What, where, how and why is the God Particle? I realize it is not truly a theological question, but there is no doubting that the particle physics enterprise was one of the great cultural achievements of the last century. The amount of money and the level of international co-operation it can extract from governments is an object lesson for our political life in the opening century.

It has offered a complete, and quite breath-taking, model of the material structure of the universe. Each item, stranger than the last, has slotted into place. All except one tiny anomaly in the bottom right hand corner, without which the whole remains incomplete: the Higgs Boson. It was almost discovered last year, but ‘almost’ is not enough, and so the European 27km circular tunnel was switched off and they all went home, angry and frustrated, while the engineers started work on an even bigger super-collider, which will have a better chance when it is ready in 2006.

Meanwhile the Americans have a better machine than the last European one but not as good as the next. They might, if they get lucky, find the elusive particle by 2005. In which case, our lot have wasted six years and £2 billion. If they don’t and the new European machine does, then the roles are reversed. There is only one prize.

Or is there? When does one know that something-which-does-not-exist does not exist? Many physicists are now suggesting that the failure of this huge effort and expenditure to find anything is simply because there is no such thing as a Higgs Boson. There is nothing there waiting to be discovered.

It is a real drama, with huge stakes, and will be resolved by the end of the decade. Personally, I hope the Europeans win, because that will prove it exists and that it’s ‘big’, but most fascinating of all is how the issues of theism, deism, agnosticism and atheism are being played out in a different discipline. The hopes and fears of different visions of the universe are being put to the test. All may lose, but only one can win. Physicists have imagination. I suspect God likes them for that, even if they will never find him. NT