jo

    “Some of these particles have mass, like electrons, and some have no mass, like photons, the particles that comprise light”

    This is untrue.

    According to E=mc^2 light has a mass

  • Ksil

    Bob miller, why would you not say the opposite….how can we possibly presume to say that physical laws were different at any time in the past?

  • YM

    Rabbi K, thank you for this. I hope you yourself have a Rov who can protect you from those who don’t think this kind of speculation is permittable.

  • Yitzchak

    “In the name of comprehensiveness, the respected, scholarly biographer will include as many details of that author’s life as he or she possibly can, as a way of demonstrating how much research went into that effort to write that biography.”

    This unnecessarily snarky comment is an unfair generalization regarding both the work product and the motivations of “respected, scholarly biographers.”

  • Daniel Korobkin

    A few brief responses to the thoughtful comments thus far:

    To Dr. Bill, who suggested that “The Torah does not teach science nor should we attempt to explain its messages by current science”: On the first part we agree, that the Torah does not set out to teach us science, but on what basis do you make the claim that we shouldn’t attempt to explain its messages by current science? See the Ramban that I quoted at the end of the article, where he explains the “tohu va’vohu” (chaos and void) of the Torah as being the Platonic “hyle” described by the philosophers of his time. According to your argument, why bother?

    To Raymond, this article was meant for people who are fascinated by the highly technical stuff of physics and try to understand. There are two approaches, one is the “emunah peshuta” approach, which you appear to subscribe to, and the other is the Maimonidean and Chovos HaLevavos approach, which calls upon the human intellect to reconcile the world around him with Torah to whatever depths his mind will allow for. “Elu va’elu divrei Elokim Chaim”.

    To Jo, who argues that photons DO have mass, this is a technical issue that has been clarified by the physicists. See here:
    http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/ParticleAndNuclear/photon_mass.html

    Finally, to YK, who hopes that I have a rov who will protect me, I appreciate the kind sentiments, but at this stage in my career that’s really a non-issue. Thanks.

  • Yaakov Menken

    Jo is correct, in that sunlight shining on a cornfield actually weighs several tons, but it doesn’t detract from the larger point. Nonetheless, I don’t think we need the Higgs Boson in order to connect the science of the universe’s formation to the Torah.

    The Ramban on Genesis 1:1 is a reasonably precise nontechnical description of the Big Bang, matching it more closely than what we might have considered the plain meaning of the verses. The Big Bang is a far greater problem for anyone who does not believe in a Creator, for the obvious reason that you don’t get something from nothing, much less an entire universe. The theory was first proposed by a Catholic priest and roundly condemned for injecting religious thought into science, until the background radiation of the universe disproved the Steady State theory and demonstrated the Big Bang did, in fact, occur.

  • C. Kanoiy

    In 1993, a new book called the Higgs boson the ‘G-d Particle,’ because its existence was so essential to the existence of all physical reality in the universe…. Others suggest that the term ‘G-d Particle’ is appropriate, because now that we have an explanation of how physical matter came into existence, we don’t need a sentient G-d to explain how matter came into being, since now science explains how everything came into existence on its own.

    In reality Leon Lederman who coined the term “G-d Particle” had intended to call it “that G-d damn particle” in reference to its elusiveness.

  • Raymond

    I am surprised that anybody would read snarkiness or unfairness in anything I said, or that anything I said would elicit any animosity at all. I was not trying to disparage secular biographers or scientists who conduct basic research at all, but rather only attempting to point out that their function may be different from those people who are focused more on the ultimate meaning in life. And as for my being on the Chovetz Chaim side of things as opposed to that of Rabbeinu Bachya or the Rambam, I actually find tremendous value in either approach. I particularly find the Rambam’s mindset to be endlessly fascinating. I would think, though, that studying the Torah is of central, primary importance, with the world of secular knowledge interpreted best interpreted by seeing it through one’s understanding of the Torah.

  • Bob Miller

    “Ksil
    October 29, 2012 at 8:37 am
    Bob Miller, why would you not say the opposite….how can we possibly presume to say that physical laws were different at any time in the past?”

    If we believe in creation and not in an eternal universe, we know that all physical phenomena in our universe go back only so far. We can only speculate on how exactly HaShem ramped things up at the outset, but there was clearly some kind of rapid or not-so-rapid transition.

  • David F.

    R’ Daniel,

    Thank you for this fascinating article. I’ve struggled with the Torah’s account of Yom Sheini for years and this poses a very interesting possibility.

    Thank you!

  • dr. bill

    Rabbi Korobkin, thank you for your comment. I thought about addressing Ramban and other Rishonim who read science into Torah. It is also the case that biblical commentators always used the metaphor of their times for explicating the Torah. That said, I would think that when Rambam and Ramban and others commented with explicit reference to Aristotle and Plato, they were dealing with long established (assumed) truths that have a great deal more credence as biblical commentary than the latest scientific discovery. To the extent that their commentary is more similar to what you suggest in your essay, frankly, I would be critical of it as well.

    With respect to our great rishonim and achronim, we moderns have a somewhat more nuanced view of science that ought make us more circumspect than they. I see more danger than value in doing otherwise.

  • Danny Rubin

    Excellent- What will it take to make Rabbi Korobkin a regular CC contributor!

  • This wonderful essay by Rabbi Korobkin reminds me of a passage from an article in Tradition in 1999:

    ” The Torah intended the story of Creation to be taken literally but with one reservation: that it be understood that the terms had “stretchability,” i.e., that while all of the nouns would retain their common-sense meanings, in the event that future scientific discovery should broaden our knowledge of such phenomena as light, time, water, sun, stars, heavens, firmament (rakia), we should be prepared to “stretch” their primary meanings to cover and include these new phenomena, with the overall account remaining essentially “true.” ”

    The Biblical Stories of Creation, Garden of Eden and the Flood: History or Metaphor?

    by Shubert Spero