Recently the world learned that scientists at the European research institute CERN have found evidence confirming they are very close to hunting down the elusive Higgs boson particle — a particle that is believed to be responsible for giving other particles their mass. And because scientists believe this previously unidentified particle may be one of the universe's most crucial building blocks, it has been nicknamed "the God particle."
What exactly is it? According to the Higgs theory, throughout the universe the vacuum of space is filled with an invisible energy field that resembles a pool of molasses. Particles moving through the field are affected by the drag of the molasses (the field itself) and gain mass.
Other particles, like light, aren't affected by the energy field. Scientists postulate that if it were not for the particles in this field, all particles would be weightless and travel at the speed of light. Were that the case, the formation of the universe would never have been possible. Nothing would exist.
But finding this theoretical particle hasn't been easy. If it does exist, it would live for but an instant and rapidly decay into other particles. Only by examining the decayed products it leaves behind will scientists be able verify whether there actually is such a thing as the Higgs boson particle.
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So, what happens if they find it? Well, according to the BBC's science correspondent, Pallab Ghosh, "Arguably, it would be the most important discovery since Crick and Watson worked out the structure of DNA nearly 60 years ago."
But scientists caution that its nickname is quite undeserved. In fact, the term "the God particle," came to be only because it's the name of a book about the particle by Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Leon Lederman. He initially wanted to title it "The God**** Particle," because no one had been able to confirm the particle's existence. It was his editor who convinced him that shortening the title to "The God Particle" would sell far more copies.
But whatever its name, it is ironic that the announcement was made during Advent, when Christians prepare for the birth of Christ.
The existence of an invisible energy field that gives substance to all matter? It makes perfect sense — for that is the concept of Christmas itself. So much of what makes the season alive, wonderful and substantial are those things invisible to the eye but every bit as real — the promise, the love and the joy that the birth of a child 2,000 years ago continues to bring.
It's been a year of depressing news. The failed supercommittee, skyrocketing debt, too many unemployed, claims of class warfare and a recession that doesn't want to end — 2011 has been a year of sniping and snarky comments, lacking in gaiety or lighthearted moments.
No wonder Americans were ready for Christmas this year. Fewer complaints were heard about the ever-earlier appearance of Christmas decorations in stores. By the first weekend in December, it seemed most families had their Christmas trees and homes decorated.
The global economy may be on the brink and the world swiftly changing in ways often incomprehensible and sometimes frightening, but the beloved traditions of Christmas still offer comfort and joy.
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It's difficult to remain depressed about the woes of the world when decorating a Christmas tree. The lights go on and the tree, warm and bright, enlivens the entire room. Unwrapping and hanging each ornament brings beloved moments in time into the here and now.
The handmade decorations by children now grown have lost most of their glitter, and the green construction paper has faded, but they still evoke smiles. And the delicate, beloved ornament of Dorothy holding Toto may be missing a leg, but she is the first in what has become a tradition of our daughters selecting a new, blown-glass decoration each year.
We began baking cookies the first weekend after Thanksgiving. Most of those early batches have been devoured, requiring second batches be made, but that's OK — there is something about the smell of cookies wafting through the house that cheers one's soul. (And like Higgs' invisible energy field, nearly everyone passing through this field of enticing smells interacts with its particles and gains mass.)
The world may be topsy-turvy mad at the moment — but when isn't it? The beauty of Christmas is that it gives us all the chance, if we chose to take it, to stop for a moment, collect our thoughts and realize what it is in this life that is truly important. And as we move through the invisible energy field of Advent into Christmas, may we all discover anew that most real of all God particles — the gift of love.