Letters from TZ

Now scientists say they have found God

On Wednesday, the 4 of July 2012, after 48 years of searching, scientists in Geneva announced that they had discovered a new sub-atomic particle that could very well be the ‘Higgs boson’ or the ‘God particle’. In April, when I wrote about the mysterious particle, it didn’t seem possible that the mystery would be solved just three months down the line. After all, physicists had been searching for the thing since the 1960s, when a university professor named Peter Higgs first hypothesised about it.

Professor Higgs suggested that in order for matter to have mass, it must be influenced by a hypothetical particle that creates a field, which spreads throughout the universe. The significance of this ‘God particle’, so called to illustrate its omnipresent effect, is that it allows matter to have mass. Matter without mass is nothing. And everything on earth is made of matter.

Until the 4th of July, no one had been able to isolate the particle. Scientists believed that it was either extremely difficult to detect or that it did not exist. Physicists referred to the near-mythical particle as one of the building blocks of the universe and one of the cornerstones of modern physics. Well, now it would appear that they have found God. Being an avowed atheist, Higgs would probably disagree. “I don’t call it ‘the God particle’. I hope that phrase won’t be used as much. I keep telling people that it’s someone else’s joke, not mine,” he said when he learned about the discovery.

If it was a joke, then in finding the particle, the scientists delivered the ultimate punchline. I’m sure God is as partial to a good laugh as the next guy. Especially since ordinary people find Him every day in a million different places.

But where is God when bad things happen? The thought came to mind when news broke on Wednesday that yet another passenger carrying vessel had sunk off the coast of Zanzibar. According to The Seattle Times, MV Skagit was built in 1989, taken out of service in 2009 and then sold for use in Tanzania in 2011. It is a former Washington State passenger-only ferry, which was worth an estimated 4 billion shillings when it was built 20-years ago. Washington State reportedly sold the vessel for a meagre Sh320, 000, 000.

So. We bought a 20-year-old ferry that was discarded by the Americans and sold for a fraction of its original value. And then we put it back to work with more passengers than it was built to carry, even in mint condition. There were approximately 281 passengers and six crew aboard at the time of the accident.  The MV Skagit was designed to carry a maximum of 230 passengers. Given the facts, it’s kind of hard to blame God or his particle(s) for what happened, when it’s obvious that the blame lies squarely at our own feet.

When it’s our fault, is God obligated to intervene? Or does free will mean that we make our own mistakes and pay the consequences? These are tough questions. There were scores of innocent people on that ferry, including 31 children. Did they deserve to die because some other people made a mistake?

Should Syrian citizens continue to die because the leaders of a few super nations are united in indecision? Should presidents, premiers and emperors wield the power of life and death over ‘their’ people without penalty?

It might be accepted, but is it right for the majority of Africans to live below the poverty line while their ‘leaders’ live so large that they have to stash the excess in foreign bank accounts?

One is compelled to ask: Where is God when bad things happen to people? The sinking of MV Skagit was a horrifying event. Just as horrifying as the sinking of MV Bukoba in 1996, and more recently, the sinking of MV Spice Islander last year in September. But can we really blame God for human error? If you’re listening to Mr Hamad Massoud – Zanzibar’s Minister for Infrastructure and Communication – then yes, you can. “This was an act of God,” the minister said at a press conference. “You cannot blame us. Even the waves were not detected by the weather people.” He went on to say that the State would meet the cost of burying any unidentified bodies recovered from the sea.

It’s about time that we started counting the cost instead of paying the price. There are some things that are well within our sphere of influence. Would MV Skagit have sunk if it had been a sea worthy vessel that was not overloaded with extra passengers? Possibly. Would more people have been saved if rescuers took less than two hours to respond? Maybe. Was God to blame for what man failed to do? Probably not. But whichever way you look at it, man is certainly under an obligation to make sure that this kind of avoidable tragedy never happens again.