Monday, July 2, 2012

“God particle” is a backfired joke! Say “Higgs boson” (or "Goddamned Particle")

Physics World has audio of a recent interview with Peter Higgs online. Higgs is apparently en route for CERN to attend the big announcement about the search for the elusive Higgs boson that bears his name. Nature is reporting today that CERN will likely announce that “LHC data confirm the discovery but not identify of a Higgs-like entity” (between 4.5 and 5 sigma results from both ATLAS and CMS experiments).

So I expect to hear a lot of people talking about “The God Particle” for a few days. But as Peter Higgs explains, that nickname for the Higgs boson is a backfired joke!
I was really rather annoyed about that book…I mean it was one of Lederman’s little jokes, and I think it’s rather backfired…He wanted to make the title of his book “That Goddamned Particle” because it was so hard to discover it, and his editor didn’t like it. So he said alright “The God Particle” and his editor accepted it. But a lot of people I think don’t find that funny. And I think when it’s taken too seriously by people who don’t really understand the context of the joke, it does cease to be funny. You know, I’ve seen comments from theologians about it that really shouldn’t happen.
- Peter Higgs
Of course, now that we definitely, maybe know that the Higgs boson exists, “That Goddamned Particle” doesn’t really make any sense anymore* (Or maybe it does? Let’s wait and see what CERN reports). But God particle doesn’t either!** Discoveries are named after the person who theorizes or discovers them, not someone else in the field who writes a book about them - or their editor or publisher! So can we all call it the Higgs boson now?
* If you don't have a pet GUT that is excluded by the data, or you ignore that it took $$$ billions to find the Goddamned thing! :)

** Unless you believe that because the Higgs gives other particles their mass, or may even be responsible for cosmic inflation itself, that it somehow has something to do with human conceptions of God - in which case you are now talking philosophy (of religion) or psychology but not physics (which is what this story is really about).

Update (July 11): I'm still seeing new stories with incomplete or misleading information ("an easier way of explaining how the subatomic universe works and got started"?) about why the Higgs boson is called the "God Particle" by some people. Quoting from the book that started it (p. 22, emphasis added):
"Why God Particle? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn't let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing. And two, there is a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one..." [Cites Genesis 11:1-9 - a reference to the Tower of Babel - and Einstein's quote that we will "know the mind of God" (i.e. "bring all of physics into a much simpler, more comprehensible form" (as suggested in the Motherboard article)].
So they agreed to call it "God Particle" only in the sense that it "has been put there to test and confuse us" (p. 24) like different human languages in the Tower of Babel story. But "God Particle" wasn't their first choice for a book title, and this "more comprehensible physics" justification seems like a post hoc explanation of the unfortunate title that resulted from a compromise with their publisher.

And I still have not seen a complete and accurate explanation of the etymology of "God Particle" anywhere in the media coverage of this story. See my follow-up post on the religious significance of science in general, or lack of in the case of the Higgs boson.

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