Science so often reflects the culture which produces it. The notion of atoms can be traced back to Greek philosophers who theorised that matter must be made out of small indivisible units. This idea came from a civilisation of independent city-states, which were sometimes at war and sometimes bound together in alliances. The Greeks imagined atoms themselves colliding and combining to give the world its substance.
Modern physics has since discovered that atoms are made out of even smaller units, which themselves can be further sub-divided. Our diverse society now has a theory of matter based on at least 36 different types of subatomic particles.
Over the last fifty years or so another type of individual unit has emerged: the celebrity scientist, the scientist as personality. Some are gifted educators and communicators, while others use their fame as a platform to campaign against religion. I think they are a mixed blessing!
In 1964 Peter Higgs was part of a team that made the theoretical discovery of a particle that was only recently confirmed by experiment. He has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, and his response has been modest and gracious. He has paid tribute to his co-workers and to the scientists who worked to confirm his theory.
Physicists today are less interested in indivisible particles than in the relation-ships between them, in the energies and fields that they create. This might sound abstract but Professor Higgs has discovered a field that permeates the entire universe, and gives it its mass.
Higgs is an atheist who is, however, critical of what he calls the ‘fundamentalist’ atheism of campaigners like Richard Dawkins. Because the Higgs boson is so important it is sometimes called ‘the God particle’. But Higgs himself dislikes the phrase and does not want to offend people who believe in God. Such humili-ty is inspiring in such a brilliant man and proof that science does not inevitably reflect the prejudice of its time.