As articles on the Higgs boson's (maybe)-discovery continue piling up, small and large fights are exploding in the comments sections below. Are the fellows of the Standard Model of Physics lording it over the upstarts who are pushing for "supersymmetry"? If only. Unfortunately it seems like the loudest arguments revolve around the boson's unfortunate nom de presse: the God particle.
But let's first get down to the brass tacks: The Higgs boson doesn't tell us anything about God or the lack thereof. It doesn't prove the Big Bang (although it does help explain it); it doesn't reveal the answer to life, love and the purpose of everything. Its discovery won't cure cancer, teach white men to dance or make Jesus show up on a horse to take you away. Sorry.
A thorough understanding of the boson could, however, prove the prevailing theory for how objects in the universe have mass. For years, physicists had been grappling with the question of how elementary particles – quarks and electrons – acquired mass. In 1964 Peter Higgs, a Scottish researcher working with the Anglo-American group of Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble, published his theory. Higgs suggested that there's an invisible field pervading the entire universe that drags on the particles, giving them mass and making them heavy. Just as electromagnetic fields come with a particular particle, the photon, the Higgs field comes with its own, the Higgs boson.
The question of mass might seem rather dull, but without acquiring mass, quarks and electrons would be zipping around at the speed of light, never combining to form atoms and never combining to form stars, the planets or us. And if physics can't prove how these things work, well, what good is it, right?
In a move reminiscent of Michael Jordan not making the varsity team in high school, CERN initially rejected Higgs' paper. "My colleagues thought I was a bit of an idiot," Higgs told the Telegraph in 2008. "I then added on some additional paragraphs and sent it off across the Atlantic to Physical Review Letters."
Those additional paragraphs contained the postulation of a particle that was first known as the Higgs boson, and later, called much worse. The paper caught on in the physics community and billions of pounds, dollars and euros have been poured into finding the elusive boson for the last four decades.
Detecting and cross-checking (and cross-checking again) the existence of the Higgs boson is a big undertaking and an important one, so its attention from the press is understandable – laudable, even. But the problem with covering the ongoing Higgs saga is a stupid nickname that just won't die. For chrissakes, who named this thing the "God particle?"
Leon Lederman (via Corbis)
Actually, "God particle" can be traced back to a single source. In 1993 Nobel Prize winner and head of Fermilab Leon Lederman, along with writer Dick Teresis, released a book called The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question? Lederman called the Higgs boson the "God Particle," as a tribute to its significance, and because its discovery would bring all of physics into a much simpler, more comprehensible form.
The authors never claim that the Higgs boson's discovery would prove or disprove God, in a Christian or otherwise, sense. The same year the book was released, Lederman was forced to explain to the Globe and Mail that he, "didn't really mean 'God,'" but rather that divinity was invoked in order to symbolize "everything we don't understand yet."
The magazine Science, for one, was not impressed, and fretted that invoking God would become a trend for scientists looking for attention and the accompanying funding. Indeed, their fears about the general public misunderstanding anything that invokes God seem validated every time you read the comments section below an article which uses the G-word particle name.
For what it is worth, Lederman's book is intended for a broad audience. The topic may be the history of particle physics dating back to ancient Greece, but the book is peppered with jokes, humorous anecdotes and passages from the "Very New Testament." Within the context of the book, a term like "God Particle" could easily be viewed as excusable. As a book title, it seems a little less responsible, and as a name for the particle to be used in any context—articles and often headlines, in particular—it's lazy and misleading.
Much to Science 's delight, researchers seem able to resist the temptation to invoke the divine when naming their discoveries and theories. But often times my colleagues in the press don't resist, and we're all dumber for it. So brace yourself for the onslaught of letters to the editor that claim that physics can never disprove God and remember that that's true, but also completely off topic.